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Federal Legislative History

Updated Feb. 5, 2013.
Prepared by Peggy Jarrett & Cheryl Nyberg. Updated by Alena Wolotira.

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

See also related Gallagher guides:


Introduction

What is legislative history?
Legislative history refers to the progress of a piece of legislation through the legislative process and to the documents that are created during that process.

Why do we use legislative history?
Legal researchers often turn to these documents to learn why Congress enacted a particular law or to aid in the interpretation of a law. Legislative history is particularly important when construing ambiguous or vague statutory language.

How difficult is researching legislative history?
Good news: several sources have made it much easier to locate all of the documents associated with the creation of a federal statute. The online versions allow keyword searching, which facilitates the identification of specific language. The best first step is looking for a compiled legislative history that pulls together most, if not all, of the relevant material.

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Information You Will Need Before You Start

Legislation starts out as a bill (bill number), passes through Congress, and is signed by President to become a slip law (public law number), and then gets broken up and codified in relevant titles and sections of the U.S. Code (statute). When trying to find the history of a statute, you have to work backwards through the process. You will need some or all of the following information in order to navigate your way through legislative history research:

U.S. Code section

Each section of a law in the U.S. Code will be followed by a "Credits" note, which indicates when the section was originally enacted and every subsequent amendment. The most recent changes are listed first.

Here is an example of the Credits section of the leave requirements provision of the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29. U.S.C. §25612 (2012).

Credits section of the Family and Medical Leave Act's leave requirement provision (May 2012)

Public Law Number

The sequential number assigned to a bill once it has passed through both houses of Congress and is signed by the President. Public law numbers are arranged first by the session of Congress and then numbered in the order in which they were passed during that session.

Format: Pub. L. (session of Congress)-(# number of the law). You can find the Public Law Number for each amendment to your statute in the Credits note at the bottom of the section.

Example: Pub. L. 111-119

LexisNexis (U.S.C.S.) and Westlaw (U.S.C.A.) usually link you to the public law in the Credits section of the statute

U.S. Statutes at Large

The official government source of all public laws, arranged in the order in which they were enacted. The Bluebook abbreviation is Stat. The number preceding Stat. is a volume number, the number following Stat. is a page number.

Example: 123 Stat. 3477

Bill number

When a bill is introduced in either the House or the Senate, it is assigned a number. Bill numbers are important for tracking legislative history.

Bills originating in the House of Representations are designated H.R. and Senate bills are designated S. Bill numbers are displayed in Public Laws and the Statutes at Large; they are not found in Credits of sections in the U.S. Code.

Name of the act Many laws are known by "popular"names, although the name may change during the legislative process. Knowing the name of the act is especially useful when searching electronic sources. Several sources include Popular Names lists, including the U.S. Code Annotated and the U.S. Code Service. Cornell's Legal Information Institute has an online Table of Popular Names.

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Compiled Legislative Histories

To save time, look for a compiled legislative history first. Compiled legislative histories are available for most major acts of Congress but they are not available for every enacted law.

The contents of a compiled legislative history never becomes outdated (although you made need to do some updating for later amendments). Compiled legislative histories are available in print and online, so check both possibilities.

TitlePrint or OnlineDatesContents
WestlawNext: US GAO Federal Legislative Histories 1921-95 PDF images of bills, committee hearings, committee reports, debates and statements in the Congressional Record, presidential messages and signing statements, and public laws.
Arnold & Porter Collection WestlawNext varies Materials for 30 major laws on a variety of topics.
United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN)

Print: KF48 at Reference Area

WestlawNext

1948-date Selected committee reports; reports may be edited. Contains references to other committee reports, dates of debate (Congressional Record), and presidential signing statements.
ProQuest Congressional
Online via UW Libraries
(UW Restricted)

1969-98 (partial)

1999-date (full)

Itemized lists of and text of bills, committee hearings and reports, debates (Congressional Record)
HeinOnline Federal Legislative History Library Online
(UW Restricted)
1870-date
(selected)
Bills, committee reports, hearings, documents, and related material for dozens of laws.
LexisNexis Legislative Histories Selected topics, including appropriations, bankruptcy, major environmental laws, and tax.
Legal > Legislation & Politics > U.S. & U.K. > U.S. Congress > Legislative Histories
HeinOnline Sources of Compiled Legislative History Online
(UW Restricted)
1789-date A finding list to compiled legislative histories; does not contain the congressional documents.

You may also search the Gallagher Law Library catalog for print copies of compiled legislative histories. Search the catalog by keyword for the name of the statute and "legislative history", e.g., "usa patriot act AND legislative history."

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

Westlaw Next
Legislative History tool allows you to select a jurisdiction (federal or individual state)

Lexis Advance
Select Content Type: Statutes and Legislation/Jurisdiction: U.S. Federal and search for the name of your statute. On the results page, under "Content Type" on the left side should be the link to Legislative Histories.

Legislative Histories of Selected U.S. Laws on the Internet
Links to freely available compiled legislative histories; prepared by the Law Librarians' Society of Washington. .

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Components of a Legislative History

Several types of documents comprise a legislative history. If you can't find a compiled legislative history or if the one that you found doesn't contain the information that you're looking for, you may have to identify and locate these documents separately. Consult the Gallagher guide on Finding Congressional Documents for more information.

Not all documents created during the legislative process are treated with the same weight by courts when determining the legislative intent behind a statute. Here is a list of the documents generated during the legislative process:

  • Committee reports
  • Sponsor statements and floor debates (published in the Congressional Record)
  • Transcripts of committee markup sessions (rare)
  • Committee hearings
  • Bill text, including original bills and amendments
  • Committee prints
  • Presidential signing statements

This list is arranged by the weight generally given to the document by courts interpreting legislative intent behind a statute.

Committee reports are generally given the most weight for statutory interpretation because these reports are often used by many legislators as the basis for voting for a particular bill.

As presidential signing statements are made when the bill has already passed both Houses of Congress and after the President has decided to sign the bill, they carry very little weight (in that they are post-legislative). They may be useful in suggesting how the administration decides how and to what extent to apply or enforce the law.

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How to Find Out More About the Use of Legislative History

Many judges, scholars, and legal commentators have written about legislative history and intent. Here is a selection of sources. Note: links from the titles go to Library catalog records, which often contain tables of contents.Sutherland on Statutes and Statutory Construction

Statutes and Statutory Construction, 6th ed. Thorough treatment of the topic.
KF425.S25 2000 at Reference Area & WestlawNext

Statutory Interpretation: The Search for Legislative Intent.
KF425.B76 2002 at Reference Area

Statutory Interpretation Stories.
KF425.S73 2011 at Reference Area

Using Legislative History in American Statutory Interpretation.
KF425.M36 2002

Cases and Materials on Statutory Interpretation.
KF4945.E853 2012 at Classified Stacks

Statutory Interpretation.(University Casebook Series)
KF425.N45 2011 at Classified Stacks

Search LegalTrac, (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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More About the Legislative Process

These print and online sources describe the federal legislative process in detail.How Our Laws Are Made

How Our Laws Are Made, an extensive guide to the federal legislative process prepared by the House Parliamentarian (last updated 2007).

Enactment of a Law, another guide to the legislative process, prepared by the Senate Parliamentarian (last updated 2007).

Congressional Research Service, Reports on Congress and legislative processes and procedures.

Guide to Congress, 6th ed. 2 vols.
A very thorough guide to Congressional procedures and the legislative process.
JK1021.C565 2008 at Reference Office

Fundamentals of Legal Research, 9th ed.
Includes chapters on federal legislation and federal legislative history/
KF240.J3 2009 at Reference Area & Reference Office

The Process of Legal Research, 8th ed.
Includes a chapter on research in legislative history materials.
KF240.P763 2012 at Reference Area & Reference Office

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More About Congress

Legislative Branch Internet Resources
Contains links to websites containing a variety of information about Congress.

LLSDC's Legislative Source Book
A great collection of guides, including an extensive guide on Federal Legislative History Research."

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

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 mentioned in these guides may not be available at the University of Washington.

Congressional Research Service, Legislative History Research: A Basic Guide (2011).

Duke Law Library, Federal Legislative History

Georgetown Law Library, Legislative History Research Tutorial

Federal Legislative History Research: A Practitioner's Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent

Chicago Kent Law Library, Federal Legislative History

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