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 John V. Sullivan, Parliamentarian, of U.S. 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 using THOMAS, Proquest Congressional, FDsys.gov, Lexis, and Westlaw.
Federal legislative histories are compilations of related documents to a specific U.S. public law that generally precede the law’s enactment. These documents can include;
- Related committee reports (including the conference report),
- Earlier texts of the bills,
- Floor amendments,
- Congressional hearings,Committee prints, and other documents. The history of the bill’s (or bills’) development is normally set out as well including related legislation in previous Congresses
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. 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)||104th Congress(1995) to present|
|Proquest Congressional (NYLI Members only)||House and Senate documents and Reports 1789 to 1969 (Serial Set Digital Collection)|
|NYLI Print Collection||59th Congress (1905) to present|
Committee reports are published in numbered series which indicate house or senate, Congress and report number with Conference committee reports are issues as House Reports
- H.R. Rep No 107-727
- Sen. Rep 110- 12
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:
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, 1999-2001
|Proquest Congressional (NYLI Members only)||All Bound Editions, 1789-1997. Includes Annals of Congress, Register of Debates & Congressional Globe.Daily Edition, 2008 to present. From 110th Congress (2008) to present.|
|NYLI Print Collection||1789 to present|
Senate and House committees hold hearings on proposed legislation and on other subjects under congressional investigation such as nominations or impeachments.
Hearings provide useful background information, but they are not generally considered persuasive sources of legislative history. Their importance as evidence of legislative intent is limited because they focus more on the views of interested parties rather then those of the lawmakers themselves.
Hearings are generally identified by the title which appears on the cover, the bill number, the name of the subcommittee and committee, the term of Congress and the year. Hearings are not held for every bill, however, and not all hearings are published. 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.|
(NYLI Members only)
|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.|
|NYLI Print Collection||76th Congress (1939) to 96th Congress (1980)|
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. Some prints statements by committee members on pending bills. Others can be useful analysis of laws under the jurisdiction of a committee.
They may also include special studies or exhibits prepared for Congress, presidential messages, and communications from executive departments or agencies. They are only occasionally useful as sources of legislative history.
|Proquest Congressional (NYLI Members only)||Committee Prints coverage includes 1830-2003 and Congressional Research Service Reports (CRS) from 1916 to 2003.|
|NYLI Print Collection||59th Congress (1905) to present|
Treaty Ratification – Committee Documents – The Senate issues two series of publications in the process of treaty ratification. Treaty Documents contain the texts of treaties before the Senate for its advise and consent. Senate Executive Reports from Foreign Relations Committee contain its recommendations on pending treaties.
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.
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 include 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
- 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.
THOMAS, a free service of the Library of Congress, is a good starting point. It has a reasonably good bill summary and status tracking system (as far back as 1973). If you have a bill number you can easily obtain the references and links to bill texts, committee reports,
Congressional Record pages of floor consideration and amendments, the companion bill in the other chamber, and even when hearings were held on your bill. THOMAS bill status service will not tell you what someone said in testimony, nor when someone made extraneous remarks on a particular bill, or what are all the other bills and reports that may relate to the bill that was enacted. THOMAS has the full texts of bills and the Congressional Record from 1989 forward and congressional committee reports from 1995 forward. THOMAS does not have hearings. Committee Web sites frequently do have them.
FDsys.gov is a free electronic document service of the U.S. Government Printing Office, which is the legislative branch agency that publishes most congressional and many other government documents.
The Congressional Documents collection consists of House Documents, Senate Documents, and Senate Treaty Documents. House and Senate documents contain various kinds of materials ordered to be printed by both chambers of Congress. Documents can include reports of executive departments and agencies, as well as committee prints, that were ordered to be printed as documents. Senate Treaty Documents contain the text of a treaty as it is submitted to the U. S. Senate for ratification by the President of the United States.
Westlaw has extensive legislative files that can be used to compile electronic federal legislative histories. Westlaw’s LH file, discussed above, has selected committee reports that directly relate to public laws from 1948 to 1989 and all committee reports from 1990 forward. It also has the Congressional Record (CR) from 1985 forward and State Net’s federal bill tracking and bill text services (BILLTRK-OLD, CONG-BILLTXT) from 1991 to the present as well as selected committee hearing transcripts and prepared testimony (USPOLTRANS – 1994 forward, USTESTIMONY – 1993 forward and CONGTMY – July, 1995 forward). Westlaw has Boolean operators, field searching, and the ability to search across congresses. From 1974 to the present Westlaw public laws has links to selected committee reports and other related legislative history documents. It’s premium Statutes service includes PDF copies of statutes from 1789 to 1972, and its Graphical Statutes includes the text of prior versions and time frames of U.S. Code sections from 1996.
CQ.com (subscription needed)
CQ has news services as well as committee schedules, committee markup summaries and extensive archives back to 1989 with bill tracking, bill texts, committee reports and Congressional Record files. CQ also links to many remarks on legislation in the Congressional Record that is not noted by other services. The CQ Weekly Report, the CQ Annual Almanac (not available electronically) and other CQ news services are also extremely valuable in obtaining an understanding of legislative measures. Another subscription service providing committee markup reports and other legislative news services are those of the National Journal Group. Subscribers to the hard copy of the weekly journal are eligible for passwords to many of the electronic services. GalleryWatch.com (documents no earlier than 1997) has many similar services to CQ including bill tracking, bill texts, committee reports, the Congressional Record, and committee schedules. GalleryWatch.com also has a way to compare previous versions of the same bill at the same time.
Titles from our collection
Legislative Law and Process in a Nutshell Author: Jack Davies
Publisher: St. Paul, MN: Thomson/West, 2007
What Good is Legislative History?: Justice Scalia in the Federal Court of Appeals Author: Joseph L. Gerken
Publisher: Buffalo, NY: William S. Hein & Co., 2007
Statutes and Statutory Construction, 7th Ed. Author: Norman J. Singer
Publisher: St. Paul, MN: Thomson/West, 2007 – c.