Federal Legislative History Research:
A Practitioner's Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent


By Richard J. McKinney* and Ellen A. Sweet**
Part of LLSDC's Legislative Source Book
© 2001 Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C., Inc. Last revised in January, 2008

Detailed Outline | Written Narrative | Part II | Other Related Web Sites
PDF Version | Bibliography of Law Journal Articles

See also:
Finding or Compiling Federal Legislative Histories Electronically
Legislative Histories of U.S. Laws on the Internet: Free & Commercial Sources
Internet and Online Sources of U.S. Legislative and Regulatory Information


Detailed Outline with Links to Written Narrative

A. Introduction: What Federal Legislative Histories Are and How They Are Used
    1. Compilation of related legislative docs that precede the enactment of a U.S. public law
    2. Used by federal agencies, attorneys and courts to interpret a law
        a. At the least tells you general purpose of a law or particular title in a law
        b. Usually harder to decipher legislative intent in smaller provisions in a law
    3. Controversy about relying on documents that are not enactments
        a. Many law journal articles written debating the merits of leg. histories
        b. Recent critics, textualists like Justice Scalia, have dampened use in courts
        c. See bibliography of selected law journal articles  

B. The Federal Legislative Process and Legislative History Documents 
    1. Typically a bill is introduced, numbered sequentially & referred to committee(s)
        GPO prints bill, and frequently an intro statement & sometimes the text, summary &
        correspondence in Cong. Record, especially on the Senate side)
    2. Possible committee action on bill (most see no action unless chair is sponsor/cosponsor)
        a. Possible subcommittee hearings and markup of bill. Amended bill not printed yet.
        b. Hearings usually published months later.
        c. Committee web sites, especially on House side, may have prepared testimony.
        d. FNS & FDCH (now CQ) have selected unofficial transcripts & most all prepared
            testimony
        e. Possible cmte hearings and markup - recent text of amdts avail. from GalleryWatch &
            CQ
        f. Unofficial (CQ, NJ) & official summaries of markups may be available
        g. After markup, committee orders bill reported as amended; not yet officially reported
        h. May wait a day or weeks for official reported text & its accompanied cmte report
        i. Committee report (numbered sequentially) has explanation/summary - key
    3. Bill is brought up by chamber leadership for floor action
        a. House Rules Cmte may submit resolution with specific rules for bill consideration
            (the resolution and an accompanying report is printed, resolution also printed in C.R.)
        b. House resolution on the rule will be debated and adopted before bill considered (C.R.)
        c. Senate will allow unlimited amndts & debate unless cloture motion adopted by 60%
        d. Senate will also take up by unanimous consent; House by Committee of the Whole
        e. The House or Senate considers, debates, amends and passes the bill (see C.R.)
        f. The "engrossed" bill (now called an Act) as passed is printed in the Cong. Record
    4. Bill (Act) is referred to the other chamber and is printed as referred by GPO.
        a. Similar process occurs in the other body - committee & floor consideration
        b. Other chamber may report & pass its own bill first (see Cong. Record).
        c. May then pass the referred bill deleting all after enacting clause & insert own bill.
        d. Usually they just pass the other chamber's bill or make few amdts before sending back.
        e. Sometimes GPO publishes engrossed amdts of the Act as passed by other chamber.
        f. If cannot agree a conference is requested, accepted, & conferees appointed (C.R.).
    5. Conferees deliberate, come to agreement - conference report submitted to both chambers
        a. Conference report containing agreed text & explanatory statement always in C. R.
        b. Conference report also published as a House report (sometimes also as Senate
            doc/rept)
        c. Conference report debated and agreed to by both chambers no amdts permitted (C.R.)
    6. Enrolled version of bill (Act) prepared, signed & sent to President
        a. Enrolled version not printed but available electronically (same pagination as law)
        b. President has 10 days (Sundays/holidays excluded) to sign, veto, or pocket veto bill.
        c. If President signs, may prepare a signing statement (see Weekly Comp. Of Pres. Docs).
        d. Law becomes effective upon President's signature unless specified otherwise.
        e. Office of Fed. Register assigns public law # and statute pages (takes a few days).
        f. Few weeks or months later the law is published as a slip law in pamphlet form by GPO
           and later in United States Statutes At Large (same pagination as slip law).  


C. Finding Already Compiled Federal Legislative Histories 
    1. Borrowing from or going to a library that has the legislative history
        a. Union List of Legis. Histories by LLSDC, 2000; 2002 sup.; can also request on listservs
        b. Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories by Nancy Johnson (biennial)
        c. Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography by Bernard Reams, 1994 
    2. Selected legislative histories on Lexis, Westlaw, HeinOnline, LLSDC list on the Internet,
    3. Microfice leg. histories - IHS Fiche 1909-1978; CCH Microfiche 1979-88
    4. U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN - published by West)
        a. From 1941 contains all U.S. laws, Pres. docs, selected committee reports, indices
        b. From 1948 USCCAN committee reports & signing statements on Westlaw's LH file
        c. U.S.C.A. notes that reference USCCAN legislative histories can be misleading

D. Compiling a Comprehensive Federal Legislative History in Paper Format 
    1. Arrangement of docs – If bound, similar sized material usually bound together with ToC
        a. Slip law, conf rept, cmte reports, bills, debates, signing statement, hearings, misc. docs
        b. Arrangement may also be in chronological order, reverse chron. order, or by each title
        c. Some histories may be very short; others may be more than 30 volumes.
        d. Possible additional leg. material - unpublished bill drafts, cmte markup amendments,
            cmte markup descriptions, press releases, draft conf. report, conferee transcripts, news
            articles, correspondence, and reports from exec. agencies or CBO, GAO, & CRS
    2. CIS Legislative Histories Index Volume - basis for compiling own legislative history
        a. From 1970 to 1983 back of annual abstract vol. has selected leg. history references
        b. From 1984 to latest year has separate vol. with detailed indexing across congresses
            with law summaries, cmte report abstracts, references to related bills & dates of floor
            consideration, abstracts of committee hearings, prints, and misc. material
        c. CIS leg. hist. may not have all you need; then again may have far more than you need
        d. CIS leg. hist. on Lexis - links to full text of many docs (CISLH file & Lexis Congressional)
    3. Obtaining the leg. docs - follow bills (H&S doc rooms) or beg, borrow, copy & buy
        a. Contact LNALS documents offprint service (1-800-638-8380) for prints of CIS
            microfiche
        b. GPO Access docs in PDF beginning with 104th Cong. - bills, reports, Cong. Rec.
        c. Federal depository libraries may have GPO microfiche (96th-106th Congresses)

E. Compiling a Federal Legislative History Electronically 
    1. THOMAS, a service of the Library of Congress, is a good starting point
        a. Bill summaries/status back to 1973, bill texts 1989+, Cong Rec. 1989+, Repts 1995+
        b. No Boolean operators but results first given with exact phrase.
        c. Direct linking tricky; Finding & Establishing Direct Links to Thomas & GPO Access
    2. GPO Access - has PDF and TEXT documents
        a. Bill texts back to 1993, Cong. Reports 1993, Cong. Rec. 1994, many cmte pubs - 1995+
        b. Some Boolean operators available; phrases must be in quotation marks
        c. Direct linking tricky; Finding & Establishing Direct Links to Thomas & GPO Access
        d. Adobe Acrobat Suite (fee) allows PDF document indexing, notations, book marking,
            highlighting, etc. - can download own history on a disc and e-mail relevant portions
    3. LexisNexis, Lexis.com, & Lexis Cong. (CIS is now LexisNexis Academic & Library Solutions)
        a. Has RECORD back to 1985, BLTRCK & BLTEXT back to 1989, CISINX 1970+,
            CMTRPT 1990+, CMTPRN 95+, trans./test.(FEDNEW 1988+) etc.
        b. Boolean operators, multiple Congresses at once, key word in context.
            Also can subdivide Record into Congresses 101st, etc. or Senate, House, Digest, etc.
        c. Direct linking via Lexis.com is also possible, but beware that Lexis URLs may change
    4. Westlaw.com (Westlaw online via Westmate software has been retired)
        a. Has CR back to 1985, selc. cmte repts (LH) from 1948, all reports (LH) from 1990,
            US-BILLTRK, BILLTRK-OLD (1991+), CONG-BILLTXT from 1995, USTESTIMONY
            1993+, USPOLTRANS 1994+, CONGTMY 7/1995+
        b. Boolean operators available; field searching, multiple Congresses at once
        c. Direct linking via Westlaw.com also possible but beware the Westlaw URLs may change
    5. Other electronic sources – see "Internet & Online Sources of Legislative & Reg. Info."
        a. House and Senate web pages - good for committee hearing links, especially House
        b. CQ.com - 1995+ & CQ Archives 1989-94 for schedules, markups, bill text, tracking,
            analysis...
        c. GalleryWatch.com - cmte schedules, bill comparisons, bill text, amdt text, tracking, CRS
            repts..
        d. NationalJournal.com - news, markup reports 9/99+, etc.
        e. Cmte hearings - Fed. News Service, Fed. Doc. Clearing Hse, CapitolPulse, C-Span, etc.

F. Compiling a Federal Legislative History from Older Records 
    1. Need to find out public law number (or statute number) and the bill number - key
        a. USC notes - examine, but beware when USC title has been recodified - more history
        b. Popular name tables, CCH Congressional Index (1943+), Final House Calendars
        c. USC tables show what sections of a public law go with what USC sections
        d. U.S. Statues At Large (& slip laws) gives brief legislative history cites from 1975
        e. U.S. Statutes At Large gives bill number reference in margin from 1904 forward
        f. Before 1904 (58th Cong.) use Legislative Reference Checklist: the Key to Legislative
           Histories from 1789 to 1903 by Eugene Nabors, 1982, Fred B. Rothman & Co.
    2. Congressional Record Index and the History of Bills and Resolutions - Key Tools
        a. History of Bills shows C.R. pages for intro, debates, cmte report numbers, etc.; 1867+
        b. Congressional Record Index will show related bills, remarks, etc.
        c. Congressional Record Daily Digest summary volume is available from 1947
        d. GPO Access has Cong. Rec. Index (from 1983); History of Bills (from 1993) (daily ed.)
    3. U.S. Congressional Serial Set - 1817 forward, has all committee reports
        a. Over 14,000 vols. contains all numbered congressional reports & documents
        b. CIS Serial Set Index (1789-1969, incl. Amer. State Papers: 1789-1817 & bill # index)
        c. Numerical Lists and Schedule of Vols. of the U.S. Serial Set (GPO/Hein 1933-1980)
        d. U.S. Serial Set supplement for the 97th Congress (1981-82)
        e. U.S. Serial Set Catalog (with Num. Lists & Schedule of Vols. - 1983-84 forward)
        f. Schedule of Serial Set Vols. (LLSDC.org 1970+; GPO Admin. Notes Tech. Sup. 1993+)
    4. Text of old House and Senate bills, resolutions - LLSDC Union List of Leg. Docs
        a. Law Library of Congress & selected libraries (OCLC) have bills & res. on microfilm,
            1789+
        b. Center for Legislative Archives/NARA - Old Cmte Bill files (20 to 30 years later)
        c. Federal depository libraries have bills on microfiche - 1979-2000 (96th-106th
            Congresses)
        d. CIS bill collection on microfiche (1933-recent)
    5. Congressional Globe, Register of Debates and Annals of Congress - pre 1874 records
        a. Note: these are generally not verbatim speeches - use related indices - many libraries
            have
        b. Located on Library of Congress American Memory Project - (PDF) not word searchable
        c. House and Senate Journals - official minutes/no debate; have table of actions on bills
    6. Using Historical CIS Indices (available in paper & electronically) and Microfiche
        a. CIS Serial Set Index and CIS Serial Set on Microfiche (1789-1969)
        b. CIS Congressional Committee Hearings Index & Microfiche (1833-1969)
        c. CIS Unpublished Senate Committee Hearings Index & Microfiche (1823-1972)
        d. CIS Unpublished House Committee Hearings Index & Microfiche (1833-1958)
        e. CIS U.S. Congressional Committee Prints Index & Microfiche (1830-1969)
        f. CIS Senate Executive Documents and Reports Index & Microfiche (1817-1969)
        g. All Indices on Lexis, Lexis.com, LN Congressional, Cong. Master File I (CD)

G. Sifting for Legislative Intent Language in a Federal Legislative History 
    1. Summary of documents to examine in a legislative history, generally in order of priority
        a. Statute text followed by conf. report’s joint explanatory statement (if there is one)
        b. Committee reports relevant to legislation - House, Senate - Other bills & congresses
        c. Remarks, debates, summaries in the Cong. Record especially by principal sponsors
        d. Text of bills in various versions to see when provision got in and how different
        e. Witness statements in committee hearings especially by administering agency
        f. Other documents, prints and reports, signing statements, drafts, news articles, etc.
    2. Key - look for the point the provision entered the legislative process & ask questions
        a. Closely examine the provision and its context in the law and earlier bill versions
        b. Was it introduced that way? If so, were there introductory remarks? (usually in Senate)
        c. Was the provision commented upon in the hearings by the administering agency?
        d. Was it inserted in committee markup? Whose amdt? Was there a markup summary?
        e. Was it reported that way in committee? What did the cmte report say about provision?
        f. Did it come only from the Senate or House side? Was there other relevant legislation?
        g. Were references to provision in C.R. debates/remarks, especially by key sponsors?
        h. Was it introduced as a floor amendment and if so what did the amdt sponsor say?
        i. Did it appear first in the conf. report? What did the joint explanatory statement say?
        j. Were there references to provision when the House and Senate agreed to conf. report?
        k. Did the President issue a signing statement? Did key sponsors make later remarks?
    3. Electronic search methods for legislative intent language in recent legislation
        a. Search relevant phrases in all committee reports electronically - THOMAS, GPO
            Access, Lexis (CMTRPT 90+), Westlaw (LH 48+), CQ Archives (89+), GalleryWatch
        b. Search relevant phrases in electronic Congressional Record - THOMAS, GPO Access,
            Lexis (RECORD 85+), Westlaw (CR 85+), CQ.com, GalleryWatch.com
        c. Search relevant phrases in electronic bill texts - THOMAS, GPO Access, Lexis (BLTEXT,
            BLT105, etc. 89+), Westlaw (BILLTXT-OLD 91+), CQ Archives 87+, etc
        d. Search relevant phrases in available electronic hearing records - House & Senate cmte
            pages, GPO Access, Lexis (FEDNEW 88+), Westlaw (USTESTIMONY 93+), etc.
        e. Search relevant phrases in news (like BNA) and other document databases
        f. Note: electronic searches can take you beyond prescribed leg. history documents


Federal Legislative History Research: A Practitioner's Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent


by Richard J. McKinney* and Ellen Sweet**
© 2001 Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C., Inc. Last Revised in January, 2005

Introduction | The Legislative Process | Already Compiled Histories | Compiling in Paper
Compiling Electronically | Compiling from Older Records | Sifting for Legislative Intent 
Other Related Web Sites 

Introduction: What Federal Legislative Histories Are and How They Are Used

Federal legislative histories are compilations of related documents to a specific U.S. public law that generally precede the law's enactment. These documents can include related committee reports (including the conference report), debates, earlier texts of the bill(s), floor amendments, congressional hearings, committee prints, and other documents. The history of the bill's (or bills') development is normally set out as well including related legislation in previous Congresses. These compilations and chronologies are usually compiled by in-house legislative librarians or legislative specialists in a law firm, agency, court, or publishing company. Occasionally, histories are also produced by congressional committees or by commercial publishers often with related laws. They are bound together or placed together in a file or loose-leaf binder, usually with a table of contents. Many times recent laws are digitally assembled or paper copies of older histories copies are scanned and digitized. Legislative histories can be very extensive, especially for laws with many titles and sections and on legislative matters that may have been percolating over several congresses in various legislative measures.

Traditionally, the legislative history of a U.S. public law is looked to by federal agencies, attorneys and the courts in order to determine the congressional intent of a particular statute or one of its provisions, especially if the plain reading of the statutory text is somewhat ambiguous. Some U.S. laws state their purpose in a preamble of findings at the beginning, but most U.S. laws do not set forth their purpose in the text. At the very least, a legislative history will usually answer the general question about why Congress is making a particular law or particular title of a law. However, what Congress intended when they enacted a particular provision in a law or what they meant by a particular word or phrase in a law is usually harder to decipher.

In recent decades, many law review articles have been written that have debated the merits of relying on documents that are not themselves legislative enactments (see law journal bibliography). Many critics, like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, advocate a strict textual interpretation of public laws. This criticism has lead to a dampening of the use of federal legislative histories in some federal courts (see "The Supreme Court’s Declining Reliance on Legislative History: The Impact of Justice Scalia’s Critique" by Michael H. Koby in v. 36 Harvard Journal on Legislation, pp. 369-395 (1999). None-the-less, legislative histories are still widely used today by the U.S. legal community as a means to further decipher the legislative intent of Congress. Even Justice Scalia has concurred in opinions that have strayed considerably from a strict textual reading of the law (for instance see United States National Bank of Oregon v. Independent Insurance Agents of America (1993) 508 U.S. 439, noted at 12 U.S.C. 92 notes). 

The Federal Legislative Process and Legislative History Documents

In comprehending federal legislative histories it is important to know the general legislative process of how a bill becomes a law and the documents that normally accompany that process. For instance, all bills must be introduced by a member of Congress and are then referred to a committee or committees with jurisdiction over the bill's subject matter. Legislation written by the members of the President's Administration also follows this process and a committee chairman or ranking minority member may be asked to introduce such legislation "upon request". The text of the bill as introduced will be printed as a separate document by the Government Printing Office (GPO), usually a few days after its introduction. The text of a bill as introduced may also be included in the published committee hearing on the bill.

Introductory statements on a bill, accompanied perhaps by the text, summary, and related correspondence may also be inserted into the Congressional Record by the bill's sponsor or cosponsor at the time of introduction. On the Senate side, since the 1970's, inserting introductory remarks into the Record has been the norm for most bills and they are occasionally inserted on the House side in the Extension of Remarks section of the Record. In any case, the Congressional Record will always publish a daily list of bills and resolutions introduced that day with the bill number, sponsor, cosponsors, official caption (short title), and committees to which the bill is referred.

House and Senate bills are numbered sequentially within a Congress. A bill that has not been enacted during a two-year Congress dies at the end of the Congress and has to be reintroduced, usually with a new number, in the next Congress if it is to be considered. House and Senate resolutions are also numbered sequentially and go through a similar legislative process, but only joint resolutions (not simple or concurrent resolutions) can become law. For more details on Congressional bills, resolutions and other matters see LLSDC's Questions and Answers in Legislative and Regulatory Research.

A committee or a subcommittee may hold hearings on a bill (or related bills) or its subject matter, but most bills just languish in committee unless the bill (with some exceptions) is sponsored or cosponsored by the chairman of the relevant committee or subcommittee (chairmanships are controlled by the majority party within a chamber). Congressional hearings are generally published months after they occur but prepared statements and unofficial transcripts can often be acquired before that time from the committee Web site or from two commercial services, Federal News Service and Federal Document Clearing House (now CQ Transcripts; or from other commercial databases that have contracts with them). Hearings are not published in the Congressional Record, but they are normally noted in the Daily Digest, published as part of the Congressional Record since 1948.

Next, a committee or subcommittee may schedule a meeting to "mark up" (amend the bill by voting in committee) a bill and then refer it, as amended, to the full committee or to the full House or Senate. Subcommittee amended versions of bills that incorporate markup amendments do not get officially printed. Those attending subcommittee or committee markups may be able to obtain photocopies of the amendments being considered, but these amendments are also never officially published. GalleryWatch.com (since 2003) and CQ.com (since 2005) now provide the text of most subcommittee and committee amendments. CQ.com and the National Journal Group Inc., will also send staff members to committee and subcommittee markup sessions, who then prepare unofficial markup summaries and the recorded votes on amendments (available by subscription on CQ.com and NationalJournal.com with the latter also being available on LexisNexis and GalleryWatch.com). Sometimes an official markup summary with recorded committee votes will be included in a committee report that accompanies a bill. Since 2001 GalleryWatch.com has provided PDF copies of committee markup amendments.

A draft of a bill, instead of a previously introduced bill, may also be "marked up" by a committee or subcommittee. These draft bills, frequently called "prints" complete with line numbers like other bills, are not officially published, but may be available from a committee (or committee Web site) right before a scheduled mark up. GalleryWatch.com has also been known to obtain and publish some of these draft bills on its Web site in an optically scanned PDF format.

When a bill is approved by a majority of members of a full committee it is ordered reported by that committee to the full House or Senate. However, before a bill is officially reported, a committee report to accompany the bill is usually prepared (especially on the House side) and only then is the bill reported and placed on the calendar as a possible measure to be considered by the full House or Senate. The committee report is a key component of a legislative history as it is there that an explanation and summary of a bill can be found. Sometimes it is many weeks later that a bill, which has been ordered reported, is officially reported to the House or Senate and printed in amended form with its accompanied report. The Congressional Record notes when a bill is officially reported and what the report number is of the report that accompanies the bill. These are both printed as separate documents by the Government Printing Office, and their texts do not normally appear in the Congressional Record itself. In recent decades House committee reports usually include the text of the bill as reported (in small print) at the beginning of the report. Like congressional bills, House and Senate reports are numbered sequentially within a Congress.

If a chamber's leadership decides to bring a reported bill to the floor, it can then be debated and amended. On the House side non-controversial legislation is usually considered under suspension of the rules -- with no amendments allowed. However, controversial legislation on the House side is normally accompanied by a report from the Rules Committee which governs how the bill is to be considered and what amendments will be allowed. A resolution to adopt the rule must first be passed by the House before proceeding with consideration of the bill. The text of the House resolution to consider the bill is published in the Congressional Record as well any accompanying debate and votes. The bill itself and any of the bill's amendments are then debated and voted upon with the debate transcript, the record of votes, and the text of the amendments placed in the Congressional Record.

Unlike those of the House, the rules in the Senate allow for unlimited debate on bills and their amendments unless the Senate 1) votes to table an amendment, 2) agrees to limit debate by unanimous consent (frequently done), or 3) agrees to close debate on a bill or amendment with at least 60% of duly sworn Senators voting to "invoke cloture".

Should a measure pass one chamber, a new version of the bill as passed is prepared and generally printed in the Congressional Record (usually on the day of passage, but sometimes a day or two later). The text of the bill as passed (now termed an Act) is called the engrossed version and it is available electronically. The act is then referred to the other chamber; and it is this newly received bill in the other chamber that is officially printed in paper form and it is then immediately referred to the committee with jurisdiction.

In recent decades, it is customary for the receiving chamber's committee to be working on its own bill with a similar subject matter. Frequently the committee may report its own bill and that bill is the one considered on the chamber floor. After they pass their own bill, it is then that they take up the bill referred from the other chamber, often deleting all after the enacting clause, and inserting the language of their own chamber's bill. This bill with its new amendments will then be sent back to the other chamber for consideration. The original chamber may agree to the new amendments and thus clear the bill for the President, or it may agree to the amendments with a few additional amendments of its own before sending it back.

If agreement can not be reached between the two chambers, then a conference is usually requested by one of them (sometimes immediately by the second chamber). The other chamber will then agree to a conference and conferees are appointed from both chambers. This committee on the conference will normally hammer out a compromise text accompanied by a joint explanatory statement and send it back to both chambers in a conference report. Earlier congresses frequently had a manager's statement from just the House side or no statement at all. Even recent conference reports, if time is critical, may contain no explanatory statement or only a very short one. Normally, an explanatory statement in a conference report is the first item to be reviewed in a legislative history. Conference reports, unlike standing committee reports, are always published in the Congressional Record and are given sequential House report numbers (in earlier congresses they may also be given Senate document or Senate report numbers) and published by GPO as such. If both chambers agree to the conference report (these deliberations are also recorded in the Congressional Record), the measure is cleared for the President. Most legislation that has cleared Congress does not need to go through a conference, but controversial legislation and appropriations measures typically require a conference.

The enrolled text of cleared legislation is prepared and signed by officers of the House and Senate and presented to the President, but it is not officially published. The enrolled version of a bill is available electronically and its page formatting (in PDF) will correspond exactly to the statutory page formatting it will have should the bill become law. On rare occasions, when a bill is quite large and a Presidential signature is needed right away, an enrolled text is not prepared. However, for political reasons it may take some time, even weeks, before an enrolled measure is presented to the President, but once it is presented the President then has ten days (starting at midnight on the day he receives it, but not including Sundays and holidays) in which to sign or veto the act. Many times when he signs the bill he will prepare a signing statement which is published in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. Unless the law specifies otherwise, the effective date of a law is the day the President signs it (the date of enactment). A specific provision in a law may also have its own effective date.

A few days after a law's enactment the Office of the Federal Register will assign a public law number and Statute At Large pages to a new act, and usually a few weeks later a new law will be published in pamphlet form (called a slip law) by the Government Printing Office. Since 1975 the form and pagination that this published slip law has will be exactly replicated when it is published as part of the United States Statutes At Large with U.S. Code citations in the margin of each new section of the law. The U.S. Code citations are assigned by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel in the U.S. House of Representatives, usually during the enrollment process. At the end of the text (also since 1975, but since 1963 for slip laws) will be brief legislative history notes, including bill numbers, committee report numbers, dates of floor consideration, and any Presidential signing statement citation to the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents.  

Finding Already Compiled Federal Legislative Histories

Of course one of the easiest ways to obtain a compiled legislative history of a specific U.S. public law is to borrow it from or go to a library that has already compiled it. The Union List of Legislative Histories, 7th Edition (2000) and 2002 supplement, published by Law Librarians' Society of Washington D.C., Inc. (LLSDC), contains an extensive list of thousands of legislative histories owned by member libraries. A list of many other federal legislative histories, published either by commercial firms or by a congressional committee with jurisdiction, can be found in Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories by Nancy Johnson (2000, Fred B. Rothman & Co.- now William S. Hein & Co. and digitized on its subscription Web site, HeinOnline.org). Johnson’s publication is updated biennially and includes references to many law journal articles discussing the legislative history of specific laws. Another resource is Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources compiled by Bernard D. Reams (1994, Greenwood Press). This work, now out of print, also has detailed descriptions of government produced legislative histories (usually committee prints). Once you find a published legislative history of the public law you are researching, you can search for that book on OCLC in order to find a library that may own it or you can purchase it from the publisher (assuming that it is still in print). You can also make requests for legislative histories on various law library listservs like LLSDC-L and LawLib. http://www.taxanalysts.com/

It should also be noted that numerous legislative histories are now available electronically on the menus of LexisNexis, Westlaw, and HeinOnline. All of these are subscription services (the first two can also be accessed via credit card). LexisNexis has selected histories on appropriations, tax laws, and other laws, as well as links from its CIS legistlative history abstacts. Westlaw includes histories from the law firm of Arnold and Porter and links from public laws to selected committee reports and other legislative documents (1974 to present). A Westlaw premium service now boasts as having digitized more than 1800 GAO legislative histories from the U.S. Government Accountability Office with many more to come.  HeinOnline also has numerous legislative histories from published sources and also from the digitized private collection of Covington & Burling, a Washington, D.C. law firm.  LLSDC's Legislative Source Book has more than 25 links to legislative histories of U.S. laws available for free on the Internet. In addition, THOMAS, the Library of Congress free legislative Web site, in each of its bill reports for recent Congresses, has many links to legislative history documents (bill texts, committee reports, Congressional Record debates). Having an entire (or near entire) legislative history online makes searching for particular words and phrases much easier than doing it on a piecemeal basis. In addition to these resources Tax Analysts, Inc. produces a CD-ROM product that contains the committee reports on most all the tax legislation enacted since the 99th Congress (1985). Other publishers and organizations may produce electronic legislative histories as well.

At various times certain commercial firms have also attempted to place full-text federal legislative histories on microform. Information Handling Service (IHS), in its Legislative History Service, compiled histories for selected U.S. public laws (primarily tax laws) from the 61st to 96th Congresses (1909 to 1979). IHS has a hard copy index, "The Legislative Histories Indexed Guide", that accompanies the collection. Another company, Commerce Clearing House (CCH), in its Public Laws - Legislative Histories Microfiche, compiled histories for all U.S. public laws from the 97th to the 100th Congress (1979 to 1988 - no hearings included). Various libraries around the country hold these microform collections (now out of print) and a search on the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) may reveal those holdings.

By far the most commonly available federal legislative history collection is the one under the misleading title United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN). Published by the West Publishing Company (now Thomson West) since 1941, USCCAN is a regular staple in most U.S. law library collections. This annual publication does not reproduce the U.S. Code, nor does it contain congressional and administrative news articles. However, it does reproduce the text of all U.S. public laws and provides some of the important legislative history material for most of those laws. These include explanatory statements to most related conference committee reports (but not those to appropriation bills), the selected texts of related reports from standing committees (no more than one), and all Presidential signing statements (since 1986), executive orders and Presidential proclamations. The service also contains references to companion committee reports and dates of consideration on the House and Senate floors (since 1964), legislative history tables (since 1964), as well as indices to subjects covered, to U.S. Code sections affected that year, and to popular names of public laws. There are also annual lists of House and Senate members, standing committees and their members, and the names and titles of the President's cabinet. In earlier volumes (1945-1954), there were lists of U.S. government agencies and information on their origins. From 1948 forward, conference report joint explanatory statements, committee reports and Presidential signing statements (since 1986) have been placed electronically on Westlaw's LH file.

It is important to note that references to USCCAN legislative histories in West's popular United States Code Annotated (USCA) do not always contain relevant information to the specific U.S. Code section being referenced, especially if the public law's history being referenced is particularly large or complicated. USCCAN is a good starting point, but it is by no means all-inclusive for pertinent legislative documents.  

Compiling a Comprehensive Federal Legislative History in Paper Format

The arrangement of documents in federal legislative histories may vary considerably, but they should generally contain the text of all of the important documents or at least cites to them. Documents in some histories are sometimes arranged in chronological order. Others are arranged in reverse chronological order and still others are arranged by each title in a public law. It is up to the discretion of the compiler how best to organize the related documents.

Large legislative histories that are bound usually will have similar sized documents bound together. In these histories the public law itself in pamphlet form, known as the "slip law", is usually placed at the beginning. The law may be followed by the similarly sized conference report (if there is one) and the related reports from standing committees. Frequently, related bills (as introduced, reported, and passed) are bound together. In a similar manner related remarks, debates, votes, amendments, bill texts, and Daily Digest pages, photocopied from the Congressional Record, are also bound together. With the Congressional Record pages might be placed a photocopy of the Presidential signing statement excerpted from the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. Related committee hearings (sometimes published long after the law's enactment) are also usually bound together. Finally, other miscellaneous documents such as related committee prints (studies, side-by-side comparisons or early bill drafts), House and Senate numbered documents (usually accompanying a Presidential communication like a veto message) or Congressional Budget Office reports may be bound together. Because of the diverse and lengthy nature of many legislative histories it is important for the compiler to prepare a title page and a detailed table of contents (or chronology of actions) which can be placed at the beginning of each volume of the history. Some histories can be very short with only the law, the text of the bill, a few pages from the Congressional Record and with one or perhaps no reports. However, for some large public laws with multiple titles and perhaps a history in prior congresses, a compiled legislative history may be more than 30 bound volumes long.

To make compiling legislative histories easier, LexisNexis Academic and Library Solutions, formerly known as Congressional Information Service (CIS), has, since 1984, produced an annual legislative history volume that contains citations and abstracts to most of the aforementioned documents related to each U.S. public law of a non-ceremonial nature and to all public laws after 1998. In the annual volume each public law is summarized, related Congressional reports are abstracted, references are given to related bills as are references to the dates of consideration on the House and Senate floors (there are no CIS abstracts of debates). Related committee hearings and prints are abstracted, and citations may be given to other miscellaneous materials like Presidential signing statements. CIS legislative history volume accompany the annual CIS Index/Abstract volumes that cover all congressional committee hearings, reports, prints and documents. From 1970 to 1983, limited legislative history citations to each U.S. public law were placed in the back of annual CIS Index/Abstract volumes. CIS legislative histories have become a standard tool for compiling recent federal legislative histories; from 1970 forward, they can be found on the CISLH file on LexisNexis or Lexis.com with hypertext links in recent years to the full text of bills, committee reports and Congressional Record pages with floor consideration. LexisNexis Congressional, available to academic institutions, also has CIS legislative histories with many hypertext links to related full text documents.

While the many documents cited in a CIS legislative history may seem like overkill, it is important to note that some CIS legislative histories may not be comprehensive enough. Left out are references to introductory and extraneous remarks and some bills referenced in the history may also have extensive legislative histories themselves with related committee reports and their own floor consideration, which are not noted. There are also other documents that relate to a law's legislative history that CIS legislative histories do not cite or abstract. These may include related published reports from a federal executive agency, the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, or another body. They may also include unpublished bill drafts, committee markup amendments, committee markup summaries, draft bill comparisons, and unofficial transcripts of conferee deliberations. Also outside the scope of CIS legislative histories are congressional press releases, correspondence, and news articles, any of which may have importance to a bill's legislative history and answer the question of why Congress did what it did. However, note that in a court of law, the further you stray from the actual text of the law, the less likely it will be acceptable to a judge.

How do you find and obtain all these documents that relate to a legislative history? For the unpublished sources you generally have to have contacts with committee staffers or at least have someone at the committee meetings to pick up copies of committee markup amendments or other handouts (since 2001 GalleryWatch.com has been making PDF copies of these amendments and since 2005 CQ.com has done so). Keeping track of specific legislation and obtaining copies of the various bill versions is also helpful. Of course you can also beg, borrow and copy documents from a colleague who has been following the legislation as well. Federal depository libraries may hold many of the published documents. For a fee, LexisNexis Academic and Library Solutions has a CIS document offprint service (1-800-638-8380) where you can order items contained in their voluminous CIS microfiche collection, including hearings, bill texts, committee reports and other documents (but no Congressional Record pages). However, you must provide them with the proper CIS accession number.  

Compiling a Federal Legislative History Electronically

What if you need to produce a legislative history before CIS has produced its annual legislative history volume? As you may know, frequently attorneys and other patrons want those histories soon after a bill has been cleared for the President or even for bills that will never reach the President’s desk. What's a librarian to do? Fortunately, for recent Congresses, most of the material in a federal legislative history will be available electronically on THOMAS, GPO Access or commercial services. You just have to do a little research to find out which documents relate to the bill or law in question. A near comprehensive guide to electronic sources available for this task is contained in the document "Internet and Online Sources of U.S. Legislative and Regulatory Information," found on the web page of LLSDC’s Legislative Source Book. Also on the Source Book is "Electronic Sources for Federal Legislative History Documents with Years/Congresses Available."

THOMAS, a free service of the Library of Congress, is a good starting point. It has a reasonably good bill summary and status tracking system (as far back as 1973). If you have a bill number you can easily obtain the references and links to bill texts, committee reports, Congressional Record pages of floor consideration and amendments, the companion bill in the other chamber, and even when hearings were held on your bill. THOMAS bill status service will not tell you what someone said in testimony, nor when someone made extraneous remarks on a particular bill, or what are all the other bills and reports that may relate to the bill that was enacted. But you can do research on THOMAS or on congressional committee web pages to obtain most of this information. One drawback in conducting research on THOMAS is that it does not utilize Boolean terminology (and, or, near, etc.). THOMAS has the full texts of bills and the Congressional Record from 1989 forward and congressional committee reports from 1995 forward. THOMAS does not have hearings. Committee Web sites, which frequently do have them.

GPO Access is a free electronic document service of the U.S. Government Printing Office, which is the legislative branch agency that publishes most congressional and many other government documents. Included on GPO Access are the Congressional Record Index and History of Bills from 1983 forward, History of Bills with page and date cites and bill texts from 1993 forward, the Congressional Record from 1994 forward, committee reports, and House and Senate documents from 1995 forward, selected committee prints from 1997 forward, and even many congressional committee hearings from recent congresses. Some Boolean operators are available on GPO Access searches; phrase searches should be surrounded by quotation marks. As GPO Access documents are available in text and PDF formats (PDF stands for portable document format and looks just like the printed copy), you can print out most of the documents you need to compile a paper based legislative history. Moreover, using Adobe Acrobat Suite software (the fee-based software, not the Acrobat Reader you can just download) PDF documents can be indexed, highlighted, book-marked, and manipulated in ways so that a near-entire legislative history can be downloaded on a diskette or e-mailed with relevant portions highlighted and book marked.

A federal legislative history can also be assembled electronically by using direct links to THOMAS, FDSys, and congressional committee documents and placed on an Intranet home page or on electronic mail. 
 
You can also assemble a federal legislative history electronically using LexisNexis research software or its sister services Lexis.com and LexisNexis Congressional. Lexis has Boolean operators, segment searching, and is able to search across congresses or an individual congress. In the Lexis LEGIS Library its RECORD file (Cong. Record) goes back to 1985 and its BLTRCK and BLTEXT files go back to 1989. The Lexis CMTRPT file (committee reports) goes back to 1990 and its CMTPRN file (selected committee prints) goes back to 1995. It also has Federal News Service (FEDNEW file) transcripts and testimony of selected congressional hearings from August of 1988 forward. The CIS Index/Abstract service (CISINX) and the CIS Legislative History service (CISLH), discussed above, are also available on Lexis from 1970 forward. Lexis has other relevant information as well, and most of these congressional resources and the above mentioned files can be searched and documents downloaded and assembled into an electronic legislative history. Direct linking to documents on Lexis.com is possible, but the links may change over time. LexisNexis Congressional has similar congressional files to Lexis, but is currently only available to academic institutions. LexisNexis has recently digitized (in PDF) its CIS Serial Set microfiche (1789-1969) so that congressional reports associated with bills that were enacted can be easily accessed by public law number (only available on LexisNexis Congressional).

Westlaw has extensive legislative files that can be used to compile electronic federal legislative histories. Westlaw's LH file, discussed above, has selected committee reports that directly relate to public laws from 1948 to 1989 and all committee reports from 1990 forward. It also has the Congressional Record (CR) from 1985 forward and State Net's federal bill tracking and bill text services (BILLTRK-OLD, CONG-BILLTXT) from 1991 to the present as well as selected committee hearing transcripts and prepared testimony (USPOLTRANS - 1994 forward, USTESTIMONY - 1993 forward and CONGTMY - July, 1995 forward). Westlaw has Boolean operators, field searching, and the ability to search across congresses. From 1974 to the present Westlaw public laws has links to selected committee reports and other related legislative history documents. It's premium Statutes service includes PDF copies of statutes from 1789 to 1972, and its Graphical Statutes includes the text of prior versions and time frames of U.S. Code sections from 1996.

There are other electronic sources for compiling federal legislative histories including the extensive files on CQ.com. CQ has news services as well as committee schedules, committee markup summaries and extensive archives back to 1989 with bill tracking, bill texts, committee reports and Congressional Record files. CQ also links to many remarks on legislation in the Congressional Record that is not noted by other services. The CQ Weekly Report, the CQ Annual Almanac (not available electronically) and other CQ news services are also extremely valuable in obtaining an understanding of legislative measures. Another subscription service providing committee markup reports and other legislative news services are those of the National Journal Group. Subscribers to the hard copy of the weekly journal are eligible for passwords to many of the electronic services. GalleryWatch.com (documents no earlier than 1997) has many similar services to CQ including bill tracking, bill texts, committee reports, the Congressional Record, and committee schedules. GalleryWatch.com also has a way to compare previous versions of the same bill at the same time.

Of course, House and Senate committee Web pages frequently have committee hearing testimony and transcripts (especially on the House side) back to the 105th Congress (1997). However, there is no guarantee that committees will retain information from a previous Congress. Information on these Web pages is provided in LLSDC's Legislative Source Book under Quick Links to House and Senate Committee Documents and Hearings. You can generally find a link to a specific hearing or witness statement to add to a legislative history, but the search capability is limited and generally depend upon your browser's "Edit/Find" functions.

In addition to official government testimony and transcripts of congressional hearings there are unofficial transcripts published selectively by the Federal News Service (FNS), CQ Transcripts ( formerly by Federal Document Clearing House or FDCH - now via Morningside Partners), and audio or video recordings from C-SpanArchives.org and CapitolPulse.com. Other commercial vendors mentioned above use FNS and CQ Transcript services for their testimony (which are generally complete) and transcript files (which are selective).

Federal Legislative History Research: A Practitioner's Guide: Part II


Compiling from Older Records | Sifting for Legislative Intent | Other Related Web Sites

*Richard J. McKinney is Assistant Law Librarian at the Federal Reserve Board Law Library in Washington, D.C. Since 1984 he has been responsible for compiling and maintaining the Board's more than 1,000 legislative histories.
**Ellen Sweet is Legislative Reference Specialist in the Tax Division at the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

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