Washington State Legislative History
Note: HeinOnline is a UW Restricted database. Lexis Advance and WestlawNext are available to individual subscribers with their own IDs and passwords. See the Gallagher guide on Access to Bloomberg Law, Lexis Advance & WestlawNext.
Legislative history refers to the documents and other materials created during the Legislature’s consideration of a bill. Researchers are often interested in reviewing these materials to try to determine why the Legislature enacted the law, or why it used specific language.
In Washington, several of the useful sources for legislative history are available from the mid-1970s forward. The text of bills and journals from both the House and Senate are available for earlier periods of time.
Depending on when the law in which you are interested was enacted, your research may involve print or online materials. Sources on the Internet go back to 1991. The State Archives in Olympia may have items not found in print or online sources.
When researching a legislative history, it is particularly important to know when to stop. It is often the case that the more time spent and the farther afield ventured, the lower the rate of return.
For more complete information, consult Chapter 6, Legislative History, Initiatives, and Bill Tracking, in the Washington Legal Researcher's Deskbook 3d. KFW75.W37 2002 at Reference Area & Reference Office.
- the Gallagher guide on Researching Washington Historical Laws and the legislative history checklist (Word) for reminders on sources to consult and for note-taking
- the Legislature's Glossary of Legislative Terms
For bills enacted before 1991, you will need to consult print resources (all available in the Reference Area section of the Gallagher Law Library).
- Start with an RCW section. Note the citation to the session law you wish to follow (found at the end of each section in brackets).
- Proceed to the Laws of Washington (1889/90-date; KFW25.A22). Note the bill number, which along with the year and session, is the key to finding legislative history information. Look for veto messages and effective dates.
- Look at the Final Legislative Report (1979-date; KFW15.2) for the background, summary, votes on final passage, effective date, and veto message if applicable.
- Check various versions of the bill (1889/90-date; Senate, KFW6.S4; House, KFW6.H6).
- Check the Legislative Digest and History of Bills (1970-date; KFW15.A2) for chronology and reporting committees.
- Look at both the Journal of the Senate (1889/90-date; KFW18.2.W32) and the Journal of the House (1889/90-date; KFW18.2.W3) for points of inquiry, amendments and substitutions, and dates of floor action. Consult the index to each Journal by bill number.
For current bills (those introduced in the past two years) contact the reporting committee for copies of the bill files. Occasionally, a committee may keep a bill file beyond the two-year mark.
- House Committee meeting recordings, 1973-2002
- Senate Committee meeting recordings, 1972-2004
- Senate floor recordings, 1971-2010
For the floor recordings, the best approach is to know the year when the bill in question was being considered. Type the year in the box following "Year From." Browse through the resulting hits until you reach the date when remarks were made or a debate occurred (you can obtain this information from the Senate Journal).
Most days have one or more records associated with blocks of time. Select the record starting before the time indicated in the Senate Journal entry. [Note: You will need to download Microsoft Silverlight, it that program is not already installed on your computer.] Then listen for the bill number to be mentioned. Unfortunately, the debates and remarks are not transcribed.
The comparable records of actions on the floor of the House are in the digitization process. Until those recordings are available on the Digital Archives site, contact contact the Journal Clerk, Washington State House of Representatives, Legislative Building, PO Box 40600, Olympia, WA 98504, (360) 786-7790.
The Washington State Archives in Olympia, (360) 586-1492, has files on bills introduced after the mid-1970s. The date varies by individual committee. The files include whatever material the reporting committee compiled. Committees usually keep bill files for two years; for current bills, you must contact the reporting committee.
The Research Section of the Archives will pull, copy, and send bill files and committee tapes on request for a reasonable fee. Archives staff cannot pull and copy sections of massive legislation: the files are not organized by topic or bill section. The Archives are open to the public, so you may research any legislative history yourself. For more information, see the Legislative History guide prepared by the State Archives and/or contact the Archives staff by email: Research@secstate.wa.gov.
For bills considered before the mid-1970s, little material is available. Governor's files on specific bills are sometimes available from 1951-55 and 1965-84. Governors' files are not open until six years after he or she leaves office.
Legislative Council records from 1947-73 and personal papers of some legislators may also be useful, although the files are incomplete. See the Guide to the Papers of Washington State's Legislative Archives. CD3576.5.W37 1984 at Reference Office
Committee meeting tapes (real time, not transcribed) are also available from the mid-1970s. Tapes are not automatically sent when requesting a bill file; you must specifically request them.
The Washington State Legislature offers several . These oral histories might be useful if a bill's sponsor discussed the bill in the oral history.
Internet-based research is possible only for bills considered and enacted since 1991.
Step One: Start with a Section of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW)
- If you have the RCW citation, retrieve a copy by using the Washington Legislature's page on the Revised Code of Washington.
- If you do not know the RCW citation, search the RCW on the Legislature's Advanced Search page to find it.
- If you already have a reference to the law as it is published in the Laws of Washington, you may skip this step.
Step Two: Record the Session Law Citation
At the end of each section, look for the information found in [brackets].
For example, RCW 46.61.165 deals with high occupancy vehicle lanes. At the end of the section you will see:
[2011 c 379 § 1; 1999 c 206 § 1; 1998 c 245 § 90; 1991 sp.s. c 15 § 67; 1984 c 7 § 65; 1974 ex.s. c 133 § 2.]
This example indicates amendments made to this section, from the most recent to the original enactment. For instance, this section was amended during the 2011 legislative session as Chapter 379, § 1. It was also amended in 1999, 1998, 1991 (during a special session ("sp. s."), and 1984.
These citations refer to the year and chapter number of the law. As in this example, many sections have been amended several times over the years and you may see a series of citations. If you have access to one of the commercially produced versions of the RCW (the Annotated Revised Code of Washington, published by LexisNexis and available on LexisNexis and LexisNexis Academic [UW Restricted] OR the Washington Revised Code Annotated, published by West and available on WestlawNext), you can review the historical notes to try to determine which of the enactments dealt with the specific issue or language in which you are interested.
Sometimes you may want to look at the individual sessions laws before beginning the legislative history search. Both HeinOnline and the Office of the Code Reviser's website have complete historical collections of the Laws of Washington.
Step 3: Find the Bill Number
The bill number is the crucial piece of information you need to identify and locate material created during the Legislature's consideration.
For bills considered from the last 20 years:
- Find the appropriate year at the Washington Legislature's Bill Information page.
- Note that the Bill Information page features the current biennium. Tabs provide access to bill information pages for the two previous biennia.
To find bill information from earlier biennia:
- Click on the Detailed Legislative Reports link, which will take you to a page with the current year.
- Click on Bill Summary (under the Bill Information heading)
- Click on the arrow after Biennium in the upper right corner to find historical bill information back to 1991.
- Use the Help with Abbreviations page to decipher cryptic notes.
- Click on the Bill/RCW/Session Law Cross Reference link.
- Use either the RCW to Bill or the Session Law to Bill tab.
- Record the bill number and its house of origin (H for House or S for Senate).
Step 4: Retrieve the Bill Information & Documents
- Return to the Bill Information page and search by bill number.
- Review, print, or download documents associated with that bill.
- Committee reports are often the most useful type of document. Look for fbr, hbr, or sbr; these abbreviations are used to designate bill reports.
- History notes the action of a bill through the legislative process, a chronology.
- Bill text and amendments show how the bill was changed during the legislative process.
- CAUTION: Recent bill reports include the following cautionary language:
"This analysis was prepared by non-partisan legislative staff for the use of legislative members in their deliberations. This analysis is not a part of the legislation nor does it constitute a statement of legislative intent."
Step 5: Review the House & Senate Journal Entries
The Journals include information not found in online sources:
- point of inquiry: question and answer about a particular bill and
- references to floor debates
The Journals are in theChoose "Document" for "Search Type" and type either "debate" or "point of inquiry" in the "Search Terms" box. Then under the "Document Selection" section, click in the box next to "Journal" and select the year when the bill of interest was being considered.
Remember that a bill keeps its number during consideration by both the House and Senate, so you may use the bill number as a search term.
Debates are not transcribed. Senate floor actions have been digitized (see Audiorecordings above) and House actions are in the process of digitization. You may also listen and/or watch debates on TVW.org.
Free & Commercial Databases
Lexis Advance and WestlawNext provide access to much of the same information found for free at the Washington Legislature's website. The following table identifies the type of documents used in Washington State legislative history research and where these documents may be found in online.
a. Bill reports were not printed and distributed before this date. Contact the Washington State Archives in Olympia to inquire about the availability of older bill reports. (360) 586-1492, Research@sos.wa.gov
1. Audio is free; videotapes are available for purchase.
2. A CD-ROM of the final House and Senate Journals for the 2005 session are available. KFW.18.2W33 2005 at Reference Area. The data is in large Portable Document Format files.
4. LEGLink, a fee-based service of the Washington State Legislature, was discontinued at the end of the 2005 legislative session. Content available as "Detailed Legislative Reports" includes bill summaries, texts, roll call votes, bill status, companion bills, bill tracking, floor activity, reports, and indexes.
5. Click on Members by Name and then select an individual. Links to voting records are found on the right side of the page.
6. Includes "Bill Analyses, Governor's Messages, Committee Reports, Fiscal Messages, Summary Amendments, and other" documents. Partial coverage 2002-2005 and from 2008; full coverage from 2006.
Other Legislative History Research Guides
Several other libraries in the state have produced their own guides to Washington legislative history.
Legislative History, Washington State Archives, Washington State Archives
Washington Legislative History Research, Seattle University Law Library
Legislative History Guide, Public Law Library of King County
For guides to legislative history for other states, see State Legislative History Guides, Indiana University Mauer School of Law Library