Legislative History Research Guide

by Dora Bertram, Director of Public Services and Lecturer in Law, Washington University School of Law Library

Courts in the United States frequently use the legislative history of a law in the process of statutory construction. The legislative history of a law consists of the paperwork that is produced in the process of a bill becoming a law: bills, hearings, reports, and debates.

Bills are introduced on the floor of the House or Senate. Some bills are printed in the Congressional Record upon introduction. 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.

Printed hearings contain transcripts of testimony as well as items submitted for the record. 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 report. House and Senate 'reports' are a very specific type of document. The report contains the committee's recommendations and sometimes includes one or more of the following: the full text of the bill (in the version being reported); a section-by-section analysis of the bill; and minority dissenting views on the bill.

The Congressional Record is the official source for debates in the House and Senate. The Daily edition appears first and is published every day that Congress is in session. Page numbers begin with a letter that represents each of the four sections: H=House, S=Senate, E=Extension of Remarks, and D=Daily Digest. The Bound Congressional Record is the final, permanent edition. It is also the preferred source for citation purposes. Pagination runs from the beginning to the end of each session. Note that Members of Congress have the opportunity to edit and insert material in the Record before both the daily and bound editions are printed.

Other related primary sources include committee prints, House and Senate documents and Presidential messages. These primary sources are found in the Government Documents Collection.

In addition to these primary sources, it may be useful to look at secondary sources related to the Public Law and its passage. Possible sources are journal articles, publications of U.S. government agencies and other monographs.

This research guide will:

I.   List tools that you can use to identify primary sources;
II.  List tools that you can use to identify secondary sources;
III. Provide instructions for locating the publications you have identified; and
IV. List suggested reading and related reference books.

The best strategy for compiling legislative history materials is to see if someone else has already done the work. Check the following sources to see if such a work exists for the law you are researching or ask a Reference Librarian for assistance.

  • the Law School Online Catalog; under "Search Options" select "Public Law Number"
  • Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources compiled by Bernard D. Reams, Jr (Reference KF42.2 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 (Reference KF42.2 1979 .J64).

When working with new research tools, it is useful to take a few moments to read the introduction and instructions at the beginning of the volume. None of these sources is complete; it is advised to search them all to conduct thorough research.

I. Tools To Identify Primary Sources

A. CIS Indexes

1. CIS/Index (2nd Floor Microform Area Z1223 .Z9 C5 1970-present)
See Congressional Universe below for electronic version of this title.
CIS/Index provides detailed indexing and abstracts of many Congressional publications (bills and the Congressional Record being two major exceptions). The various indexes provide references to CIS's abstract numbers. The abstracts contain complete bibliographic information (including SuDoc call number) and a summary of the publications. The abstract number and index year can also be used to find the full text of the publications in the CIS microfiche set. CIS also produces bibliographies of legislative history materials for bills enacted into law.

Note that the year of the index does not necessarily correspond to the year of the publication that you are trying to identify. Items in each annual cumulation are titles that CIS was able to acquire and index that year. If you know a publication date, start at that year's index and then move on to subsequent years if necessary.

2. CIS Congressional Universe
Access Limited to Computers in Anheuser-Busch Hall This Web Subscription contains all of the information contained in the paper CIS Index, covering Congressional publications from 1970 to the present. In addition, selected full text documents are available online. See the Coverage and Update Schedule for detailed content information.

3. Other CIS Indexes

Prior to 1970, CIS indexes are organized by type of publication rather than year. The following are retrospective CIS indexes:

a.CIS Index to Unpublished US House of Representatives Committee Hearings (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z9 C54);

b. CIS Index to Unpublished US Senate Committee Hearings (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z9 C55);

c. CIS Index to US Senate Executive Documents & Reports Covering Documents and Reports Not Printed in the US Serial Set (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z9 C6);

d. CIS US Congressional Committee Hearings Index (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z9 C57);

e. CIS US Congressional Committee Prints Index (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z7 C66);

f. CIS US Serial Set Index (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z9 C65)

B. CCH Congressional Index (current year on Closed Reserve, previous years
KF49 .C6)

Although the Congressional Index does not provide abstracts of hearings and reports like the CIS/Index, it is useful for its bill indexing, digests and status tables. Bills are indexed by subject and sponsor. Bill summaries are provided in the 'House Bills' and 'Senate Bills' sections. The 'Status of House Bills' and 'Status of Senate Bills' sections provide a chronology of congressional action by bill number.

C. Congressional Record Index (Daily Edition Govt.Docs.X/a:; Bound Edition Govt.Docs.X:)

The index to the daily Record is published biweekly when Congress is in session. Each volume of the bound edition covers one session of Congress (one year) and has its own index and digest volumes. The bound edition is currently running several years behind, so do not be surprised if you have to use the Daily edition for current research. The 'History of Bills and Resolutions,' which is a bill number index, is probably the most useful for legislative history research. There is also a subject/name index.

D. Congressional Hearings Calendar (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z9 C8; 99th Congress - 104th Congress)

The Congressional Hearings Calendar indexes hearings by the first date a hearing is held. It is useful to identify hearings that are cited before the hearing has been printed and given a title.

II. Tools To Identify Secondary Sources

A. Index to Legal Periodicals (Reading Room K9 .N32; v.1 through December 1886-present)

This index may look familiar as it is currently produced by the H.W. Wilson Co., the publisher of the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. This index covers law journals and other legal periodical literature excluding legal newspapers. Index access points include: Subject & Author Index; Table of Cases; Table of Statutes; and Book Reviews. The Table of Statutes is indexed by popular name, not by Public Law or bill number.

B. Wilson Web, Index to Legal Periodicals ( Available from computers in Anheuser-Busch Hall only; August 1981-present.)

This Web-based database has many of the advantages of online access: keyword and boolean (and-or-not) searching; one cumulative database rather than annual paper cumulations; and the capability to print out citations. Watch the coverage however. You may need to go back to the paper if you are working in a pre-1981 time period.

C. Current Law Index (Reading Room K33 .C87; 1980-present)

This index covers law journals and other legal periodical literature including legal newspapers. Index access points include: Subject Index; Author

Title Index; Table of Cases; Table of Statutes. The Table of Statutes is indexed by popular name, not by Public Law or bill numbers.

D. LegalTrac SearchBank (1980-present)

This Web Subscription is the electronic counterpart to the Current Law Index and has the same advantages as the Wilsondisc discussed above.

E. Monthly Catalog (Govt. Docs. GP3.8:)

The Monthly Catalog is an index to publications of the United States Government. It is a monthly list with annual cumulations of items cataloged by the U.S. Government Printing Office. Title listings in the Monthly Catalog correspond to the date that GPO cataloged the material, not necessarily the date of publication. As a result, it may be necessary to search the year of publication and several years later to find the document that you need. For items from 1976 to the present use the Marcive Web DOCS. For cumulative indexing before 1976 see:

Cumulative Title Index to United States Public Documents, 1789-1976 (Govt. Docs. GP3.8/2x:789-976);

Cumulative Subject Index to the Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications 1900-197 1 (Govt. Docs. GP3.8/4x:900-971).

F. MarciveWeb DOCS (Available from computers in Anheuser-Busch Hall only; July 1976- present)

This Web-based database is the electronic counterpart to the Monthly Catalog.

G. Major Studies and Issue Briefs of the Congressional Research Service (2nd Floor Microforms Area Govt. Docs.LC14.17x:; Library holds 1916-1998)

This paper index provides access to research and analysis produced by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. All items referenced here are held by our library on microfilm (Film LC14.17x:; 1916-1990) or microfiche (Fiche LC14.17x:; 1991-1998).

Many of these reports are also available on the Web. The best collection is located at the website for the National Library for the Environment at http://www.ncseonline.org/NLE/

H. General Accounting Office Publications
The work of the General Accounting Office is summed up in the following quote:

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) is a nonpartisan agency within the legislative branch of the government. GAO conducts audits, surveys, investigations, and evaluations of federal programs. This work is either self-initiated or done at the request of congressional committees or members. GAO's findings and recommendations are published as reports to congressional members or delivered as oral testimony to congressional committees. Office of Information Management and Communications, United states General accounting Office, Indexes for Abstracts of Reports and Testimony: Fiscal Year 1992 et al (1993)

Some of these reports are indexed on the Marcive GPO CAT/PAC CD-ROM, but many are not. The following indexes provide access to these publications:

1. GAO Documents (Govt.Docs.GA1.16/4:; library holds v.7, 1982-v.13, 1988);

2. Annual Index of Reports Issued in FY ... (Govt.Docs.GA1.16/3-2:; library holds 1988-1991);

3. Indexes for Abstracts of Reports and Testimony: Fiscal Year... (Govt.Docs.GA1.16/3-3:; library holds 1992-).

Full indexing and full text of GAO Reports are also available on the Web at http://www.gao.gov/audit.htm

III. Locating Publications in Our Library

A. Presidential Messages

Cohen writes the following on Presidential messages:

The messages or statements issued when the President [proposes legislation and] signs or vetoes particular enactments can shed light on legislative history. Like other Presidential messages to Congress, these documents appear in several places, including the Congressional Record, the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, the House and Senate Journals, and as House and Senate documents. Morris L. Cohen et al., How to Find the Law 239 note 1(9th ed. 1989).

B. Draft Bills

Copies of draft bills are sometimes available from the draftee (e.g. counsel of an agency that drafted a bill), or the House or Senate Document Room (see G. below for more information).

C. Congressional Bills (2nd Floor Microforms Area Fiche Govt.Docs.Y1.4:; 81st Congress-Present)

The library holds bills of the United States Congress on microfiche. Bills from the 81st Congress to the 95th Congress are filed by Congress and bill number. From the 96th Congress to the present, use the Cumulative Finding Aid for Congressional Bills and Resolutions (2nd Floor Microforms Area Govt. Docs.Y1.4/Index:) to identify the microfiche number. Bills from recent Congresses are sometimes available from the House and Senate Document Rooms. See G. below for more information.

D. Introductory Statements, Statements Submitted for the Record, Debates and Some Bills

The Congressional Record is a source for these items. The daily edition is shelved at Govt.Docs.X/a: and Fiche Govt.Docs.X/a. The bound edition is shelved at Govt.Docs.X: and Fiche Govt. Docs. X:.

E. Hearings

Hearings that the library holds in paper are shelved in the Government Documents stacks by SuDoc number. Hearings from 1970 to the present are on CIS microfiche by CIS number (use the CIS/Index or Congressional Universe to identify CIS or SuDoc numbers). The only pre-1970 hearings we have are for the 86th Congress (1959-1960) (Fiche KF49 .U54). Use the CIS US Congressional Committee Hearings Index (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z9 C57) to get the microfiche number.

If we do not hold a hearing, Olin Library may have it. In addition, the committee that held the hearing may be able to supply a copy. Use the Congressional Yellow Book (Reference JK 1083 .B55) to get an address and phone number.

F. Committee Prints

Committee prints that the library holds in paper are shelved in the Government Documents Stacks by SuDoc number. Committee prints from the 1830's to 1969 are on microfiche (Fiche KF49 .B53). Use the CIS US Congressional Committee Prints Index (Reading Room Z1223 .Z7 C66) or the Congressional Masterfile 1 to get the microfiche number. Committee Prints from 1970 to the present are in the CIS microfiche set. Use the CIS/Index (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z9 C5) or the Congressional Masterfile 1 to get the microfiche number.

G. Congressional Reports and Documents

House and Senate Documents and Reports are first published individually, and then they are replaced by the bound Serial Set (Govt.Docs.Y1.1/2:). Documents and Reports that have not been bound in the Serial Set are shelved in order by Congress, then by type of publication immediately after the bound Serial Set.

Unbound Reports and Documents

House Documents

(Govt.Docs.Y1.1/7:)

House Reports

(Govt.Docs.Y1.1/8:)

Senate Documents

(Govt.Docs.Y1.1/3:)

Senate Reports

(Govt.Docs.Y1.1/5:)

Senate Treaty Documents

(Govt.Docs.Y1.1/4:)

Senate Executive Reports

(Govt.Docs.Y1.1/6:)

96th Congress-104th Congress

Serial Set

(Govt.Docs.Y1.1/2:)

92nd-95th Congress

CIS microfiche (use CIS/Index to get fiche number)

15th-91st Congress

Serial Set on fiche

(Fiche Govt.Docs.Y1.1/2:)

To use the Serial Set (on fiche or paper) the Report or Documents number must be converted to a Serial Set number using 'Numerical Lists' which can be found in the following publications:

1817-1969 use the 'Finding Lists' volume of the CIS US Serial Set Index (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z9 C65) or the CIS Masterfile 1 CD-ROM

1933-1980 use The Numerical Lists and Schedule of Volumes of the United States Congressional Serial Set: 73rd Congress Through the 96th Congress (Reference Govt.Docs.GP3.7/2:)

1981-present Monthly Catalog of United States Government Publications. United States Congressional Serial Set Supplement (Govt. Docs. GP3.34:). Note that the Government Printing Office is behind in production of this index. The supplement for the 100th Congress (1987-88) was published in 1992.

Documents and Reports from recent Congresses are sometimes available from the House and Senate Document Rooms:

House Document Room
B-18, House Annex No.2
Washington, D.C. 20515
Phone: (202) 225-3456.

Senate Document Room
B-04 Hart Bldg.
Washington, D.C. 20510.
Phone: (202) 224-7860

H. Slip Laws

Slip laws are on Reserve (Reserve Govt.Docs. AE 2.110:). They are superseded by Statutes at Large which are shelved in the Reading Room of the Law Library.

IV. Suggested Reading and Released Reference Books

A. Morris L. Cohen et al., How to Find the Law (9th ed. 1989) (Reserve KF240 .H6 /1989)

See Chapter 7, 'Legislative History.'

B. Judith Manion et al., A Research Guide to Congress (2nd ed. 1991) (Reserve KF4950 .M36 1991)

C. Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources
(Bernard D. Reams, Jr. compiler, 1994) (Reference KF42.2 1994 .F4)

See 'Introduction: The Use of Legislative History in Statutory Interpretation.'

D. CIS/Index (2nd Floor Microforms Area Z1223 .Z9 C5)

The introduction found in the Annual Index volume provides a description of the different types of Congressional publications.