How Bills Amend Statutes
How Bills Amend Statutes
Richard S. Beth
Specialist in the Legislative Process
Government and Finance Division
Many bills proposed in Congress address subjects on which law already exists, and
their enactment would result in changes in the body of existing law. This report describes
how new legislation may commonly express its intention either explicitly to amend
existing law or implicitly to supersede its provisions. It does not present guidance for
drafting legislation; for that purpose, recourse to the Office of Legislative Counsel is
appropriate. Nor does it offer guidance for interpreting statutory language, which may be
obtained by consulting the American Law Division of CRS. For more information on
legislative process, see [http://www.crs.gov/products/guides/guidehome.shtml].
A bill (or joint resolution) may directly alter the text of current law only if its
provisions are formulated explicitly as amendments to that text. A provision amending
existing law may either (1) insert new text in the law; (2) strike out text in the law; or (3)
strike out text and insert new text in its place. (These three forms of amendment to law
parallel the three forms of amendment to a bill in the course of the legislative process.)
By inserting new provisions, an amendatory bill can supplement current law, and by
striking out provisions of current law, it can repeal them. By amendments to strike and
insert, an amendatory bill may make specific alterations or modifications in existing
provisions of law.
Legislative language explicitly altering or modifying provisions of current law may
take several forms. An amendatory bill may identify each separate point in existing
statutes at which text is to be stricken out and, for each, set forth text to be inserted.
Alternatively, it may propose to strike out an entire provision, then set forth, to be inserted
in lieu, a new text, incorporating all the changes in language desired at every point in the
provision. Finally, it may simply direct that a specified provision “be amended so as to
read” in the way specified by the text that follows. The first approach may aid in
determining what changes the bill would make in existing law, but the others may more
readily reveal the overall effect of the changes.
Whichever approach is used, House Rule XIII, clause 3(e)(1) (the “Ramseyer rule”)
and Senate Rule XXVI, paragraph 12 (the “Cordon Rule”) require that, when a committee
reports a bill amending existing law, it must provide, in its report or otherwise, a
“comparative print” showing how the bill would alter that law. This comparative print
can be of great aid in ascertaining the intended effect of amendatory legislation. The
intended effects of amendments only to insert, or only to strike out, may be easier to
determine from their text, although they are also to be shown in the comparative print.
Forms of Citation
Amendments to existing law must be made to the official evidence of the law, which
in most cases means either the United States Code or the Statutes at Large. The Statutes
at Large is a chronological compilation of the laws enacted by Congress; the U.S. Code
arranges laws topically under 50 titles. Congress has enacted 20 of these 50 titles (and
part of one other) into what is known as “positive law.” If a title has been so enacted, its
text constitutes legal evidence of the laws in that title, and a bill would properly identify
existing law being amended by citing the U.S. Code (e.g., “50 U.S.C. 234b”). If the law
being amended has not been enacted into “positive law,” a bill would properly identify
the law by either its short title (“the XYZ Act of 1999”), public law number (“P.L. 101-
987”), or page in the Statutes at Large (“123 Stat. 456”). Often, existing provisions of
law have previously been amended; in those cases, the bill may refer to the act “as
amended” (e.g., “ABC Act of 1987, as amended”).
Specific provisions of an act are identified by section number (or by the designations
of other, smaller or larger, subdivisions of the act). When a bill amends an existing
statute, section numbers of the bill will not generally correspond to those of the statute
being amended. For example, section 102 of a bill may set forth a rewritten version of
section 203 of some existing act. In general, in this context, section numbers within
quotation marks will refer to provisions of a cited existing law; those having none
designate the sections of the bill itself.
The short title of a bill to amend existing law may sometimes identify it as such (e.g.,
“Clean Water Act Amendments of 2001”). Bills identified as “reauthorizations,” too,
generally include amendments to the previous law being reauthorized. They typically
extend existing programs either: (1) by amending provisions of statute (such as “sunset”
provisions) that specify an expiration date; or (2) by inserting text covering additional
fiscal years into provisions of statute that authorize appropriations for the programs.
These reauthorizing bills frequently also amend existing statutory language to make
substantive alterations in the programs in question.
Supplementing or Superseding Law
Bills that do not explicitly insert or strike out provisions of existing statutes may,
nevertheless, also have the effect of supplementing or superseding current law. In these
cases, however, the intended relation between bill and law can be ambiguous, and these
ambiguities may need to be resolved through judicial interpretation or removed through
If provisions in a new enactment address a subject already dealt with by existing law,
they may supplement that law even without explicitly amending it. Absent a conflict
between an existing and a new provision, courts normally presume that the two are
intended to be read together, and will often attempt to give both the fullest effect possible.
On the other hand, provisions of a new law may be read as conflicting with those of an
existing statute. On the grounds that a later enactment always supersedes an earlier one,
the new provisions might then be treated as overriding previous law. In some cases,
however, a bill may preface new provisions with such a phrase as, “notwithstanding any
other provision of law.” Inasmuch as this phrase leaves unexpressed which existing
provisions it relates to, it may have unforeseen consequences for subsequent