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Federal Legislative History Guide

A federal legislative history is an analysis of the various Congressional documents that are generated in connection with the enactment of a law. Legislative histories are usually prepared to better understand why Congress passed a particular piece of legislation or to clarify the meaning or intent of a statutory provision that is not apparent on its face. The documents that make up a legislative history can also be useful sources of topical information that is not readily available elsewhere.

This guide explains the basics of compiling a modern federal legislative history. Users seeking more in-depth information or with special research needs may want to consult a reference librarian or a more detailed guide such as the LLSDC Legislative Source Book, in particular “Federal Legislative History Research: A Practitioner’s Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent” by Richard McKinney and Ellen Sweet.

Existing Legislative Histories: When doing legislative history research, the first thing you should do is to see if there is already an existing legislative history. These legislative histories vary in quality, but should provide you with an overview of the legislation and an idea of what legislative history materials are available with respect to your law.

Creating Your Own Legislative History: If you are interested in doing a more in-depth legislative history, you may want to locate each of the following types of documents, which are listed in order of importance:

1. Committee Reports:  House (H. Rpt.) and Senate (S. Rpt.) committees issue these reports, outlining their deliberations and recommendations for a particular bill.

2. Floor Debates:  report all activities that occur on the floor of either house.  Debates are published in the Congressional Record (Cong. Rec.; C.R.).

3. Committee Hearings:  record of a hearing on a bill held by a committee or subcommittee.  The record may include witnesses’ testimonies and materials submitted by interested parties or added by committee members.  Not all hearings are published.

4. Bills:  text of the bill itself.  Bills can be introduced in either the House of Representatives (H.R.) or the Senate (S.).  For information on tracking pending bills, see our Tracking Current Federal Legislation guide.

5. Committee Prints: reports or studies prepared by committee staff, consultants, or others, about issues related to a particular bill.

6. House & Senate Documents: miscellaneous materials related to a particular issue typically presented to the House (H. Doc.) or Senate (S. Doc.), rather than documents originally authored by Congress.

7. Presidential Documents: statements made when the President signs or vetoes a bill, stating his or her rationale for the action taken.

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