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Legislative History Research Guide : Federal Legislative Research

The legislative history of a law is comprised of the documents created during deliberations leading to the law's enactment. They are used to determine the legislature's intended purpose and to clarify any ambiguities in the language. - Gail Whittemore -

Start With a Bill

Types of proposed legislation may be introduced in Congress:

1.  House (H.R.) and Senate (S.) bills require the approval of both chambers (i.e., House and Senate) and the signature of the President to become law.
2.  House (H.J. Res.) and Senate (S.J. Res.) joint resolutions require the approval of both chambers and the signature of the President. Joint resolutions are used for single appropriations for specific purposes or to propose amendments to the Constitution.
3.  House  (H. Con. Res) and Senate (S. Con. Res.) concurrent resolutions require the approval of both chambers but do not require the signature of the President and do not have the force of law. Concurrent resolutions are used to make or amend rules that apply to both chambers.
4.  House (H. Res.) and Senate (S. Res.) simple resolutions address matters entirely within one chamber or the other. They do not require the approval of the other chamber or the signature of the President, and they do not have the force of law.

Finding Bills in Print

Bill numbers are essential to legislative history research. First find the U.S. Code citation, public law number, or United States Statutes at Large citation of the pertinent law.  The following print sources help you find bill numbers:

1.  New slip laws (individual pamphlets of new laws published by the U.S. Government Publishing Office) show the bill number and committee report numbers, with citations to congressional debates printed at the end of each slip.  Both public and private laws are published in consecutive order at the end of each session of Congress in the United States Statutes at Large.

2.  The United States Statutes at Large contains all laws enacted during a congressional session, arranged by date of passage and public or private law number. Every volume from 1963 to 1974 contains tables of legislative history information; since 1975, brief summaries of the legislative histories of new laws have appeared in each volume.  Public laws published in the Statutes at Large are later edited and rearranged by subject in the United States Code.

3.  The United States Code (unofficial versions: the U.S. Code Annotated and the U.S. Code Service) provide citations to the original public law and each subsequent amendment by public law number and Statutes at Large citation. Bill numbers may be shown in notes included in the unofficial versions.

4.  Cross-references to bill numbers for laws enacted from 1789 to 1903 can be found in Legislative Reference Checklist: The Key to Legislative Histories from 1789 - 1903, Eugene Nabors (1982) (KF49 .L43).

5.  CIS Annual (KF49 .C62) is a multi-volume set that contains abstracts and legislative history information (with citations) for all public laws beginning in 1970, arranged consecutively by public law number and indexed by subject, title, and bill number. Full texts of cited materials are available on microfiche.  

6.  The United States Code Congressional & Administrative News (USCCAN) (West 1944-) (KF48 .U5)) contains texts of all Public Laws for each session of Congress, beginning in 1944, identified by public law (or chapter) number and by bill number.  USCCAN also contains selected legislative history materials and citations for significant legislation.

7.  Full texts of bills enacted from 1979 to 2009 are available at Pace Law Library on microfiche, arranged by Government Document (SuDoc) numbers, Y 1.1/4: et seq. (ask a law librarian for assistance). Selected historical Bills and Resolutions (1799-1872) can be found in the Library of Congress's American Memory collection online.

8.  Important bills are read into the record in the House and Senate upon introduction and at later stages of the legislative process.  As a result, the texts of many bills can be found in the Congressional Record, searchable by keyword in the Congressional Record Index either on microfiche or, for bills introduced after 1982, online at  FDsys. The full text of the Congressional Record is available on microfiche and from HeinOnline.

Finding Bills Online

Bill numbers for laws enacted after 1979 can be found online:

1.  FDsys - Congressional Bills (1993-) contains all House and Senate bills, resolutions, joint resolutions, and concurrent resolutions beginning with the 103d Congress (1993), and contains all published versions of a bill. See also "The Government Domain- Congressional Documents on FDsys: Advanced Techniques," Peggy Garvin, Jan. 23, 2010, at Llrx.com.

2.  Congress.gov - Bills, Resolutions (1973-); Congress.gov is the Library of Congress's legislative website; bills can be searched by number, keywords, sponsor, and Congress, and the website shows bill texts, amendments, and congressional actions related to them.

3.  govtrack.us - complete congressional bill information back to 1973, plus limited information about enacted laws from 1951-1972 and bills from 1799-1873.

4.  U.S. Senate - "Active Legislation" (1999-) The Senate website allows searches by popular title or subject of a bill; once the bill number is located, links to Congress.gov allow further bill research. The website also contains legislative histories of appropriations bills from 1987 forward and records of Senate votes back to 1989.

5.  U.S. House of Representatives - under a "Bills and Reports" tab, links to Bills This Week, Bills Presented to the President, Bill Status, Committee Reports, and the Congressional Record. Voting records for the current Congress are also shown. The Clerk of the House of Representatives website tracks legislation, shows roll-call votes (back to 1990), and links to bill texts and status.

6.  Congressional floor actions, including statements containing some bill texts, from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention through the 43rd Congress (including the first three volumes of the Congressional Record, 1873-75), can be found online in American Memory: A Century of Lawmaking from the Library of Congress.

7.  Westlaw and LexisAdvance also contain federal bills and bill tracking materials.

Congressional Record

The Congressional Record is the official record of proceedings and debates in the United States Congress. It is published daily when Congress is in session and includes complete bill and amendment texts read before Congress, and all motions and other procedural matters. It also publishes presidential communications, memorials, petitions, and other information on legislation introduced and/or passed in Congress. The Congressional Record Index (CRI) is published biweekly when Congress is in session.

Pace Law Library has the Congressional Record on microfiche from 1789 forward. The Congressional Record is also available on FDsys, Westlaw and Lexis Advance.

Finding Hearings

Senate, House, joint, or special committee congressional hearings are held to obtain information and opinions on proposed legislation, conduct investigations, or oversee the activities of government departments and agencies. Hearings are also used by Congress to gather information in preparation for future legislation. Hearings are generally open to the public. Hearing transcripts include live testimony, texts of prepared statements submitted by witnesses and committee members, and exhibits.

The House of Representatives and Senate websites contain links to all congressional committees and their hearings. Some committees only post hearing schedules, while others provide links to transcripts and live webcasts. 

Transcripts of congressional hearings prior to 1985 are not available online, but are in Pace's microfiche collection. The CIS U.S. Congressional Committee Hearings Index (KF49 .C642) can be searched by subject for hearings from 1833-1969. The CIS Index Annual contains citations to hearings held on new laws, and full-text hearings for most congressional committees are in the Law Library's microfiche collection.

Finding Committee Reports

Congressional committee reports discuss the background and purpose behind bills they consider and are considered to be the most valuable parts of a legislative history. Congressional reports are included in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, which contains all House and Senate Reports and Documents beginning with the 15th Congress in 1817. Citations to committee reports are found in the CIS Annual (1970-). Congressional reports can be found in full text from 1789 to the present in the microfiche collection at Pace Law Library.

Conference reports contain the final text of a bill as reconciled by members of both the House and Senate in a conference committee. Conference reports usually contain a joint explanatory statement or explanation of the committees' process in reaching agreed language.

Selected committee reports are printed in full text in the Legislative Histories section of the U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN) (in print and also on Westlaw) beginning in 1944.

Finding Committee Prints

The CIS U.S. Congressional Committee Prints Index (KF49 .C64 Law Ref. Microform) includes citations to the first committee prints through 1969; the CIS Index and CIS Index Annual (KF49 .C62 Law Ref. Microform) include citations to committee prints from 1970 forward. The full texts of committee prints can be found in the Law Library's microfiche collection.

Finding Congressional Documents

Congressional documents form a loose category of papers ordered printed by the House or Senate in connection with legislation. Documents cover a wide variety of topics and may include reports of executive departments and independent organizations, reports of special investigations made for Congress, and annual reports of non-governmental organizations.

Congressional documents can be found on microfiche in the Law Library and in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set. The CIS U.S. Serial Set Index (Z1223.Z9 C65 Law Ref. Microform) is a multi-volume set, searchable by subject, bill number, and document number.

Presidential Communications

The President issues statements or public remarks to accompany the action he takes on bills sent to him by Congress, explaining his reasons for signing or vetoing the bill. While these statements are called veto messages or signing statements, their official titles generally do not use those terms; they may be called "statement on signing," "memorandum of disapproval," or merely "remarks."

The Federal Register is the official daily publication of executive orders and other presidential documents. It is available in the Law Library microfiche collection. The Federal Register is also available online at FDsys( (1994-) and in HeinOnline (1936-) (requires Pace Portal username & password). It is also available in WestlawNext and Lexis Advance. The Federal Register is codified in the Code of Federal Regulations, which also publishes the Compilation of Presidential Documents (all available in print at Pace Law Library).