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.
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
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, 1st 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.
Retrospective index to U.S. bills
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
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
Recent reports are also available via:
Historic reports are available via:
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
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.
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.
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
Lexis, Westlaw, and FDsys provide the text of public laws as they are enacted.
Fast approaches (sources of compiled legislative histories)
Secondary Sources Helpful in Federal Legislative History Background Research