U.S. Legislative History

Definition and Purpose

The purpose of this document is to describe the basic steps in the legislative process, and suggest print sources in the Pritzker Legal Research Center, Lexis and Westlaw, or Internet sites for the text of legislative documents. Increasingly the Internet is becoming the most up-to-date source for the text of U.S. legislative documents. This guide incorporates links to the web sites mentioned in the text. For a brief listing of legislative history resources available in Lexis, Westlaw, and HeinOnline, see our Legislative History Quick Guide. Please also look at our legislative history tutorial for additional information. Database identifiers listed below are found in Lexis.com and Westlaw Classic.

Compiling legislative history involves following the steps in the process by which a bill becomes a law, and examining the documents created during this process. Legislative history is sometimes used by courts to find legislative intent if a statute is vague or ambiguous. Legislative history is considered only persuasive legal authority. Courts consider the legislative history of a statute if there is some doubt about the meaning of specific language, or the intent behind the law. If the text of an act contradicts a statement in the legislative history, the statutory language controls.

Overview of the U.S. Legislative Process

Bills

A member of the Senate or the House of Representatives introduces a bill. The bill is assigned a unique identifying number, which it retains through both sessions of Congress. Each session is one year. We are now in the 113th Congress, 2nd session. A House of Representatives bill is designated "H.R. ____"; a Senate bill is identified as "S.___". Frequently, before the final version of a bill is reported to the floor of the chamber, a committee will consider alternative versions. If a bill is not enacted into law during the two year time period, it must be reintroduced, and it will be assigned another bill number, and will start through the process again. Comparing the enacted language with the language of earlier versions of the bill or of amendments which were not accepted can sometimes be used to infer the intent of the final version.

Sources of U.S. bills and amendments

*Please note that Lexis Advance does not cover congressional bills prior to the 110th Congress and WestlawNext does not cover congressional bills prior to the 111th Congress. To access earlier materials, please use Lexis.com or Westlaw Classic.

  • Text of bills on microfiche in Government Documents Department (96th Congress, 1st session (1979) to 106th Congress, 2nd session (2000))
  • Lexis Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (LEGIS;BLTEXT and LEGIS;BLTRCK) and Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (CONG-BILLTXT and US-BILLTRK) have bill text and bill tracking databases. Lexis has bill texts and tracking from 1989 to date and Westlaw has bill texts and tracking from 1995 to date.
  • Congress.gov web site (1993 to the present)
  • FDsys web site (1993 to the present)
  • Proquest Congressional Available from anywhere to all members of the Northwestern University community web site (1989 to present). (Click on Advanced Search and select "Bills & Laws 1987-Present.")

Retrospective index to U.S. bills

  • CCH Congressional Index (D, REF KF 49.C62) is a looseleaf service that can be used to track current and past federal legislation. The service does not provide the full text of the bills. Each Congress (e.g. the 109th) has its own set of two volumes. Volume one includes the main indexes and Senate materials; volume two provides comparable House materials. Its advantage over Congress.gov on the Internet and LEXIS and WESTLAW bill tracking files is that it has been published since 1937. Among its more important features it provides a brief digest on each bill and gives status tables for pending bills in the U.S. Congress.

Hearings

The bill is then assigned to the appropriate committee of the House of Congress--the House of Congress or Senate--in which it was introduced. Significant bills are generally supported by hearings held by the committee to determine the views of experts, lobbyists, agency officials, or interested parties. The purpose of a hearing is to determine the need for new legislation or to solicit relevant information. A hearing's usefulness (in statutory construction) is limited by the large amount of testimony pro and con and the difficulty of establishing a connection between specific remarks made during the hearing and their effect on the final language of the bill.

Sources of hearings

  • Congressional Information Service (CIS) (Print Version) (D,REF Z 1223 .Z7C56)
    Also available as Proquest Congressional on the Internet (see below). Paper copy of hearings is available in the Government Documents section, as is the companion CIS microfiche set that reproduces the documents abstracted in the CIS Index.
  • Proquest Congressional Available from anywhere to all members of the Northwestern University community web site has congressional testimony (1988 to present). (Click on Congressional Publications > Advanced Search.)
  • FDsys has selected committee hearings from the 99th Congress forward (1985 to present).
  • Lexis Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (LEGIS;CNGTST or HEARNG) and Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (USTESTIMONY and CONGTMY) have selective testimony for the period 1993 to present.
  • Historic hearings are available via Proquest Congressional Hearings Digital Collection. This collection contains hearings from 1824-2003 (Click on Advanced Search)

Reports

Many bills die in committee, but if the bill is acted upon favorably by the committee, a committee report may be issued. A committee report describes the purpose and scope of the bill, explains the committee amendments, indicates any proposed changes in existing laws, and includes the texts of communications from departmental officials whose views on the legislation may have been solicited. The House and Senate Reports which accompany the bill reported out are first issued in slip form and have a two part numbering scheme, for example 105-62. The first number (105) indicates the Congress during which the report was issued; the second number is a sequential number which identifies a particular report. A bill is reported out of the committee when the chairman of the committee reintroduces it in the chamber along with the committee recommendations. Committee reports are the most persuasive legislative history sources. It has been common practice for committee reports to give instructions on how government agencies should interpret and enforce the law. Courts have relied on these guidelines in establishing intent.

Sources of reports

  • Congressional Information Service (CIS) located in the Government Documents Department (D,REF Z 1223 .Z7C56). Paper copies of congressional reports are located in the Government Documents Section as is the CIS microfiche set.
  • Lexis Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (LEGIS;CMTRPT) and Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (USCCAN-REP) have committee report databases. Westlaw has selective reports from 1948 to date and Lexis has reports from 1990 to date.
  • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (popularly known as USCCAN) (FED KF 48 .W43)

    Contains the full text of selected committee reports, and citations to selected legislative history sources such as the Congressional Record and the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. The print version of USCCAN is contained in the LH database on Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community . The print version (USCCAN) coverage begins in 1941 and the Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community LH database coverage begins in 1948. Citations to USCCAN may be obtained by consulting United States Code Annotated. The legislative history section that follows each statutory section often provides citations to USCCAN. Beginning with 1990 LH has been expanded to cover all committee reports, not just reports associated with enacted legislation.

Recent reports are also available via:

Historic reports are available via:

Floor Debates

A bill is sent to the floor for debate and a vote. The debates appear in the Congressional Record. The Congressional Record is not necessarily a word-for-word transcript of what is spoken on the floor. A member's remarks are presented to him or her for review and possible modification. Some speeches printed in the Congressional Record are never spoken on the floor at all. Since 1978, in the Senate, this type of remark has been indicated by a "bullet", a dark circle at the beginning and end of the speech; in the House proceedings are indicated by italicized type. Roman type indicates remarks actually spoken on the floor. The bill can be amended on the floor. Next in importance to committee reports are the statements in the Congressional Record. For the purpose of legislative history authority prepared statements tend to be accorded more weight than extemporaneous remarks, and explanations given by sponsors of floor amendments are usually considered of more consequence than statements made by other members. In questions of ambiguity, of particular importance are statements by the "floor manager" which might clarify legislative intent.

Sources of the Congressional Record

  • Congressional Record (paper copy) (D,USG XD) has its own index but also an important tool the "History of Bills and Resolutions" which is published in each index and which is cumulated in the bound final Index. The "History of Bills and Resolutions" dates back to 1867 and is an excellent historical tool. The "History of Bills and Resolutions" gives page references to discussion in the Record, citations to committee reports, and the public law number.
  • Lexis Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (LEGIS;RECORD) and Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (CR) provide the full text of the Congressional Record beginning with 1985 (the 99th Congress).
  • FDsys web site (1994 to present).
  • Congress.gov web site (1995 to present).
  • Proquest Congressional Available from anywhere to all members of the Northwestern University community web site. (Click on Advanced Search and select the "Congressional Record" options.)
  • HeinOnline Available from anywhere to all members of the Northwestern University community in PDF format. Click on United States Congressional Documents > Congressional Record.)

Passage

If the bill passes a chamber, it is sent to the other chamber, where it proceeds through a similar path (committee consideration followed by a debate and vote). If it passes both chambers, it goes to the President for signing and gets a Public Law number. NOTE: If the first chamber does not accept the amended bill, a conference committee consisting of members of both chambers is appointed, and if they can agree to a compromise bill, they issue a conference report, which is then voted on in both chambers.

Conference report

The conference report is a particularly important source of legislative history because it explains all conference committee compromises. Keep in mind it might discuss only those sections of a bill which are in controversy. It often includes a summary of the previous House and Senate provisions and therefore can be a good source of information on the history of a particular provision.

Sources of conference reports

See Reports section above.

Presidential statements

Throughout the legislative process, presidential messages may have been issued, conveying general recommendations or requesting passage of specific measures. The explanations that may accompany presidential proposals on legislation, especially those enacted without significant change, become part of the legislative history.

Sources of presidential statements

  • Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (D,USG AE 2.109:)
  • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (paper copy) (FED KF 48 .W43)
  • Lexis Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (GENFED;PRESDC) has a presidential documents file which reprints presidential statements from 1979 to date.
  • Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (WCPD) has presidential documents from Jan. 2000 to date.
  • FDsys has the Compilation of Presidential Documents, consisting of the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents and the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents, from 1993 to date.
  • HeinOnline has the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents from 1965 to date and Public Papers of the President in the U. S. Presidential Library.
  • Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (D,USG AE2.114:)

    Paper copy in the Government Document Department. The paper edition contains the papers and speeches of the President that were released by the Press Secretary. It begins with the presidency of Herbert Hoover.

    FDsys: The electronic version of the Public Papers series begins with the George H.W. Bush administration in 1991.
    Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States (from University of Michigan Digital Library): "It currently covers the published speeches and documents of Presidents Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. You can search across all volumes at the initial screen or search within a volume. Basic searches are amplified by Boolean and proximity searches. Results can be sorted by author, title, date and frequency."

Laws

Lexis, Westlaw, and FDsys provide the text of public laws as they are enacted.

  • Lexis Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community (LEGIS;PUBLAW) reprints all public laws from the 100th Congress, 2nd session forward, 1988 to date.
  • Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community provides the text of recently enacted laws in US-PL. Its file US-PL-OLD is the archival database for older laws covering 1973 to 2008.
  • FDsys provides the PDF text of all public laws from the 104th Congress (1995) to date.
  • Congress.gov provides the PDF text of all public laws from the 103rd Congress (1993) to date.

Fast approaches (sources of compiled legislative histories)

  • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN) (FED KF 48 .W43)

    Using the United States Code Annotated, find the codified section that you are working with. Check the legislative history line which is at the end of the section. You will find a direct reference to where the legislative history material is reprinted in USCCAN. USCCAN includes the full text of the Public Law and selected committee reports. Since the committee reports are the most important source for legislative history, this might be all you need to answer your question. The online equivalent of this is the Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community database LH. Another option is to click on the graphical statutes icon at the top of the screen which provides a legislative outline with links to relevant documents.

  • CONGRESSIONAL INFORMATION SERVICE (CIS) (D,REF Z 1223 .Z7C56)

    The CIS Index provides the most complete and detailed indexing and abstracting of all the documents included in a legislative history; it goes back to 1970. It provides many approaches to a legislative history assignment. The Index volumes can be accessed by subject, title, name of person testifying, Public Law number, report number, and bill number. Since 1984, there is a separate Legislative History volume for each year, arranged by the Public Law number. CIS includes, in addition to the Legislative History volumes and Index volumes, an Abstract volume that can be used to determine the relevancy of a particular document and whether it is worthwhile to pursue the full text. CIS is also available on Lexis Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community in the LEGIS library; its file name is CISLH from 1970 to date for compiled legislative histories.

  • Proquest Congressional web site Available from anywhere to all members of the Northwestern University community is the new CIS Internet site. Currently Proquest Congressional allows the user to locate legislative histories for public laws dating back to 1970, find historic testimony from congressional hearings and download digital copies of the hearings (back to 1824), track U.S. bills from 1989 to date, and search and download segments of the historic Congressional Record. As mentioned in a prior section, the library also subscribes to Proquest U.S. Serial Set Digital Collection Available from anywhere to all members of the Northwestern University community . This collection contains congressional reports and documents from 1789-2003.
  • Lexis Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community and Westlaw Available from anywhere to members of the NU School of Law community have subject oriented compiled legislative histories done by various law firms. Westlaw Next > Legislative History > U.S. GAO Federal Legislative Histories (1921-1995), Westlaw Next > Legislative History > Arnold and Porter Legislative Histories.
  • HeinOnline web site Available from anywhere to all members of the Northwestern University community has a U.S. Federal Legislative History Library which is a collection of full-text legislative histories on major statutes such as the ADA, ERISA, and NAFTA; browsing available by public law number, title, or popular name.

Secondary Sources Helpful in Federal Legislative History Background Research

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