Federal Legislative History

A legislative history is a collection of the documents created by Congress or a state legislature during the process leading up to the enactment of a law. The legislative history provides evidence that members of the legislative body were aware of particular issues and facts, and includes comments and recommendations of committees and individual members of the legislative body.

A legislative history helps determine the intent of the legislators when a particular statute was passed. When a question arises concerning the applicability or interpretation of a statute, a legislative history can be consulted to better understand the reasons for the enactment of that statute.

WHAT DOCUMENTS MAKE UP A FEDERAL LEGISLATIVE HISTORY?

A federal legislative history includes documentation from all steps in the law-making process. Different documents carry varying degrees of weight in showing congressional intent. The documents that can make up a legislative history include:

  1. Bills and amendments. The text of a bill as introduced, reported from committees, and acted upon by either or both houses, provides information on the original language of its sponsor as well as evidence of deliberate exclusions and inclusions to the bill as it made its way through the legislative process. Bills are numbered consecutively by the chamber in which they were introduced for the two sessions of each Congress (e.g. S.2 is the second bill introduced in the Senate during a particular Congress).
  2. Hearings. These are primarily transcripts of the testimony of witnesses before House and Senate committees. Hearings are used to illustrate that certain issues and considerations were made known to Congress through the hearing process. Hearings may be held on an individual bill or a group of bills on the same or similar subject. Not all hearings are published. There is often a lengthy delay for those hearings which are officially published. Final official versions may include other documentary evidence presented to a committee during the hearing process.
  3. Committee Prints. Committee prints can be research studies, compilations of materials or statutes, background information, or working drafts of a bill. Not all committee prints are published or distributed. Some may be reissued as a House or Senate Document or Report or published in the Congressional Record. Although not significant in determining legislative intent they can provide valuable and often hard to find information for the researcher.
  4. Committee Reports. These are committees' official communications to Congress explaining the purpose of a bill and setting forth the recommendations for passage of the bill. Many also contain a report by the minority members of the committee on their objections to the language or purpose of the bill. Reports may be issued by House, Senate and Conference (i.e. joint) committees, and are numbered consecutively for each Congress. Committee reports, especially Conference committees, tend to carry a great deal of weight in ascertaining congressional intent.
  5. Debates. These include all activities which occur on the floor of the two houses of Congress. While individual comments during debates are not proof of congressional intent, statements by the bill's sponsor or chair of the committee reporting the bill, especially those with the stated intention of clarifying or explaining the bill, can have significant weight. Debates are particularly important when amendments to the bill are offered on the floor of the House or Senate.
  6. Presidential Messages. Sent to Congress by the President, these messages are the comments by the President explaining the reasons for suggesting, signing or vetoing legislation.

WHAT ARE THE MAJOR FINDING TOOLS FOR COMPILING A FEDERAL LEGISLATIVE HISTORY?

  • Print Finding Tools

    1. Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories

      REFERENCE STACKS   KF42.2 1979

      This is a checklist of legislative histories that have been compiled for enacted laws which are published in government documents, periodical articles and books. It indicates whether the source provides citations only or reprints the documents that make up the legislative history. Not all Public Laws are included. It begins with the 1 st Congress and is updated periodically. To find a legislative history you need either the Public Law number or popular name of the law.

    2. US Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN)

      (1941 to date)
      (1941-1950 entitled United States Code Congressional Service)

      MAIN STACKS - STACK 1

      USCCAN publishes the texts of all Public Laws enacted in a particular session of Congress. The legislative history volumes reprint selected Committee Reports (House, Senate, and Conference) for each of the laws. 1941-1947 volumes contain congressional comments which describe the contents of important reports. Both the biweekly advance sheets and the bound volumes contain a legislative history table which lists for each Public Law: date approved, Statutes at Large citation, bill and report numbers, committees that recommended the bill, and dates of consideration and passage in the House and Senate.

    3. CCH Congressional Index

      MICROFICHE

      This index is a good source for finding the current status of bills. Bills are indexed by bill number, author and subject. References are given to reports, hearings, Public Law number and voting records. Publication began with the 75 th Congress (1937).

    4. CIS/Index and Abstracts

      Legislative History Shelf facing the Microfiche Area
      (also in LexisNexis Congressional Universe - see electronic finding tool #3)

      CIS abstracts and indexes most congressional publications (except the Congressional Record ) issued since 1970. CIS is published monthly and cumulated annually in two parts: a subject index, and abstracts of the indexed publications. The legislative history documents can be located by bill number, Public Law number, report number, subject, title, author or witness name. Multi-year cumulative indexes have been issued, covering 1970-74, 1975-78, 1979-82, and 1983-86, 1987-1990 and 1991-1994. Starting in 1984 an annual Legislative Histories volume was added. Arranged by Public Law number, this volume indexes and abstracts all documents relevant to a public law even if the documents are from Congresses prior to the enactment of the law.

    5. Congressional Quarterly Almanac

      MAIN STACKS KF178 .C6 (1948 to date)

      CQ contains summaries of congressional (and other federal government) activities, status of major legislation, lists of recently-passed public laws, and analyses of important legislative issues. This is particularly useful for tracking complex legislation that involves numerous amendments or researching the political background of legislation.

    6. Congressional Record Index - "History of Bills and Resolutions" section

      MICROFICHE (semi-monthly index)

      This index is arranged by bill number, with the title and action noted, and a reference to the Congressional Record page on which the record of the action can be found. A bill number will appear in the semi-monthly index only if the bill has been acted upon during those two weeks; if listed, however, all previous actions for that session will be recorded.

    7. Congressional Record

      MICROFICHE

      This digest provides a daily summary of actions taken on bills with page references to the Congressional Record . As its title implies, it is a section of the daily issue of the Congressional Record . A separate cumulative volume, published at the end of each session, provides both subject access and a table, "History of Bills Enacted into Public Law" (arranged by Public Law number). This "history" table gives the title, bill number; dates introduced and reported hearings, report numbers, and Congressional Record citations.

    8. CIS/US Serial Set Index (1789-1969)

      INDEX AREA (Item is located on the 1st floor, through door within the photocopy area, immediately to the left as you walk in.)

      (Also in LexisNexis Congressional Universe - see electronic finding tool #4)

      The US Serial Set, compiled under direction of the Government Printing Office, is an ongoing collection of congressional publications including House and Senate committee reports and documents. The Serial Set Index provides access by subject, keyword, and number. Hearings and the Congressional Record are not included in the Serial Set.

  • Electronic Finding Tools

    1. Thomas: Legislative Information on the Net - http://thomas.loc.gov and          congress.gov

      Thomas makes available a wide range of federal legislative information starting in 1989 (101st Congress). Of interest in compiling legislative histories are the Legislation , Congressional Record and Committee Information databases. Most databases within Thomas cover 1989 - current year.

      The Legislation database includes a "Public Laws by Law Number" section which provides summary and status records for bills which became law. Coverage begins in 1973 (93 i rd Congress). A Congress is searchable by Public Law number or by word/phrase, subject, or bill number. For Public Laws enacted since 1989, the "Bill Text" section provides the full text of all versions of bills (including those which were not enacted). This section also provides links to Congressional Record pages. The "Bill Text" section is searchable by word/phrase or bill number.

      The Committee Information database contains a "Committee Reports" section which provides full text of most House and Senate committee reports (including conference reports) issued since 1995 (104 th Congress). This database is searchable by word/phrase, report number, bill number and committee.

      The Congressional Record database contains the "Congressional Record Text" section and the "Congressional Record Index" section. The full text of the daily Congressional Record is available from 1989 to the current issue. It is searchable by word/phrase, member name, date, or date range. The Congressional Record Index is available from 1994 (103rd Congress, 2d Session). It is searchable by index terms (topics) and bill numbers or you can browse by index terms arranged in alphabetical ranges.

    2. GPO Access - http://www.gpoaccess.gov

      This website provides access to a number of full text document databases essential to legislative history research. Each database is searchable by phrase (include " " around a phrase) or by use of the Boolean operators adj, and, or. Sample searches are provided.

      The databases are:

      Congressional Bills (1993 to date)
      Congressional Documents (House, Senate and Treaty documents - 1995 to date)
      Congressional Record (1994 to date)
      Congressional Record Index (1983 to date)
      Congressional Reports (1995 to date)
      History of Bills and Resolutions (1983 to date)
      Public Laws (1995 to date)

      Although Committee Prints and Committee Hearings databases are available at this site they are limited in coverage.

    3. LexisNexis Congressional Universe - http://web.lexis-nexis.com/congcomp

      Congressional Universe provides electronic access to the information in the CIS Index and Abstracts described in print finding tool #4. The abstracts are searchable by subject, Public Law number, committee, witness, bill number and publication title. Many are linked to the full text of the documents. Keyword searching of the compiled histories is also available. In addition, the "Publications," "Testimony," "Bills" and "Laws" segments are most useful to legislative researchers. They provide searchable access to the full text of congressional documents including the Congressional Record. Our subscription to Congressional Universe provides for access from law library workstations only. A selected list and dates of full text coverage are provided below.

      Committee Reports (1989 to date)
      House and Senate Documents (1995 to date)
      Committee Prints (1993 to date)
      Testimony (Committee Witnesses) (1988 to date)
      Bill Texts (1989 to date)
      Congressional Record (1985 to date)
      Public Laws (1988 to date)

    4. LexisNexis Congressional Universe - Congressional Indexes 1789-1969 - http://web.lexis-nexis.com/congcomp

      This searchable database within Congressional Universe allows Boolean searching of the index and abstract information Congressional materials including:

      • CIS/US Congressional Committee Hearings Index
        This index provides access to published US Congressional committee hearings (House and Senate.)
      • CIS Index to Unpublished US Senate Committee Hearings
        This index provides access to unpublished US Senate hearings.
      • CIS Index to Unpublished US House of Representatives Committee Hearings
        This index provides access to unpublished US House of Representatives hearings.
      • CIS/US Congressional Committee Prints Index
        This index provides access to a variety of prints prepared for internal committee use.

HOW DO I COMPILE A FEDERAL LEGISLATIVE HISTORY?

To compile a legislative history you must first obtain citations to the documents that comprise a legislative history, then locate and read the documents. Listed here are steps to follow and finding tools to use.

  1. To see if a legislative history has already been compiled:

    If you have:

    From:

    You can use:

    Public Law Number

    major legislation only - any date

    Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories

     

    1941 or later

    US Code Congressional and Administrative News

     

    1970 - 1983

    CIS Annual Abstracts volumes (1970-1983), "Legislative Histories" section

     

    1983 or later CIS

    Legislative Histories volumes

     

    1970 or later

    Lexis-Nexis Congressional Universe "CIS Index" database

     

    1973 or later Thomas

    - "Public Laws by Law Number"

    Statutes at Large citation

    major legislation only - any date

    Sources of Compiled Legislaive Histories t

     

    1941 or later

    US Code Congressional and Administrative News

     

    1970 or later

    LexisNexis Congressional Universe "CIS Index" database

    Popular Name

    major legislation only - any date

    Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories

    Year or Congress and Bill Number

    1973 or later

    Thomas - "Bill Summary & Status"

     

    1970 or later

    LexisNexis Congressional Universe "CIS Index" database

  2. To find a Public Law number:

    If you have

    From:

    You can use:

    US Code, USCA, or USCS citation

     

    The credits/history citations at end of code section text

    Popular Name

     

    Shepard's Acts and Cases by Popular Name;

    Popular Names Table of the US Code , US Code Annotated or US Code Service

     

    legislation enacted in 1983 or later

    CIS Index Legislative Histories volumes - "Index of Subjects and Names" table

     

    legislation enacted in 1937 or later

    CCH Congressional Index - Enactments section; "Names of Laws Amended/Enacted"

    Year or Congress and Bill Number

    legislation enacted in 1983 or later

    CIS Index Legislative Histories volumes - "Index of Bill Numbers"

     

    legislation enacted from 1970 - 1983 CIS Cumulative

    Index volumes - Supplementary Indexes section - "Index of Bill Numbers"

     

    legislation enacted in 1983 or later

    Congressional Record - "History of Bills and Resolutions" section

     

    legislation enacted in 1973 or later

    GPO Access - History of Bills and Resolutions database

     

    legislation enacted since 1941 Thomas - "

    Summary of Bills & Status"

     

    legislation enacted since 1937 US Code

    Congressional and Administrative News - "Bills & Joint Resolutions Enacted" table

     

     

    CCH Congressional Index - Enactments section; "Enactments by Bill/Resolution Number"

  3. To find a bill number:

    If you have

    From:

    You can use:

    Public Law Number or Statutes at Large citation

    legislation enacted in 1901 or later

    United States Statutes at Large

     

    legislation enacted in 1941 or later

    US Code Congressional and Administrative News - "Legislative History" table

    Public Law Number

    legislation enacted in 1973 or later

    Thomas - "Public Laws by Law Number"

     

    legislation enacted in 1983 or later

    CIS Index Legislative Histories volumes

     

    legislation enacted from 1970 - 1983

    CIS Annual Abstract volumes - "Legislative Histories" section

     

    legislation enacted in 1937 or later

    CCH Congressional Index - Enactments section "Enactments by Public Law Number"

    Subject or topic information only

     

    CCH Congressional Index - Subject Index

     

     

    Thomas - "Bill Summary and Status"

     

     

    GPO Access - History of Bills database

     

     

    Congressional Record database or Congressional Record Index database

     

     

    CIS Congressional Universe - "Bills" database

  4. To determine what actions have been taken on a bill:

    If you want:

    From:

    You can use:

    Committee actions, committee reports and floor activities

    legislation in 1973 or later

    Thomas - "Bill Summary & Status"

     

    for legislation in 1937 or later

    CCH Congressional Index - "Status" section

    Committees, Reports, floor activities only

     

    Congressional Record Index - "History of Bills and Resolutions"

  5. To locate citations to committee reports:

    If you have:

    From:

    You can use:

    Report numbers only

    1873 or later

    Congressional Record - Daily Digest - "History of Bills Enacted into Public Law"

     

    for laws enacted in 1941 or after

    US Code Congressional and Administrative News (may also include text of selected reports)

    Reports numbers, abstracts, and references to CIS microfiche

    legislation in 1970 or later

    CIS/Index and Abstracts

    LexisNexis Congressional Universe - "Congressional Publications" (also provides full text of reports from 1995 and later)

     

    legislation in 1937 or later

    CCH Congressional Index - "Status" section

     

    legislation from 1789 - 1969

    CIS US Serial Set Index

    LexisNexis Congressional Universe - "Congressional Indexes 1789-1969" database

  6. To find citations to hearings on a bill or general topic

    If you have

    From:

    You can use:

    Bill number, subject information, or persons testifying

    legislation in 1970 or later

    CIS Index - "Index of Subjects and Names" or "Index of Bill Numbers" (a supplementary index contained within the "Index of Subjects and Names")

     

     

    LexisNexis Congressional Universe "CIS Index" database (also provides full text of selected testimony from last 10 years)

     

    legislation from 1833 - 1969

    CIS Congressional Committee

    Hearings Index

     

    legislation from 1789-1969

    LexisNexis Congressional Universe "CIS Index" database 1789-1969

  7. To find citations to Congressional debates

    If you have:

    From:

    You can use:

    Bill number

    1873 or later

    Congressional Record Index - "History of Bills and Resolutions"

    Name of sponsor or subject information

    1873 or later

    Congressional Record Index

     

    1989 or later

    Thomas - Congressional Record database

     

    1983 or later GPO

    Access - Congressional Record Index database

  8. To find Presidential messages

    If you have:

    From:

    You can use:

    Bill number

    1873 or later

    Congressional Record Index - "History of Bills and Resolutions"

     

    1983 or later GPO

    Access - Congressional Record Index database

     

    1965 or later

    Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents

FURTHER REFERENCE

Cohen, Morris L., Robert C. Berring, and Kent C. Olson, How to Find the Law (West Publishing). Chapter on "Legislative History." Main Stacks   KF240 .H65 1983

Morehead, Joe, Introduction to United States Government Information Sources (Libraries Unlimited). Chapter on "Legislative Branch Information Sources." Library Office   Z1223.Z7 M665 1999

Singer, Norman J., Statutes and Statutory Construction [Sutherland on Statutory Construction ] (Clark Boardman Callaghan). Chapter on "Extrinsic Aids-Legislative History." Reference KF425 .S9 2000

Wren, Christopher G. and Jill Robinson Wren, The Legal Research Manual (A-R Editions). Appendix on "Researching Legislative History." Main Stacks KF240 .W7 1986

*Copyright 2003, The Boston College Law Library. Used with permission. Not for sale.