Federal Legislative History

Updated Feb. 28, 2011.
Prepared by Peggy Jarrett & Cheryl Nyberg.

Chris O'Bryne's PowerPoint

This guide includes links to free Internet sources and commercial sources. Some commercial sources -- including LegalTrac, LexisNexis Congressional, and the Readex Congressional Serial Set -- are restricted to current University of Washington faculty, students, and staff and on-site library users. LexisNexis and Westlaw are restricted to UW School of Law faculty, students, and staff and other subscribers.


Introduction

Legislative history refers to the progress of a bill through the legislative process and to the documents that are created during that process. Attorneys, judges, and others often turn to these documents to learn why Congress enacted a particular law or to aid in the interpretation of a law.

The components of legislative history for a bill (in order of their importance) are:

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How to Find Compiled Legislative Histories

Look for a compiled legislative history first because identifying and collecting legislative history documents can be time-consuming. Consider stopping when the cost of continuing outweighs the benefit of what you might find. The following sources may lead you to sources that reprint or identify legislative history documents:

  • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCAAN), 1941-date. Selectively reprints committee reports for enacted legislation. Reports may be edited. Contains references to other reports and dates of debate. KF48 at Reference Area. Westlaw: USCCAN, 1948-date.
  • Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories: A Bibliography of Government Documents, Periodical Articles, and Books, 1st Congress-105th Congress. Lists government and commercial sources that contain either the text of or citations to legislative history documents. Chronological by public law. Updated in 2000.
  • Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources. Covers histories published by Congressional committee staff, the Congressional Research Service, or executive agencies. Includes popular name, public law, and bill number indexes. Includes legislative histories for laws passed between 1796 (4th Congress, 1st Session) and 1990 (101st Congress, 2d Session). KF42.2 1994 at Reference Office.
  • Search the Gallagher Law Library's online catalog by keyword ("usa patriot act AND legislative history") for a compiled legislative history. Examples include:
    • The Communications Act: A Legislative History of Major Amendments, 1934-1996. KF2762.113 .A15 1999 at Classified Stacks
    • Corporate Fraud Responsibility: A Legislative History of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. KF9236.5 .C665 2003 at Classified Stacks
    • Legislative History of the Americans with Disabilities Act. KF480.A32 A15 1990 at Classified Stacks
    • USA PATRIOT Act: A Legislative History. KF9430.A316 U83 2002 at Classified Stacks
  • LexisNexis and Westlaw have legislative history databases covering laws on a variety of topics, including the environment, bankruptcy, securities, immigration, and tax. Both services offer full-text sources. Examples include:
  • HeinOnline contains a Legislative History Library with a collection of 15 compiled legislative histories.  UW Restricted Examples include:
    • Administrative Procedure Act
    • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
    • Civil Rights Act of 1991
    • Copyright Act of 1909

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How to Identify Specific Federal Legislative History Documents

The following tools may be used to identify legislative history documents (by title, report number, bill, or subject) and to locate print or online copies of the documents.

ProQuest Congressional. Legal Databases & Indexes UW Restricted
This online commercial service provides citations to and abstracts of committee reports and hearings. Links to some full-text documents.

The database combines information from several print indexes from the Congressional Information Service (CIS), including

  • CIS Index & Abstracts, 1970-date, for references to committee prints, reports, and hearings. Legislative history volumes, 1984-date, list documents associated with each public law. KF49.C62 at Reference Area
  • CIS U.S. Serial Set Index, 1789-1969, for references to committee reports. KF49.C618 at Reference Area
  • CIS U.S. Congressional Committee Hearings Index, earliest date-1969. KF49.C616 at Reference Area
  • CIS Index to Unpublished U.S. House of Representatives Committee Hearings, 1833-1968. KF49.C613 at Reference Area
  • CIS Index to Unpublished U.S. Senate Committee Hearings, 1823-1980. KF49.C615 at Reference Area

CIS material from ProQuest Congressional are available on LexisNexis.

Legislative Branch Resources on GPO Access. A service of the U.S. Government Printing Office, this website provides the full text of bills, committee reports, the Congressional Record, and selected hearings. Dates vary according to source, but generally, mid-1990s-date.

Thomas. A service of the Library of Congress for the U.S. Congress, this website includes the full text of bills, committee reports, the Congressional Record, and selected hearing transcripts. Dates vary according to source, but generally, mid-1990s-date. Also provides bill tracking from 1973-date.

UW Libraries, Government Publications, Congressional Resources: Selected Congressional Materials Available on the Internet and in the University Libraries identifies print and online sources, with library locations and holdings.

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How To Find Specific Federal Legislative History Documents

Committee Reports contain analysis and recommendations on enactment.

  • UW Gallagher Law Library
    • United States Congressional Serial Set, 1967-1996. Arranged by Congress and session, then by type of document. J66.U57 at Reference Area
    • House Report, 1997-date. Arranged by Congress and session. J66.U577 at Reference Area
    • Senate Report, 1997-date. Arranged by Congress and session. J66.U574 at Reference Area
    • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN), 1941-date. Contains selected reports. KF48 at Reference Area
  • UW Government Publications, Suzzallo Library: 1789-1969 in microform, 1970-date in paper.
  • Seattle University Law Library
    • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN), 1941-date.
    • 1970-date in microform.
  • Internet
  • Readex U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 15th - 96th Congresses, 1817-1980, vols. 1-13384. Legal Databases & Indexes; UW Restricted
  • LexisNexis: Committee Reports, 1990-date. Selective coverage of 101st and 102d Congresses; comprehensive for 103d Congress to date.
  • Westlaw: 1948-89 as published in the printed United States Code Congressional and Administrative News; 1990-date for all reports.

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Bills, including different versions and amendments. Note: many bills are reprinted in hearings. Amendments are often published in the Congressional Record.

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Congressional Record (and its predecessors) includes sponsor remarks and debates in the House or the Senate.
View a tutorial on finding debates in the Congressional Record (University of California-Berkeley). For more information, see What Is the Congressional Record?

  • UW Gallagher Law Library
    • Congressional Record, 43d Congress, 1873-date.
      • Daily edition, 1996-date. KF35 at Compact Stacks
      • Permanent edition, 1873-1988. KF35 at Compact Stacks. Indexes at KF35 at Reference Area
      • Permanent edition, 1873-1999. KF35 at Reference Area Microfiche
    • Congressional Globe, permanent edition, 23d-42d Congresses, 1833-73. KF35 at Compact Stacks and Reference Area Microfiche
    • Register of Debates, permanent edition, 18th Congress, 2d Session-25th Congress, 1st Session, 1824-37. KF35 at Compact Stacks and Reference Area Microfiche
    • Annals of Congress (The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States), 1st-18th Congress, 1st Session, 1789-1824. KF35 at Compact Stacks and Reference Area Microfiche
  • UW Government Publications, Suzzallo Library: See "Congressional Record (and predecessors)" in Congressional Resources.
  • Seattle University Law Library: Congressional Record (permanent edition), Congressional Globe, Register of Debates, and Annals of Congress. All in microform. No paper daily edition.
  • Internet
  • LexisNexis: Daily editions
  • Westlaw: CR, daily edition, 99th Congress (1985)-date.

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Committee Hearings are public hearings held by committees considering bills.
View a tutorial on searching LexisNexis Congressional to find a hearing (University of California-Berkeley). Note that the University of Washington Libraries do not subscribe to the digital hearings collection mentioned in the tutorial

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Committee Prints are prepared by committee staff but are not formally adopted by the committee.

Presidential Signing Statements are issued by the President at or shortly after he signs a bill into law. Their value and use in discerning legislative history is uncertain. The signing statements are published in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, the Public Papers of the President, and the United States Code, Congressional & Administrative News. The U.S. Statutes at Large include references to signing statements, but not the text of the signing statements.

Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents

Public Papers of the President cumulates the Weekly Compilation.

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How to Find Out More About the Use of Legislative History

  • Statutes and Statutory Construction, 6th ed. Thorough treatment of the topic. KF425.S25 2000 at Reference Area
  • Statutory Interpretation: The Search for Legislative Intent. KF425.B76 2002 at Reference Area
  • "The Reconceptualization of Legislative History in the Supreme Court," 2000 Wisconsin Law Review 205 (2000). HeinOnline
  • "The Use of Legislative History in Statutory Interpretation Cases in the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court Term; Scalia Rails But Legislative History Remains on Track," 23 South Western University Law Review 47 (1993). HeinOnline
  • Search LegalTrac, access through the Legal Databases & Indexes page. (UW Restricted), an index to law reviews and legal periodicals, for additional articles on the use of legislative histories by the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts. Relevant subject headings include:
    • Legislative Histories
    • Legislative History
    • Legislative Intent

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How to Find Out More About the Legislative Process

These print and online sources describe the federal legislative process in detail.

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How to Find More Information About Congress on the Internet

  • Legislative Branch Resources on GPO Access. Lists Congressional information sources available on the Internet from the Government Printing Office. Includes the Congressional Directory, Economic Indicators, and the House and Senate calendars.
  • Legislative Branch Internet Resources. Contains links to websites containing a variety of information about Congress.
  • LLSDC's Legislative Source Book. Collection of guides, including "Internet and Online Sources of U.S. Legislative and Regulatory Information."
  • University of Michigan Documents Center, Federal Government Resources: Legislative Branch. Includes links to directories, biographies, publications, voting records, and Congressional support agencies.
  • Table of Congressional Publication Volumes and Presidential Issuances. A handy table that lists calendar years and corresponding Congress and Session numbers, Congressional Record volume numbers, Statutes at Large volume numbers, Presidential administrations, Federal Register volume numbers, and executive order and proclamation numbers. Very useful when you have a date and want to know the number and session of Congress.
  • U.S. Congress-Year Conversion Guide.

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Other Guides on Federal Legislative History on the Internet

These guides have been prepared by librarians and other information specialists at various libraries. Please note that call numbers may differ and that some databases may not be available at the University of Washington.

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