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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: Apr 20, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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How a Bill Becomes a Law


The Federal Legislative Process

"Legislative history" refers to the background and events leading to the enactment of a statute, including hearings, committee reports, and floor debates.  Legislative history can 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 the House of Representatives or the Senate.  Bills are numbered sequentially as they are introduced.  The bill may be referred to a congressional committee responsible for the bill's subject matter for consideration.  Bills die at the end of the two-year Congress in which they are introduced if not enacted. 

Committee Hearings, Reports & Prints
Congressional hearings gather facts, data, and expert opinions on the subject of the bill.  The committee may amend a bill referred to it in a markup session.  The committee issues a report discussing its deliberations when it votes favorably on a bill. Committee reports are considered to be the most significant parts of a legislative history because they discuss Congress's intent in passing the bill.  Transcripts of hearings, 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 for floor action by the full House or Senate. There the bill may be debated and amended before being passed by that chamber. Once passed by one chamber of Congress, the "engrossed" bill is printed in the Congressional Record and referred to the other chamber of Congress.

Conference Committee Reports
The engrossed bill goes through the same process in the other chamber. The bill may be passed by the second chamber in substantially the same version as it was received, or it may be further amended; in that case a conference committee must be convened to agree on a final version.

The conference committee is made of up of members of both houses of Congress. If they agree on a reconciled version of a bill, they issue a conference report containing the agreed language 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). An overrideof a presidential veto requires two-thirds of all members of Congress to vote to override. If the President takes no action on a bill sent to him within ten days, it becomes law even without his 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 are also part of legislative history research.  These documents are not prepared in Congress; they may include reports of administrative agencies, presidential messages, reports of special investigations made for Congress, and submissions by non-governmental organizations and interested citizens. 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).

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.

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).


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).

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.

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 -) (KF49 .C62 Microforms) - Abstracts of congressional publications and legislative histories, with index; texts of legislative materials are on microfiche.

THOMAS compiles legislative history materials for most public laws beginning with the 101st Congress (1992-93); many legislative history documents are linked directly from the THOMAS website.

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 federal legislation (available on campus or remotely with Pace username and password).

WestlawNext: Westlaw contains a number legislative history databases linking from the main search page's Legislative History link: they include GAO Federal Legislative Histories (most public laws from 1921-95), Arnold & Porter Legislative Histories (selected major laws beginning in 1977), U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News (USSCAN) legislative history materials from 1948-1989, Presidential signing statements from 1986 forward, and all congressional committee reports printed in USSCAN from 1990 forward  (current Pace students, faculty and staff only).

Lexis AdvanceSearch for source: Federal Legislative Bill History, then search within results for desired legislation (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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