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Legislative History Research Guide   Tags: federal_legislative_history, legislative_history, state_legislative_history  

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 -
Last Updated: Aug 27, 2014 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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How a Bill Becomes a Law


The Federal Legislative Process

The phrase "legislative history" refers to the background and events leading to the enactment of a statute, including hearings, committee reports, and floor debates.  Legislative history is sometimes recorded so that it can later be used to aid in interpreting the statute (Black's Law Dictionary).

A Bill is Introduced in Congress
The federal legislative process typically begins with introduction of a bill in either the House of Representatives or the Senate.  Bills are numbered sequentially as they are introduced.  A congressional committee responsible for the subject matter of the bill will then take it up for consideration.  Bills not deliberated on die at the end of the Congress in which they are introduced.  If a later Congress turns its attention to the same subject, a new bill must be drafted and introduced.

Committee Hearings, Reports & Prints
The congressional committee or subcommittee considering a bill may hold legislative hearings to gather facts, data, and a range of opinions on the subject of the bill.  The committee deliberates on all of the information pertinent to the bill, and may amend it in a markup session.  The committee issues a report to the full chamber about its deliberations. Committee reports are considered to be the most significant parts of a legislative history because they often include discussions of intent behind the language of the bill.  Transcripts of hearing, prepared testimony by hearing witnesses, and supporting documents (committee prints) also become part of the bill's legislative history.

Floor Action & Debate
Bills reported favorably out of committee are brought up by the leadership for floor action. There the bill may be debated and amended before being passed by the full House or Senate.  Once passed by one chamber of Congress, the "engrossed" bill is printed in the Congressional Record.

Conference Committee Reports
The engrossed bill is referred to the other chamber of Congress and goes through the same process.  The bill may be passed by the second chamber in substantially the same version as it was received, or it may be changed so much in the second chamber that a conference committee must be convened.

The conference committee is made of up of members of both houses of Congress.  They deliberate and try to agree on the final version of the bill.  If they do, they issue a conference report containing the agreed version and an explanation of their deliberations, which is printed in the Congressional Record.  The conference report and amended bill must be debated by both the House of Representatives and Senate and passed without further change by both.  The final version of the bill is known as an "enrolled" bill.

Presidential Actions
The enrolled bill is sent to the President for signature.  The President must sign the bill within ten days for the bill to become law, or may veto the bill and send it back to Congress with a veto message (a Summary of Bills Vetoed from 1789 - present is on the U.S. Senate website).  To override a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers of Congress. If the President takes no action on the bill within the ten-day period, it becomes law even without signature if Congress is still in session; however, if Congress has adjourned, the President's lack of action is known as a pocket veto and the bill fails to become a law.  When the President signs a bill, it is immediately effective as law; a signing statement may also accompany it.  It is assigned a Public Law number and published as a "slip law."

Congressional Documents
Congressional documents may also be important in legislative history research.  These are documents not prepared in Congress, but often considered in connection with congressional actions.  Congressional documents may include materials originating in the Executive Branch (presidential veto messages and reports of executive departments), reports of special investigations made for Congress, and submissions by non-governmental organizations. There are four types of congressional documents: House and Senate Documents; Senate Executive Documents; and Senate Treaty Documents.

The legislative process followed by most state legislatures is roughly the same as that in Congress.


Useful Sources About Legislative History Research

How Our Laws Are Made (Library of Congress's THOMAS website).

Enactment of a Law (Library of Congress's THOMAS website).

The Legislative Process (U.S. House of Representatives).

Researching Current Federal Legislation and Regulations: A Guide to Resources for Congressional Staff, Jerry W. Mansfield (Congressional Research Service Feb. 19, 2014).

Introduction to the Legislative Process in the U.S. Congress, Valerie Heitshusen (Congressional Research Service, Nov. 30, 2012).

Presidential Signing Statements: Constitutional and Institutional Implications, Todd Garvey (Congressional Research Service, Jan. 4, 2012).

The Center on Congress at Indiana University - nonpartisan institution to educate people about the crucial role of the legislative branch in government.

Publications of Congressional Committees: A Summary, Matthew Eric Glassman (Congressional Research Service, March 31, 2008).

Senate Glossary of legislative terms.

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875 (Library of Congress).

FDsys - U.S. Government Printing Office Federal Digital System: congressional and federal agency materials online (FDsys has replaced the previous GPO website, GPOAccess).

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1774 - present)

U.S. Congressional Documents (HeinOnline) - Congressional Record, 1873 - 2005 and Congressional Record Daily, 1974 - 2010, and many other historical congressional documents (requires Pace username and password).

The House of Representatives provides live and archived streaming video feeds of the House Floor Proceedings dating back to the beginning of the current (111th) Congress, which can give useful background information on the legislative process. The Senate also streams floor proceedings from the current Congress.

Finding or Compiling Federal Legislative Histories Electronically (Law Librarians' Society of the District of Columbia, Legislative Sourcebook) (April 2013).

Legislative Histories of Selected U.S. Laws on the Internet: Free Sources, Rick McKinney (Law Librarians' Society of the District of Columbia, Legislative Sourcebook) (last updated June 2011).

Boston College Law Library publishes a comprehensive list of Federal Legislative Materials and a Federal Legislative Histories research guide that contains a useful chart, "How Do I Compile a Federal Legislative History?"

Federal Legislative History Research: research guide by Susan Lewis and Shannon Roddy, American University, Washington College of Law, Pence Law Library.


Compiled Legislative Histories

Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories, Nancy Johnson - generally considered the best source for information about compiled legislative histories (available through HeinOnline with Pace username and password).

Union List of Legislative Histories, Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C. (7th ed. 2000 & Supp. 2002) (KF42.2 .U54) (looseleaf).

American Landmark Legislation: Primary Materials, Irving J. Sloan (KF38 .S5 1976) and second series (KF38 .S5 1984) (multi-vol.) - each landmark statute is preceded by a detailed legislative history, with a full reproduction of congressional debates.

Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources, Bernard D. Reams (1994) (KF 42.2).

United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (1944-) (KF48 .U5) - contains public laws, selected legislative histories, proclamations, executive messages and orders, administrative regulations, lists of committees, indexes and tables, for each session of Congress.

CIS Index (1970 - 2009) (KF49 .C62 Microforms) - Abstracts of congressional publications and legislative histories, with index; also on CD as: Congressional Masterfile (1970 - 1995) (KF49 .C62 C65 CD-ROM); similar information (without abstracts, but with links to full-text documents) available online through current Congress in ProQuest Congressional Publications (link from Pace Law Library's Databases web page).

U.S. Federal Legislative History Library (HeinOnline) - contains Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories Database (see above) and U.S. Federal Legislative History Title Collection, a collection of full-text legislative histories on significant legislation, texts related to legislative histories.  New histories are added frequently, for example: Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement; The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990; and the Energy Policy Act of 1992  (available on campus or remotely with Pace username and password).

Westlaw: Westlaw has a number of legislative history databases, not all easily found; from the Directory link at the top of's main search page, click on U.S. Federal Materials and then Legislative History for most of them; a legislative history of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (Financial Services Modernization Act) is also available but not shown in the Directory, identified as database GLBA-LH (current Pace students, faculty and staff only).

LexisNexis: Legislative history materials on Lexis can be found at Legal > Federal Legal - U.S. > Find Statutes, Regulations, Administrative Materials & Court Rules > Legislative History Materials (current Pace students, faculty and staff only).

Individual Legislative Histories at Pace Law Library:

Legislative History: Including Legislative Documents Pertaining to the Enactment of Senate Bill 1075, Public Law 91-190, 91st Congress, 1st Session and Legislative Documents Pertaining to Oversight, Compliance With, and Amendment of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Scott C. Whitney, ed. (1989) (KFN3775 .A315 A15) (two-vol.).

A Legislative History of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, Together With a Section-by-Section Index, Congressional Research Service (1970, 1977, 1993) (KF3812 .A314 A15) (multi-vol.).

A Legislative History of the Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, Senate Comm. on Public Works (1973-78) (KF3787.122 .A15) (multi-vol.).

Internal Revenue Acts of the United States, 1909 - 1950: Legislative Histories, Laws, and Administrative Documents, Bernard D. Reams, ed. (1979) (KF6275.8 1909/50a) - guide and analytical index.

Education of the Handicapped: Laws, Legislative Histories, and Administrative Documents, Bernard D. Reams, ed. (1979) (KF4210 .A25).

The Contract Disputes Act: Five Year Annotation: Text, Legislative History, Legal Precedents, Robert T. Peacock (1984) (KF844.55 .P43).

Congress and the Courts: A Legislative History 2005 - 2008, the 109th Through the 110th Congresses: Documents and Materials Regarding the Creation, Structure, Organization, and Jurisdiction of Federal Courts and the Federal Judiciary, William H. Manz, ed. (2d ser. 2009) (KF8713.8) (multi-vol.). A second series is available for the years 2009-2010, the 111th Congress,


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