Legislative History: Online Research

© Katrina Stierholz, Washington University School of Law

The legislative history of a law consists of documents that are produced in the process of a bill becoming a law:  bills, hearings, reports, and debates.  In case you have forgotten how a bill becomes a law, or would like a more detailed explanation, the Library of Congress offers an excellent guide How Our Laws Are Made by Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, United States House of Representatives.

A quick overview of how a bill becomes a law

 

Bills are introduced on the floor of the House or Senate. After introduction, a bill is referred to one or more committees for hearings and markup. Occasionally, a bill is passed without referral to a committee. More often, bills do not get past the committee and therefore are never voted on by the House or Senate.

Hearings are held by a committee to determine the views of experts, lobbyists, and other interested parties. Not all hearings are printed. Occasionally a bill is passed without any hearings being held.

When a committee has completed work on a bill, it issues a Committee Report. This is perhaps the most important component in a legislative history. This details the reasoning for the bill as passed, with special emphasis on the compromises made between the House and Senate. Committee reports may contain instructions on how government agencies should interpret and enforce the law. Courts have relied on these guidelines.

The Congressional Record is the official source for debates in the House and Senate. Debates can occur at any time during the process. They are of varying value in determining intent.  If a bill is amended on the floor, the Congressional Record is the only place to find discussion of the legislators' intent.

Other related primary sources include Committee prints and Presidential messagesCommittee prints are not part of the legislative process, but may, however, contain a legislative history (search the online catalog to locate).  They may be produced by the committee staff or by another group, e.g., the Congressional Budget Office.

Compiling Legislative History

 

Locating a legislative history for a law passed since 1970

The best strategy for compiling legislative history materials is to see if someone else has already done the work. Using these sources, a researcher should be able to locate a legislative history for any bill since 1970. Some will have the complete text and others will only have the information necessary to retrieve the documents. They are listed in the order of preference and usefulness. For more information on how to locate the documents, check here.

  • The Law School's Online Catalog. The Law Library owns many legislative histories. A subject search for "Legislative Histories - United States" locates over 150 legislative histories in our catalog. You  may also search by Public Law from the Law Library's online catalog. If we don't own a legislative history for your law, check Mobius. 
  • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN), 1948-present.
    [Reading Room]
    Contains selective legislative histories for most bills passed by Congress. Includes committee reports conference reports and statements by legislative leaders on major bills. Note that some documents are not reproduced in their entirety.
  • Congressional Universe's Legislative Histories, 1970-present.
    Access limited to Washington University users.
    CIS Index, 1970-present [Z 1223 .Z9 C5 2nd Floor Microform Area].
    These two are largely the same product, in different formats.
  • Congressional Record Index via FDsys 1983-present or via Thomas, 1995-present.
    (A major difference is that CIS Congressional Universe contains selected full-text documents, including bills and the Congressional Record. The Law Library owns all the documents indexed in the publications, either in microfiche or in paper.)
  • Both Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis have several legislative history files. Check under the federal legal materials categories. Access requires password.

There are also Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources [Reference KF 42.2 1994 .F4] and Sources of compiled legislative histories : a bibliography of government documents, periodical articles, and books, 1st Congress-94th Congress compiled by Nancy P. Johnson [KF 42.2 1979 .J64].

Compiling Legislative Histories, pre-1970

Congressional Indexes 1789 - 1972  

This index includes all of the information available in the indexes listed below. To see if we own the material, please check the online catalog first. If an item is listed as held by Olin, it may also be held by the Law Library. Most of the older government documents have not been added to the online catalog, so please check the shelf or ask a Reference librarian. If these steps do not provide you with the needed document, check Mobius. If it is not available from any of these sources, please ask a Reference Librarian for assistance.  We can always order through Interlibrary Loan.
For the first five bulleted indexes listed below, we do not own the microfiche.  They can, however, be requested via Interlibrary Loan.  Again, these are the paper index versions of the Congressional Indexes 1789- 1972  listed above.  

  • CIS Index to Unpublished US House of Representatives Committee Hearings.   2nd Floor Micro Z 1223 .Z9 C54
  • CIS Index to Unpublished US Senate Committee Hearings.   Reading Room Z 1223 .Z9 C55
  • CIS Index to US Senate Executive Documents & Reports Covering Documents and Reports Not Printed in the US Serial Set.   Reading Room Z 1223 .Z9 C6
  • CIS US Congressional Committee Hearings Index.   2nd Floor Micro Z 1223 .Z9 C57
  • CIS US Congressional Committee Prints Index.   2nd Floor Micro Z 1223 .Z7 C66
  • CIS US Serial Set Index.   2nd Floor Microforms Area Z 1223 .Z9 C65  [We also own the fiche for this set--microform cabinets 7-9]

Congressional Record Index, 1874-present; Congressional Globe (index is in back of volume), 1833-1873;
Govt. Docs. X:; 

These index the debates of Congress. As bills can be amended on the floor, this may provide useful information regarding intent. Not everything found in the Congressional Record was spoken on the floor. The words in plain text are those spoken on the floor, the material in italics, bold, or with bullets has been added to the Record.

Locating Government Public Publications

 

Title: Congressional Bills 
Sudoc:  Y 1.4:
Years:  1949-present
Location:  Microforms Area 2nd Floor (cabinets 2-3) 
Comments:  Use the Cumulative Finding Aid for Congressional Bills and Resolutions [Y 1.4/Index:], located in the Microform Index area (the wall behind the microfiche cabinets) to identify the microfiche number.  
Title: Congressional Bills 
Sudoc:  Y 1.4:
Years:  1989-present 
Location:  Congressional Universe 
(in Publications)
Comments:   
Title: Congressional Bills 
Sudoc:  Y 1.4:
Years:  1993-present
Location:  FDsys and Thomas 
Comments:   
Title: Congressional Hearings 
Sudoc:  Y 4:
Years:  1992-present
Location:  Gov't Docs 2nd Floor (paper)
Comments:  Indexed in the Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications from Marcive (1976-present). For the hearings in microfiche (1970-present), use Congressional Universe to identify the CIS number.  Once you have that number, go to the CIS fiche in microfiche cabinets 7-9.   If we do not own a hearing check the Mobius catalog and use the direct request function.  For older hearings, use Congressional Universe 1789-1969 to locate hearing.  Then check Mobius to see if any library in Missouri owns it.  If not, request via Interlibrary Loan.  For hearings that have occured in the last few years, check the Committee web pages
Title: Congressional Hearings 
Sudoc:  Y 4:
Years:  1970-present
Location:  Microforms Area 2nd floor (cabinets 7-9)
Comments:   
Title: Congressional Hearings 
Sudoc:  Y 4:
Years:  1988-present (incomplete)
Location:  Congressional Universe (in testimony)
Comments:   
Title: Congressional Hearings 
Sudoc:  Y 4:
Years:  1998-present (incomplete)
Location:  FDsys 
Comments:   

 

Title: Congressional Hearings 
Sudoc:  Y 4:
Years:  varies
Location:  LLSDC links (links to Committee web pages)
Comments:   
Title: Annals of Congress 
Sudoc:  X: 1-42:
Years:  1789-1827
Location:  Gov't Docs 2nd Floor (paper)
Comments:  Useful for locating introductory statements, statements submitted for the record, debates, and some bills or amendments added on the floor.  You may also want to search the History of Bills from within the Congressional Record.
Title: Annals of Congress 
Sudoc:  X: 1-42:
Years:  1789-1827
Location:  Gov't Docs 2nd Floor (paper)
Comments:   
Title: Congressional Globe (Microfiche) 
Sudoc:  X:  72-180
Years:  1833-1873
Location:  Microforms Area 2nd Floor (cabinets 1-2)
Comments:   
Title: Congressional Record 
Sudoc:  X:1.1:1-
Years:  1873-present
Location:  Gov't Docs 2nd Floor (paper)
Comments:   
Title: Congressional Record 
Sudoc:  X:1.1:1-
Years:  1985-present
Location:  Congressional Universe (in Publications)
Comments:   
Title: Congressional Record 
Sudoc:  X:1.1:1-
Years:  1994-present
Location:  FDsys 
Comments:   
Title: Committee Prints 
Sudoc:  CIS Committe Print Microfiche
Years:  1917-1969
Location:  Microforms Area 2nd Floor (cabinet 4)
Comments:  Use the CIS US Congressional Committee Prints Index [Z1223 .Z9 C57 2nd Floor Microforms Indexes] to locate for years 1830-1969. For 1970-present, check the Serial Set.
Title: CIS Congressional Microfiche 
Sudoc:   
Years:  1970-present
Location:  Microforms Area 2nd Floor (cabinets 7-9)
Comments:   
Title:  
Sudoc:  Y 4:
Years:  1993-present
Location:  Congressional Universe (in Publications)
Comments:   
Title:  
Sudoc:  Y 4:
Years:  1997-present (incomplete)
Location:  GPO Access 
Comments:   
Title: Congressional Committee Reports 
Sudoc:  House Y 1.1/8:
Senate Y 1.1/5:
Years:  1995-present
Location:  Gov't Documents 2nd Floor (paper)
Comments:  For years prior to 1991, also look in the Serial Set [Y 1.1/2:].  
Title: Congressional Committee Reports 
Sudoc:   
Years:  1989-present
Location:  Congressional Universe (in Publications)
Comments:   
Title: Congressional Committee Reports 
Sudoc:   
Years:  1995-present
Location:  FDsys 
Comments:   
Title: Serial Set 
Sudoc:  CIS Serial Set Fiche (cabinets 5-6)
Years:  1789-1969
Location:  Microforms Area 2nd Floor
Comments:  Use the 'Finding Lists' volume of the CIS US Serial Set Index [2nd Floor Microforms Indexes Z 1223 .Z9 C65] or the Congressional Indexes 1789- 1972.
Title: CIS Congressional Fiche  
Sudoc:   
Years:  1970-present
Location:  Microform Area (cabinets 7-9)
Comments:   
Title: Serial Set 
Sudoc:  Y 1.1/2:
Years:  1972-1996
Location:  Gov't Docs 2nd Floor (paper)
Comments:   
Title: Serial Set  
Sudoc:  online
Years:  100th Congress - Present
Location:   
Comments:   
Title: Presidential Messages 
Sudoc:  AE 2.109:
Years:  1965-2000
Location:  Gov't Docs 2nd Floor (paper)
Comments:  Also available on Lexis from 1979-present.
Title: Presidential Messages 
Sudoc:  online
Years:  1993-present
Location:  FDsys 
Comments:   
Title: Slip Laws
Sudoc:  AE 2.110:
Years:  most current on Reserves
Location:  FDsys 
Comments:  After they are published as slip laws, they are published in the Statutes at Large (available in the Reading Room).

Secondary Sources

Beside primary sources, secondary sources can provide unique insight into the process of passing a particular piece of legislation. These sources give a broad overview and may help orient one to the issues and the players that affected the lawmaking process.

  • Congressional quarterly almanac (1974 - present)
    JK 1 C663; Current year in reference, older years in stacks - 
    OLIN holdings back to 1945
  • Congressional quarterly weekly report (1976 -  )
    A great source of information about Congress (and not written by Congress).  For paper copies, the current issues are on reserve, older in Bound Periodicals, 5th floor.
  • National Journal (1977 -  )
    Lexis or Westlaw 
  • New York Times Index
    via Lexis, 1969 - present
    AI 21 N44; Olin Reference, 1851 - present
  • Washington Post 
    Lexis (1977 -  ) or Westlaw (1983 -  )

Suggested Reading and Related Reference Books

  • Robert C. Berring and Elizabeth A. Edinger, Finding the Law (11th ed. 1999) 
    Reserve KF 240 .H62 1999 See Chapter 6, 'Legislative History.'
  • Judith Manion et al., A Research Guide to Congress (2nd ed. 1991) 
    Reserve KF 4950 .M36 1991
  • Norman J. Singer, Statutes and Statutory Construction (6th ed. 2000)
    Reserve KF 425 .S25 2000
  • Richard J.McKinney,   Federal Legislative History Research:  A Practitioner's Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent.  Last Updated 7/13/2001.
    http://www.llsdc.org/sourcebook/fed-leg-hist.htm 

updated 2002 February 2