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What is Legislative History?
A legislative history is a compilation of documents produced at each stage of the legislative process. To learn more about the purpose and methods for researching U.S. legislative history, talk to one of our reference librarians or consult this report (PDF download) from the Congressional Research Service, Legislative History Research: A Guide to Resources for Congressional Staff.
Treaties can also have a legislative history, commonly called working documents or travaux préparatoires. Talk to a librarian or see the Public International Law Research Guide for guidance.
The Many Different Types of Federal Legislative History
- Major pieces of legislation
- Normally multi-volume
- Resources such as ProQuest, Hein, Print resources
- Legislative Documents (What they are)
- The Bill Itself; voting records
- Committee Hearing
- Committee Report
- Committee Prints
- Congressional Research Service Reports
- Floor Debates - Congressional Record
- Signing Statements
- Legislative Documents (Where to find them)
- Print / Microfiche / Microfilm
- Digging Deeper
- Sutherland Statues and Statutory Construction (Print & Westlaw)
- Statutory Interpretation: The Search for Legislative Intent, Brown
Legislative Insight, a part of ProQuest Congressional, is a comprehensive database tool for researching United State Federal Legislative History.
U.S. Federal Legislative History Library - HeinOnline
In addition to the inclusion of comprehensive federal legislative histories published by the U.S. GPO and private publishers, this library also includes a unique finding aid based on Nancy Johnson's award-winning work, Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories. Researchers should begin their U.S. federal legislative history research with this finding aid, which often includes references to law review articles on-point to a particular legislative history.
Every CRS Report
Congressional Research Service reports are the best way for anyone to quickly get up to speed on major political issues without having to worry about spin — from the same source Congress uses. CRS is Congress’ think tank, and its reports are relied upon by academics, businesses, judges, policy advocates, students, librarians, journalists, and policymakers for accurate and timely analysis of important policy issues. The reports are not classified and do not contain individualized advice to any specific member of Congress. EveryCRSReport.com includes 8,277 CRS reports. The number changes regularly.
Proquest Congressional Resources
Proquest provides comprehensive access to United States legislative information which is available from the publisher, Congressional Information Service, Inc. (CIS). Congressional information, including hearings and reports, is available in full text; the Serial Set goes all the way back to 1789. This is an excellent resource for compiling federal legislative histories or for researching the changes and attempted changes in federal laws. If you need assistance in using Congressional, please ask a reference librarian. This Database was formerly known as CIS Congressional Universe.
U.S. Congressional Documents - HeinOnline
This collection features the complete Congressional Record Bound version, as well as the daily version back to 1980. It also includes the three predecessor titles: Annals of Congress (1789-1824), Register of Debates (1824-1837) Congressional Globe (1833-1873), and Congressional Hearings (1927-2015), as well as other important congressional material. Using the Daily-to-Bound Locator Tool, you can quickly find a page in the Bound volume from the Daily edition.
Committee information, bill tracking, treaty documents, Congressional Record, etc. "Congress.gov is the official website for U.S. federal legislative information. The site provides access to accurate, timely, and complete legislative information for Members of Congress, legislative agencies, and the public. It is presented by the Library of Congress (LOC) using data from the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Office of the Secretary of the Senate, the Government Publishing Office, Congressional Budget Office, and the LOC's Congressional Research Service."
How is Legislative History Used?
Legislative history documents may be used:
- To aid a court in its interpretation of statutory language, but only if
- The statutory language is unclear on its face,
- No statutory canons exist to guide the court in its interpretation, and
- There are no existing judicial or federal agency interpretations of the statutory language, OR
- To track a pending bill as it moves through Congress
- To provide background or historical information for research
Beginning Your Legislative History
The more detail you can begin with the easier your research often becomes. Some indexes and search services may ask you to use specific features of a piece of legislation to help find it. The more information you have, the more you can be sure you're finding what you need. Having these details can make your online or print searches much more precise, saving time and creating better research. When discussing US federal laws, you want to know:
- Public Law number. This is often abbreviated PL or Pub. L. No. The format is PL 82-414: the first number (82) is the Congress number and the second number (414) means it was the 414th bill to pass during the 82nd Congress (1951-1953).
- Location in the U.S. Statutes at Large. A public law is first printed as a slip, similar to a slip opinion, and is then printed in a collection called the Statutes at Large. The citation format is: 66 Stat. 163 (1952). This is similar to a judicial opinion - the public law printed at 66 Stat. 163 (1952) is in the 66th volume of the Statutes at Large starting on page 163, and it was passed in 1952. The Statutes at Large are organized chronologically before being codified by subject matter in the United States Code.
- The number of the House or Senate Bill and the Congress in which the bill was enacted. This will also help ensure you're finding the right document. House bills are abbreviated H.R. and Senate bills are abbreviated S.; they are numbered in the order they are introduced in each Congress. They may be formatted in slightly different ways. 82 H.R. 5678 and H.R. 5678, 82d Cong. (2d Sess. 1952) both cite to the same bill, the Immigration and Nationality Act - introduced as the 5,678th House bill in the 82nd Congress. Note that the second cite is in accordance with Bluebook Rule 13.
- The date of enactment. Having the date will only help you. Acts may have the same name that can throw you off. For example, you're looking for legislative history information on amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (original PL 82-414). Without the date, it may be more difficult to find the exact compilation because the search results do not list the subject matter. See this example from Legislative Insight: