Legislative History Research Guide
This guide collects major sources for conducting legislative history research.
Legislative history is a term that refers to the documents that are produced by Congress as a bill is introduced, studied and debated. These legislative documents are often used by attorneys and courts in an attempt to determine Congressional intent or to clarify vague or ambiguous statutory language. All legislative documents are only persuasive legal authority. The legislative process that produces these documents can be quite complex. For details of the legislative process, read How Our Laws Are Made, by Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian of the House of Representatives.
This guide will first discuss the types of documents that come out of the legislative process and their use, and will then set out the methods of locating legislative documents for enacted and pending legislation. The Library has a comprehensive microfiche collection of legislative documents dating back to 1789 and finding aids both in print and on the web. Recent legislative documents are readily available on THOMAS, ProQuest Congressional (formerly LexisNexis Congressional), Lexis, and Westlaw.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has also prepared a guide on Legislative History which is available here. For additional assistance with legislative research, stop by the Reference Desk in the Williams Reading Room.
Committee Reports are usually considered the most important legislative documents and contain more analysis than the other documents. Bills and Congressional Debates also may be relevant. The other legislative materials provide little information that would help you to determine legislative intent, although they often provide valuable background and factual information on the issue being addressed by the legislation.
If you are unsure about which Congress or year your law was passed, you may find it helpful to use the table of Years of Congress Conversion Table.
For purposes of legislative history research, comparing the various versions of a bill as it moved throughout the legislative process may help in determining the intended meaning of the law.
Introduction of a bill into Congress is the first step of the formal legislative process. After a bill is introduced, it is assigned a bill number, printed and referred to a committee. Bills are frequently amended throughout the legislative process and may be printed several times before they are finally passed. Comparing the various versions of a bill as it moved throughout the legislative process may help in determining the intended meaning of the law. Arguments regarding the meaning of a statutory section may be drawn based on the inclusion, deletion or modification of language in the text of the bill. Note, too, that the bill number is one of the keys to tracing legislative history.
Here are some of the first places to check for bills:
|THOMAS (free web)||From 101st Congress (1989) to present|
|FDsys.gov (free web)||From 103rd Congress (1993) to present|
|ProQuest Congressional (formerly LexisNexis Congressional)||From 101st Congress (1989) to present|
For a more comprehensive listing of other electronic, print and microform sources of bills, view our legislative history chart.
For purposes of legislative history research, hearings focus on the views of the parties testifying before Congress, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the committee or Congress.
House and Senate committees hear testimony on proposed legislation in order to determine the need for new legislation in a particular area and to hear the views of various persons or organizations interested in the legislation. Hearings can provide a wealth of information for background research into the issue Congress is addressing. Hearings are held for almost all substantive legislation and transcripts of most hearings (including exhibits provided by those testifying) are published. For interpreting enacted legislation, hearings are less useful than other legislative documents because they focus on the views of the parties testifying rather than the views of the committee or Congress.
Hearings are published individually, and some of the first places to check include:
|FDsys.gov (free web)||Selected hearings from 104th Congress (1995) to present, organized by committee.|
|ProQuest Congressional (formerly LexisNexis Congressional)||Full text digital hearings from 1824 to present. Select the "Hearings" button only, and restrict by selecting the appropriate year or Congress at the bottom of the page.|
For a more comprehensive listing of other electronic, print and microform sources of hearings, click here.
Committee Reports (House, Senate, Conference)
For purposes of legislative history research, committee reports are the most important source for determining legislative intent.
Congressional committee reports in general, and conference reports in particular, are the most important source of legislative history. Reports are issued for almost every bill that becomes a law, and there is usually a report from each of the House and Senate committees that considered the legislation. A report will accompany the bill when it is sent to the full chamber for debate and voting.
Reports usually reprint the text of the bill, describe its purposes, and give reasons for the committee's recommendations on the bill. Often, committee reports include the legislative history of the bill, the purposes of the bill, and what the committee regards as the need for new legislation. There is often a "section-by-section" analysis of the bill that is very helpful if your research is concentrated on just one section or sections.
If a conference committee was appointed to draft a compromise bill acceptable to both the House and Senate (this occurs when the House and Senate versions of the bill are different), a conference report will be issued. Conference reports are particularly important because they come at the end of the legislative process and report on the text of the compromise bill.
Congressional committee reports are published in the United States Congressional Serial Set, and some of the first places to check for a committee report include:
|FDsys.gov (free web)||From 104th Congress (1995) to present|
|ProQuest Congressional (formerly LexisNexis Congressional)||
Search in "Serial Set" for full text 1789-2003. Make sure to select the appropriate year or Congress at the bottom of the page.
Search in "House & Senate Reports" for full text from 1990-present. Make sure the select the appropriate year or Congress at the bottom of the page.
|United States Congressional Serial Set||House Reports and Senate Reports volumes, Williams KF29 .U5, from 97th Congress (1981) to present.|
For a more comprehensive listing of other electronic, print and microform sources of committee reports, click here.
Congressional Debates (Congressional Record)
Congressional debates include discussions for or against proposed bills and amendments, as well as explanations of provisions that are vague or unclear, so such debates can also be useful for legislative history research.
The Congressional Record contains a transcript of the legislative proceedings and debates on the floor of the House and Senate. The Congressional Record may contain arguments for or against a proposed bill or amendment or explanations of provisions that are vague or unclear. The text of the debates in the Congressional Record is not necessarily verbatim transcript.
The Congressional Record is published in two editions: the daily edition and the bound edition. The daily edition is published every day when Congress is in session. The paperbound daily edition has page numbers that begin with S (Senate), H (House), E (Extension of Remarks), and D (Daily Digest). The permanent "bound edition" is published very slowly (approximately four years) after the Daily Edition.
When citing to the Congressional Record, cite to the Bound Edition if available (last published is v. 152 in 2006). The page numbers in the two editions do not correspond, so you must rely on the indexes or identical searches in the Bound Edition and Daily Edition databases to find the corresponding records. There is no resource to help you compare the two page numbers.
Some of the first places to check to locate The Congressional Record and its predecessors, Annals of Congress, Register of Debates and The Congressional Globe are :
|FDsys.gov (free web)||
Daily Edition, 1994 to present.
Bound Editions of Congressional Record, 1873 to 2006. Also includes Annals of Congress, Register of Debates & Congressional Globe.
|ProQuest Congressional (formerly LexisNexis Congressional)||
All Bound Editions, 1789-1997. Includes Annals of Congress, Register of Debates & Congressional Globe.
Daily Edition, 1985 to present. From 99th Congress (1985) to present.
For a more comprehensive listing of other electronic, print and microform sources of congressional debates, click here.
When the President signs a bill into law, he may issue a statement explaining why he is approving the legislation. These statements were traditionally brief and generally did not contain substantive analysis of the legislation. However, in recent administrations they have been used more vigorously and have become a subject of controversy. There is disagreement about their role in and importance to legislative history. See our research guide on Presidential Signing Statements for more sources and information.
The Constitution provides for Congress to appropriate money to be spent by the Federal Government, so when the White House issues the Budget of the United States in February of each year, it can be confusing. For a detailed explanation of the legislature's role in the federal budget process, see the following: CongressLine: The Budget, published on LLRX.com
For a discussion of the role of Congress in the appropriation process, versus the authorization process, see: CongressLine: Authorization and Appropriation, published on LLRX.com
Other Congressional Documents
Other types of material that may come out of the legislative process include committee prints and House and Senate documents. Committee prints contain information prepared for the use of the committee and sometimes include special reports or studies or compilations of earlier legislative history documents. House and Senate documents are usually of lesser importance for legislative history and contain special material prepared for Congress.
Tools for Finding Legislative Documents
Compiled Legislative Histories
A key point to remember for purposes of legislative history research is that you should not reinvent the wheel! The legislative history of a particular law or area of law is often already compiled and published. These sources may be collections of reprinted documents, or just a narrative history that cites the important sources. To determine whether such a legislative history has been compiled, check the sources below:
- Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories available electronically and in print. This is a listing, by public law number, of legislative histories identified by the author as being published in books and/or articles. The library has most, but not all, of the compiled legislative histories cited.
- ProQuest Congressional has compiled legislative histories for laws from 1969. The histories includes listings of all documents associated with the law, arranged by type of document. Most compiled legislative histories link to the full text of the document.
- Westlaw's GAO Federal Legislative Histories (FED-LH)make available legislative histories for most U.S. Public Laws enacted from 1915 to 1995, as originally compiled by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. This set of valuable legislative histories was fairly recently acquired by Westlaw and has a rolling release over four years, and currently contains legislative histories from 1924 to 1995.
- Lexis, Legal > Legislation & Politics - U.S. & U.K. > U.S. Congress > Legislative Histories
- Westlaw, U.S. Federal Materials > Legislative History includes the Arnold & Porter legislative history collection.
- Legislative Histories of Selected U.S. Laws in Electronic Format. Legislative history links to about 25 laws. Some require special logins.
- USCCAN (United States Code Congressional and Administrative News) lists and prints the full text of what are considered the most important legislative history documents for some laws enacted since 1944. USCCAN also provides the bill number, date of enactment, and a list of all committee reports for every law passed by Congress.
- Legislative History in Books. Many books in our collection, both print & electronic, have legislative history information.
- GULLiver. In the keyword search fields, enter the name of the law or topic you are searching, and the words "legislative history" (include the quotation marks). This will retrieve the items we have in our collection that have your search terms.
- Ebrary electronic books database. Use the Advanced Search to find the words "legislative history" in the text or subject. Use the second search field to look for your topic.
- Legislative History in Articles. Use the Legal Periodicals & Books and the LegalTrac databases to identify articles that discuss a particular legislative history.
- Search these databases together in Westlaw from the Directory. Enter both database names separated by a comma (ilp,lri) in the "Search These Databases" box.
- Search these databases together in Lexis from Secondary Legal> Annotations & Indexes. Select the boxes next to "Legal Resources Index" &" Index to Legal Periodicals" and click the "Combine Sources" button.
- Search the databases separately from our web site.
ProQuest CONGRESSIONAL, LEXIS & CIS INDEX (CIS Legislative Histories)
- ProQuest Congressional(formerly LexisNexis Congressional) has long been considered the best tool for comprehensive legislative history information because it is built around the CIS Legislative Histories..
- Laws enacted from 1969 to the present have compiled legislative histories available. Each history includes all documents related to the law, arranged by document type (committee reports, hearings, debates, etc.). Documents are included from all relevant Congresses, not just the Congress in which the law was passed. If the documents are not available in full text, then information is included to help locate them in print and/or microfiche.
- Laws enacted prior to 1969 do not have compiled histories (there are some exceptions), but you may search by number for "congressional publications related to a particular bill or law" (choose that option in the drop-down box) from the 16th Congress (1819). You may also do a basic or advanced search.
- Lexis has CIS Legislative Histories (from 1970) and CIS Historical Index (1789-1980), however there are no guided searches, and the coverage isn't as broad.
- CIS Index is the print version of ProQuest Congressional.
- There are Legislative History volumes for all laws enacted between 1970 and 2008. Like ProQuest Congressional, all of the documents for each law are listed by document type. In addition to the Legislative History volumes, CIS indexes all House and Senate reports, hearings, prints, and documents, including materials relating to legislation that was not enacted. Searching is by subject, name, committee, public law number, bill number, or document number. Full text is not available in CIS Index.
- For laws enacted before 1970, use the CIS Index for 1789-1969. CIS also has published indexes for the Serial Set (indexing committee reports), Hearings, Unpublished House and Senate Hearings, and Committee Prints. There are other indexes that aid in researching older laws. This chart provides links to this information.
- GAO Federal Legislative Histories (FED-LH): This database in Westlaw makes available legislative histories for most U.S. Public Laws enacted from 1915 to 1995, as originally compiled by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. This set of valuable legislative histories was fairly recently acquired by Westlaw and has a rolling release over four years, beginning in November 2007.
- Arnold & Porter Legislative History Collection: This set of databases in Westlaw contains legislative histories for approximately three dozen major laws as compiled by the law firm of Arnold & Porter. Each legislative history is a separate database in Westlaw, available at: U.S. Federal Materials > Legislative History > Arnold & Porter Collection - Legislative Histories.
THOMAS is the legislative documents database from the Library of Congress, and it is particularly useful if you seek recent materials. You can search or browse to the "Bill Summary & Status" for each bill or law. Click on "Text of Legislation" to see the full text of all versions of the bill," and on "All Congressional Actions" to see its chronological history, with links to full text of the documents produced (no hearings). Dates of coverage for different types of legislative documents varies. Check the coverage page in THOMAS for available dates for each type of document.
Use the following sources to find commentary on information on specific bills and laws.
Online version of the Capitol Hill newspaper, containing news and analysis of legislation.
Congress.org, "America's Town Square." service of Capitol Advantage and Knowlegis, LLC; private, non-partisan companies that specialize in facilitating civic participation.
National Journal. Weekly newspaper on politics and government.
OpenCongress, a free, open-source, not-for-profit, and non-partisan project of the Participatory Projects Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation "brings together official government data with news and blog coverage to give you the real story behind each bill" in the name of government transparency and encouragement of civic engagement. Began with the 109th Congress.
Post Politics, The Washington Post
News publication covering Congress and political compaigns, pending legislation, and lobbying efforts.
CongressDaily. Nonpartisan daily electronic newsletter from the National Journal. Covers the people, process and the behind-the-scenes events concerning Congress.
CQ Researcher. Publishes 12,000-word reports covering the most current and controversial issues of the day with complete summaries, insight into all sides of the issues, bibliographies and more on a weekly basis. Includes all CQ Researcher reports published since 1991.
CQ Weekly. Provides nonpartisan news and analysis on the United States Congress. The service includes access to the full text of all articles published since 1983.
Hotline. The National Journal's daily briefing on politics. Combines original, bipartisan reporting with coverage from over 2,500 media sources. The Hotline provides a comprehensive picture of the political landscape, from the United States to local governments. Coverage includes TV ads, polls and other up-to-the-minute information.
Updated 10/2012 (MK)
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