Reader Question: How many laws are there in the United States?

Edward asks:

Hello, trying to find out how many laws there are within our federal government.  Nowhere can I find an answer citing back to 1982 when a government program was implemented to find the total and failed.

This is a fantastic question because it highlights how complex government is when you look under the hood.

Answer: It depends on how you define what “one law” is.


Our statistics page lists the total number of statutes enacted by Congress since 1973.  This is statutory law only, meaning only the laws that Congress passes. If you wanted to look further back, The United States Statutes at Large is the official compilation of the statutes enacted by Congress (1789-18911891-1951; 1951-present).

But a statute doesn’t necessarily mean “one law.” Some statutes are temporary, such as budget bills that apply to a single fiscal year, or are not general in nature. (For instance, some enacted bills address immigration issues of a single family.) Some statutes merely repeal other statutes. Others make small amendments to earlier statutes. Some statutes contain multiple unrelated laws. The number of statutes isn’t a good measure of the number of laws.

What we normally think of as “a law” is really a compilation of statutes, with amending language in later statutes worked into the text of the original. You’ll often see “Such and Such Law, As Amended” to indicate that it reflects how the original statute combined with later statutes to form what you would think of as the complete and current law.

Another way to count statutory law would be to look at the number of chapters or sections in the United States Code. The U.S. Code is a compilation of the “general and permanent” statutes in such a way that it is easy to see what the current (“as amended”) law looks like. But there too, a chapter or section doesn’t necessarily correspond with “one law.”

Administrative and other law

There are other sorts of federal laws: administrative law, case law, and common law. Administrative law is made up of the regulations written by executive branch agencies, under authority delegated by Congress. For administrative law, see the Federal Register (which is like the Statutes at Large for administrative law) and the Code of Federal Regulations (which is like the U.S. Code for administrative law).

Or did you mean crimes?

Not all federal law creates crimes. Much of statutory law is about how the federal government will spend its money and, through that, directing how the executive branch of government operates. Much of administrative law regulates commercial activity (such as minimum standards for food and commercial equipment). Some federal law creates crimes (such as bribery). Unfortunately I am not aware of any count of the number of federal crimes.