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Federal Administrative Law Research Guide

Basic guide to researching federal administrative law (rules, decisions, other documents, executive orders)

Basic Rulemaking Process

These sources provide an excellent overview of the federal rulemaking process:

About the Federal Register

What is the Federal Register?

Published every business day since 1936, the Federal Register is the official publication for rules, proposed rules, and notices of federal agencies.  It also publishes various presidential documents, including Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations.  For more information about the Federal Register consult:

Rulemaking-Related Documents Published in the Federal Register

Regulatory Plan (fall)

Identifies regulatory priorities and contains information about the most important regulatory actions that agencies expect to take in the coming year.

Unified Agenda of Federal Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions (spring & fall)

The Unified Agenda consists of the Regulatory Plan and the Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions. See “About the Unified Agenda” on the web site or the Unified Agenda page on the Center for Effective Government web site for more information. In addition to the Federal Register, the Unified Agenda is also available from these sources:, as well as an agency’s own web site].

Petition for Rulemaking (optional)

Interested persons have the right to petition an agency to amend, repeal or issue new rules.  The petitions may be published by the agency in the Federal Register as a "notice of receipt"  and/or the agency's own website.  See the Center for Effective Government's, How to File a Petition for Rulemaking for more information.

Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) (optional)

Invitation to public to submit comments and input regarding a proposal to draft a rule on a particular topic/issue.  Agencies are not required to publish ANPRM but may do so in the Federal Register or the agency's own web site.

Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) (required)

Officially announces an agency's intent to add to or change its existing regulations and solicits public comment on the proposal.  The NPRM includes a preamble that precedes the text of the proposed rule.  The preamble typically includes a summary of the proposed rule, agency contact information, and information about any related public hearings. The preamble also includes information for the public to submit comments regarding the proposed rule.

Note: under limited circumstances (emergencies, internal agency matters, etc. an agency may skip the notice of proposed rulemaking step).  See also the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Glossary in the Policy Library of the Center for Effective Government's Regulatory Resource Center.  

Notice of Extension or Re-opening of Comment Period

In reaction to public comments, an agency may extend or re-open the comment period to receive additional feedback.

Additional Notices of Proposed Rulemaking

In reaction to public comments, dialog and/or further study, revised or additional rules may be proposed. A public comment period is also included in the notice.

Final Rule & Preamble

The text of the final rule is officially published in the Federal Register prior to publication in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).  A preamble to the final rule precedes the text of the final rule.

The preamble includes:

  • A summary of the rule
  • A discussion of the basis and legal authority for issuance of the rule
  • The purpose of rule
  • A summary and analysis of the public comments received
  • The Federal Register citation to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking of the rule
  • The effective date of the rule
  • Instructions on changes to the CFR
  • Other supplementary information

Although the preamble is not part of the final rule, and thus not included with the rule text in the CFR, it is an important source in researching the background of a rule and for discerning regulatory intent.  Checkout this HeinOnline, "Tip of the Week" video for advice on locating preambles for Final Rules:

Interim Final Rule (IFR), a.k.a. Interim Rule (required)

When it has good cause to do so, an agency may issue an interim final rule (IFR) without first publishing a proposed rule and receiving public comment.  The IFR becomes effective immediately.  The agency typically provides provides a public comment period upon issuance of the IFR. The agency may alter the rule in response to public comments received prior to its becoming a final rule. If the IFR is unchanged after consideration of any public comments, the agency will publish a brief final rule in Federal Register.  See also the entry for Interim-Final Rule in the Glossary found in the Policy Library of the Center for Effective Government's Regulatory Resource Center.

Direct Final Rule (DFR) (required)

An agency may issue a direct final rule when it decides the rule only pertains to routine or uncontroversial matters.  Similar to an interim final rule, a DFR is issued and published in the Federal Register  without previously publishing a proposed rule and receiving public comment.  The notice specifies a certain number of days for public comment.  At the end of public comment period, if no adverse substantive comments are received the rule becomes effective.  If an adverse comment is received the DFR does not become effective and the agency must then follow notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures to issue the rule.  See also the entry for Direct Final Rule in the Glossary in the Policy Library of the Center for Effective Government's Regulatory Resource Center.

Agency Guidance Documents

These publications may be published by the agency to assist the public and agency personnel in understanding, complying and enforcing the new rule.  They may be titled in various ways and can be published in various forms and formats, e.g. memos, bulletins, policy statements, circulars, manuals, guides or guidances, brochures, etc.  Unlike agency rules, these documents do not carry the force of law (lack binding effect).  Proposed drafts of "significant guidance documents (those that affect the economy by more than $100 million; affect the action of other agencies; affect non-discretionary programs; raise new legal or policy issues) are published in the Federal Register and on agency websites.  An agency may accept public comments on guidance documents, similar to public comments on proposed rules,in order to improve their quality and usefulness. See the "Good Guidance Practices" documents on the OMB web site for more information on guidance documents.

Interpretive Rules (optional)

Interpretive rules are published by an agency to explain a final rule that the agency has promulgated, or to explain the meaning of a statute the agency administers.  Interpretive rules to do not carry the legal authority that final rules carry, and they may not contain amendments to rules in the CFR or set new legal standards or impose new requirements.  Agencies have the option of requesting comments on interpretive rules from the public.  Agencies sometimes publish significant interpretive rules, of broad applicability in the Federal Register and/or on the agency's website.

Federal Register Online Sources

Federal Register Online (Subscription Databases)

Federal Register Online (Open Access)

*The Law Library also holds copies of the Federal Register in print and microfiche (inquire at Reference Office).

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