Legislative History Research Guide

print thisprint this

Access other pages in this Guide:

Federal Statutes and Codes

Types of Federal Legislative History Documents

Federal Legislative History Databases & Sources


Examples:  Newer Federal Acts

Example:  Older Federal Act

Federal Legislative History Checklist

Ohio & Other States' Legislative History









Quick Fix:

ProQuest Congressional -  Current and some older legislative history documents.

Thomas.gov -  Bills 1989-current, Public Laws, and some other legislative history documents.

Congress.gov  Beta -  Bills & Acts 1993 to current.  Find current bills. Replaces Thomas.gov at the end of 2014.

Bloomberg Law - Bills and legislative history documents back to 1995. 


Also see:

Legislative History Research:  A Basic Guide (Congressional Research Service)


Federal Legislative History - How To Guide

What Is Legislative History?

Why Is Legislative History Important?

What Federal Legislative History Documents Are Available?

How Newly Enacted Laws Are Published

Persuasive Authority of Legislative History

How do I find Legislative History?   General Tips  &  Steps

How to Find Pending Bills


What Is Legislative History?

  • The progress of a bill through the legislative process.
  • The documents created during that process:  versions of bills & amendments, committee reports, debates, hearings, etc.

  Why Is Legislative History Important? 

  • Attorneys can examine these documents in order to try and explain the meaning of a statute, if the statutory language is unclear.  The documents can reveal the “legislative intent” of Congress. 
  • Useful for tracking legislation and lobbying.
Example of a court citing legislative history:

"The House and Senate Reports accompanying the CTEA reflect no purpose to make copyright a forever thing.  Notably, the Senate Report expressly acknowledged that the Constitution 'clearly precludes Congress from granting unlimited protection for copyrighted works,' S. Rep. No. 104-315, p. 11 (1996), and disclaimed any intent to contravene that prohibition, ibid.  Members of Congress instrumental in the CTEA's passage spoke to similar effect. See, e.g., 144 Cong. Rec. H1458 (daily ed. Mar. 25, 1998) (statement of Rep. Coble, observing that 'copyright protection should be for a limited time only" and that "[p]erpetual protection does not benefit society.')."

Eldred v. Ashcroft, 537 U.S. 186, 209 (U.S. 2003); citing legislative history of the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA).


 What Federal Legislative History Documents Are Available?

A.  Below is a  chart showing the steps in the legislative process and the corresponding government publication.  If you click on the type of publication (eg, bill), you can read more information about the publication and how to find that publication.

B.  For a detailed explanation on how a bill becomes a law, see How Our Laws are Made from Thomas.gov.  For a flow chart, see Chicago-Kent College of Law's Federal Legislative History - Legislative Process.

Steps in the Legislative Process and Documents Generated

Legislative Process

Government Publication

(click on the link for a description of the publication and places to find it)

Bill introduced and referred to committee


Committee may hold hearing

Committee Hearings

Committee Prints

Committee may recommend passage

House and Senate Reports

House/Senate debate and vote

Congressional Record

House/Senate Journal (procedural information)

If differences in the version passed by House and Senate, bill(s) sent to conference committee

Conference Committee Reports

House/Senate debate and vote

Congressional Record

House/Senate Journal (procedural information)

Bill becomes law (upon passage by House and Senate, and president signs, or veto is overridden)

Slip Law (Public Laws) > United States Statutes at Large > US Code

Presidential Signing Statements - Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents.  Replaced in January 2009 by the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents.

Veto message

Congressional Record

Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents.  Replaced in January 2009 by the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents.


How Newly Enacted Laws Are Published


HOUSE BILLS OR SENATE BILLS -  S. 659, 92nd Congress 2nd Session (1972).  [House bills cited as H.R. #]

PUBLIC LAW  - Slip law -  Enacts, repeals or modifies numerous U.S. code sections.  Example:  P.L. 92-318, Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX, § 901 (Prohibition of Sex Discrimination)

STATUTES AT LARGE -  Arranged Chronologically.  Reprints the Public Law indicating in the margin where each section of that Public Law will be placed in the U.S. Code.  Example:  LexisNexis® 86 Stat. 235 , Title IX, § 901.  See pdf versions:  86 Stat 23586 Stat 235, Title IX

U.S. CODE -  Arranged by subject.  The various parts of the Public Law are rearranged and placed into their proper subject location in the U.S. Code.  Example:  20 USCS 1681

  • Annotated codes list the Public Laws that enacted and/or modified each code section.
  • Note:  Titles and sections of Public Laws/Statutes at Large are not the same as titles and sections of the U.S. Code.  For example, compare Title IX cited above, dealing with equity in men's and women's sports in schools, with Title IX of the U.S. Code, which deals with arbitration.
  • Another example (Word doc) -  How the Patriot Act changed various parts of the U.S. Code.


Persuasive Authority of Legislative History Documents

A.  Legislative History documents are persuasive, not mandatory or binding, on the court.

B.  A minority of judges reject legislative history and rely only on their philosophy about, and their interpretation of, the statutory language.

“The law is what the law says, and we should content ourselves with reading it rather than psychoanalyzing those who enacted it.”  Bank One Chicago, N.A. v. Midwest Bank & Trust Co.,
516 U.S. 264, 279 (1996)  [Scalia, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part.]

(from Cynthia Pittson's legislative history presentation)

C.  Most important legislative history materials, in order:

(Chart is from Ann Hemmens, Legislative History:  Federal and Washington (2005 PowerPoint))

Why this order?  In general, those groups of legislators that have been either most directly, or most recently involved, with the enactment of legislation are believed to have the best notion of the intent of that legislature.  Also, the documents most recent in time are more likely to discuss the text of the bill in its final form.  In addition, hearing witnesses may have their own agendas, which are not reflective of Congressional intent.


How do I find federal legislative history documents?

General Tips

Quick Fix - ProQuest Congressional:  For both old and new legislation, you will find many (but not all) legislative history documents on ProQuest Congressional (database in Law Library, but not on wireless).  ProQuest Congressional Coverage.  This database contains House and Senate Reports 1817-2013, indexing for Committee Prints and Hearings 1970-current, and many other documents.

Generally, first determine what Public Law you are interested in, then look for a compiled legislative history (ie, compiled full text of all the legislative history documents).  If no compiled legislative history is available, look for a "Legislative History," which is a list of the documents corresponding to a piece of legislation.  If an Act is older than 1969, a "Legislative History" is not available.  Various methods of finding legislative history documents for older acts are outlined below. 

Look first for the documents that are the most persuasive.  If you find enough in the more persuasive documents, it is not necessary to look at documents that are not as persuasive.

Classic LexisNexis and Westlaw are not comprehensive sources for legislative history.  They have legislative history documents from approximately the mid 1980s.  Westlaw has links to some legislative history documents right on the side of the Public Law.  Westlaw also has the major House and Senate Reports from 1941-current.  USCCAN.  WestlawNext has a linked list of legislative history documents under the History tab of the U.S. Code Annotated section.

Quick hints for searching on free web sources, FDsys, Thomas.gov, and Congress.gov (Beta):  Use the Thomas Bill Summary and Status, which links to legislative history documents.  Use FDSys for committee hearing transcripts and documents.  The FDsys History of Bills (1983-current) is also helpful.  Congress.gov (Beta) has bills from 2001 on; when you retrieve a bill, click on the "Major Actions" tab for a history with links to legislative history documents.  For more information, see the MediaSite presentation:  Free Federal Legislative History Sources on the Web


1.  Determine Which Public Laws are Relevant:

  • If you know the U.S. Code Section:
    • In an annotated copy of the U.S. Code, look at the History section after the text of the U.S. Code Section. Example:  LexisNexis® 49 USC 44902
    • Examine each Public Law to determine whether the public law created or changed the USC subsection in question, and whether the change was substantial or relevant to your issue.  The annotated code may contain information on what changes were made by each public law.
  • If you know the topic or name of the Act, find the public law:
    • Search for the Act title or key words in an electronic database of Public Laws or Statutes at Large.  (On WestlawNext, typing the name of the Act into the search bar, and postfiltering for Statutes should work.  In Lexis Advance, type the name of the Act into the search bar in quotes, then pre or post filter for Statutes).
    • Search the topical index of the Serial Set (can search multiple years at once) or paper USCCAN (must search year by year).

2.  Is a compiled legislative history available?  How to find compiled legislative histories.  Available only for major legislation.  Compiled legislative histories are print or electronic collections of the legislative history documents pertaining to a piece of legislation.  Lists of the legislative history documents available for a piece of legislation are also considered compiled legislative histories.  

3.  You may need the bill number to find legislative history documents, particularly if using the Serial Set or Committee Hearing Index or ProQuest Congressional.  The Statutes at Large, USCCAN and the CIS Legislative Histories indicate the bill number.

4.  How old are the Public Laws?

If 1969 or later, use a "legislative history," if available, which will list all relevant legislative history documents. The most popular "legislative history" is available:  (1) on ProQuest Congressional (database in Law  library, but not on wireless);  (2) on LexisNexis - CIS Legislative Histories (1970- ); and  (3) in print & microfiche [KF49 .C62] -  1970-1983 Legislative Histories are included in the annual and compiled CIS Abstract Volumes; Legislative Histories after 1983 are compiled in separate annual volumes.  These CIS materials list all of the legislative history documents available for a particular piece of legislation.  Electronic versions may even link to the documents.  Example of a CIS Legislative History:  LexisNexis® 103 CIS Legis. Hist. P.L. 272 .

While not as comprehensive, Thomas Bill Summary and Status also lists legislative history documents for a piece of legislation.  It lists related bills in the same Congressional session, relevant sections of the Congressional record, committee and conference reports, etc.  Listed documents are linked to full text on the web, when available, roughly 1989- .  Bill summary and status information is available back to 1973.

Congress.gov  Beta -  When you retrieve a bill, click on the "Major Actions" tab for a history with links to legislative history documents.  Has bills from 2001 on.

For Acts earlier than 1969:   (a) For a quick fix, look in USCCAN, in print or on Westlaw, to find major legislative history documents.  On WestlawNext, click on Legislative History>Legislative History United States Code to get USCCAN.  (b) Use Proquest Congressional.  The Law Library's subscription contains the Serial Set from 1789 to 2013, which has House and Senate documents and reports, but does not contain older hearings or committee prints, either abstract or fulltext.  The Serial Set is also in microform, which has an index:  CIS United States Serial Set Index (index to committee reports).  (c) For even more, look at the CIS indexes including the  US Congressional Committee Hearings IndexCIS index to unpublished US Senate committee hearings;  and CIS Index to Unpublished U.S. House of Representatives committee hearings.  These indexes will refer you to full text documents on microfiche.  Cleveland Public Library' s subscription to Proquest Congressional contains abstracts of these older hearings and committee prints and some full text.   (d) See if there are more relevant bills in the session the legislation passed or prior sessions. The legislative history documents generated for these other bills may help, depending upon the similarity of the bill language.   (e) Try to find relevant Congressional Record sections.  See Finding older materials on Federal Legislative History Databases & Sources guide.

5.   Find more relevant bill numbers, if any.  Look in both the Congress where the legislation was passed and prior Congresses.  A CIS Legislative History will list relevant bill numbers.  Hearing transcripts may list related bills.  If the language of the bill that passed and other versions of the bill are very similar, legislative history documents issued in conjunction with other versions of the bill may help.


How to find Pending Bills

  • Thomas -  Search legislation in the current Congress by keywords or bill number.
  • Congress.gov Beta -  Search by bill number or keywords, then limit by session of Congress.
  • Any of the sources for bills that contain current bills can be used too.
  • To find pending bills on a particular topic, try United State Senate: Active Legislation
  • GovTrack.us -  Track pending legislation by email or RSS feed (FREE).  Also searches state bills.
  • Scout -  Track pending legislation by email or RSS feed (FREE).  Also searches state bills and federal regulations.
  • You can also track bills by using LexisNexis/Westlaw/Bloomberg Alerts


LER, SA February 2008, LER/SA 2/13