The Plain Writing Act of 2010 dictates that federal agencies should write “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” But even when that advice is heeded, bills often can seem like gobbledygook to those not trained in the bill-making system.

While our legislators are often criticized for not reading a bill before voting on it (and our teenagers at iGovern discover how hard it is to squeeze bill-reading into a lawmaker’s chaotic schedule), and while it is Congress’s job to know what’s in a piece of legislation before they vote it into law, reading legislation is not always a simple task.

This is where you, the informed citizen, come in. More often than they may like to admit, lawmakers may have no idea that a bill is a bad idea until their constituents tell them why, and they may be very grateful if you can tell them exactly what is wrong with said bill. If you are speaking out for or against a piece of legislation, you will also be far more effective if you can specifically point out the section that the lawmaker needs to see.

Many people never read legislation because, without guidance, it can be a daunting task. Reading a bill is nothing like following the adventurous escapades of the characters in your favorite novel. Legislation can be dry and often confusing.

Sometimes, however, you may want to fact-check a media report about a bill. Or you might encounter information about a bill on social media that seems incomplete or inaccurate and want to fill in the blanks. So here are some tips for reading and understanding legislation.

Finding the actual bill text

Almost all government bodies put their legislation online. For federal bills, is the best resource. To find a state bill, you can type your state’s legislature name and the bill number or name into a search engine. Sometimes you’ll need to add the year to find the exact legislation you’re looking for.

Anatomy of a bill

  • Bill number: The number designates which legislative body introduced the bill. Federal bills will be labeled either H.R. or S., for House of Representatives and Senate. State bills will have the state abbreviation and then the legislative house; for example, GA H.B. means Georgia House Bill. At any level, bill numbering usually starts over with each new legislative session. So this year’s H.R. 3 may address a completely different topic from last year’s H.R. 3.
  • Bill title: The title helps readers understand what policy area the bill deals with. This section often begins “To amend . . . ”
  • Bill summary: After the title, there is sometimes a summary, written as “summary as introduced.” Not all bills have this, but it’s nice when they do; it’s a sentence or two capturing the goal of the bill.
  • Table of Contents: If you are looking for something in particular that you know is in the bill, this can help you find it without having to comb through the entire text.
  • Definitions: Every legal term must be defined within a piece of legislation, so the beginning of each bill will have a “definitions” section. Knowing a term’s definition can be critically important to the impact of a bill. For example, “non-public school” has a few different definitions at the federal level, so it is important to know which definition a bill is using.
  • Reports: Often, a bill will include a research and/or reports section at the beginning. This includes only research supporting the bill’s goals. Be aware that research challenging the bill’s goals may also exist.

How to read and understand the bill

Bills don’t read like books. They don’t contain the whole story. They are a series of amendments or additions to the existing code of laws or regulations. In order to understand a bill, you have to know what is in the original law or regulation (which have their own numbering systems). The new bill will include a reference to whatever law or regulation it is amending, so you can either click directly on that reference—if it is hyperlinked—or type it into a search engine to find it.

If you are speaking out for or against a piece of legislation, you will also be far more effective if you can specifically point out the section that the lawmaker needs to see.

Once you locate the original law or regulation, you can compare it to the proposed changes in the new bill. The new bill may be adding a comma or a sentence or striking through a word (or several paragraphs!) in the original code. The proposed changes won’t make sense unless you can look at both the original wording and the new bill at the same time. The bill may not explicitly say what it is doing, but by comparing the old and new language, you can see what effect the changes would have on current law.

Other helpful information

  • Know the signers: Knowing who cosponsored or signed onto a bill can tell you a lot about the intentions behind it. If you know the general policy positions and voting records of the lawmakers who are supporting the bill, you can make a hypothesis about the bill’s intended effect. However, keep in mind that lawmakers don’t always have a chance to read bills, and well-intentioned lawmakers often sign on to bills that contain things they do not support. That’s why it’s important for you to do your own homework!
  • Know when the measure would go into effect: Most bills spell this out in an “enacting clause” near the end. Some bills take effect as soon as they are signed by the executive; others may not be enacted for several years.

So, the next time you want to tell your congressman to vote for or against a bill, or you want to construct an informed argument about a proposed policy change, you’ll be prepared to find, read, and analyze the measure. As an informed citizen, you’ll know firsthand what the original law says, how amendments would change that law, and how to persuade your legislators to consider your concerns.