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Ask Civics 101: What Are The Differences Between Laws, Regulations, Ordinances, And Statutes?

Sara Plourde

This week, a listener asks: what are the differences between laws, regulations, ordinances, and statutes?

Do you have a question for Ask Civics 101? Submit it here!

Laws, regulations, ordinances, statutes, acts — it’s hard to keep track of them all. Here’s a quick rundown on each of these.

Law. The law is a rule or a system of rules that regulate conduct and can be enforced by a country, state, and/or municipality. This is the umbrella term, and everything else falls within this category.

Act and Statute. These two mean the same thing: a written law enacted by a legislative body. For example, when a bill passes both houses of Congress, is approved by the President (or Congress overrides his or her veto), and becomes a law, it’s called an act and/or a statute. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Affordable Care Act are both examples of acts/statutes. Federal acts/statutes that are currently being enforced can be found in the United States Code.

Ordinance. An ordinance is a local law or decree adopted by a municipality, or a city/town government. When a piece of legislation is enacted by a municipal authority, it becomes an ordinance. Typically dealing with public safety, health, and general welfare, ordinances often address fire and safety regulations, housing standards, parking regulations, snow removal, littering, public streets and sidewalks, and zoning (land use).

Regulation. Think of a regulation as an official rule with the full weight of law. They’re issued by administrative agencies that have legislative authority over a specific area and can create and enforce rules over that area. For example, the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule is a regulation issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that sets emissions standards for vehicles with model years 2021-2026. All regulations issued by executive departments and agencies of the federal government are published in the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations.

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Mitchell Scacchi is an intern with the Creative Production Unit. He’s from Goffstown, New Hampshire, the place he has called home for all 21 years of his life. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of New Hampshire in 2021.
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