Skip to Main Content

How to Trace Federal Regulations: A Beginner's Guide

Statutory Authority: Authority Notes

In order for a federal agency, board, or commission to issue a rule or regulation with the force and effect of law, it must derive that authority from an explicit grant of power by Congress. Because Congress cannot be an expert on all the details of all things, it will often pass a statute that provides a general directive, then grant an administrative body or agency the “regulatory authority” to issue rules and regulations based on that law. The regulations passed by the agency will “specify the details and requirements necessary to implement and to enforce legislation enacted by Congress.” Sometimes Congress will require that the agency must issue regulations on a topic, and at other times it may simply grant the agency the discretion to decide whether a rule or regulation is needed. In either case, granting regulatory authority to a federal agency takes advantage of that agency’s subject matter expertise on a particular topic or issue, and also provides a mechanism for the law to more easily adapt and respond to change, since federal regulations can often be updated more quickly than federal statutes.

If you are interested in researching the statutory authority of a regulation (for which you already have a CFR citation), you will want to start by locating the “authority note(s)” that apply to your section of interest. You can typically find an authority note at the beginning of a larger unit of the CFR, such as at the beginning of a Part (after the initial listing of the sections contained in that Part) and/or at the beginning of each Subpart.

An authority note will list the specific sections of a law passed by Congress that authorized the federal agency to promulgate the rules and regulations that follow. It may cite the law in more than one way, by providing multiple citations to the same law in different sources. For example, it may cite sections as they appear: in a particular named statute or Act, in a law’s Public Law, or in the pages of the Statutes at Large or the United States Code.1

Resources Referenced


  1. For more information on understanding federal statutes and the U.S. Code, including where you can find these sources in print and online, we suggest reviewing our research guide titled, “Federal Statutes: A Beginner’s Guide.” To learn how to trace those laws, such as to begin legislative history research, we suggest next viewing our guide page on tracing federal legislation. Back to text