Legislative History Research for Beginning Practitioners

by Sue Ann Orsini, Legislative Reference Librarian
Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, LLP
Last revised in December 2013

Originally presented at a Brown Bag lunch before the PLL-SIS on December 13, 2013.
Access the presentation materials

See also ... Federal Legislative History Research: A Practitioner's Guide, which will provide a more detailed description of legislative history research.


There are many ways to begin compiling a legislative history, each depending on which piece of information one uses to start. In general, there are six "access points" for legislative history research. These are:

  1. U.S. Code citation.
  2. Law Section.
  3. Name of an Act.
  4. Public Law Number.
  5. Bill Number.
  6. Statutes at Large citation.

Each of these access points can be used to find evidence of legislative intent, though some require less leg work than others.

Overview on the Elements of a Legislative History and How to Locate Them

There are certain documents that one must find When trying to locate the Congressional intent behind any legislation. These documents are most widely considered by Courts of law to be acceptable evidence of legislative intent. Here is a list of these documents along with databases that house them:

  1. Bill Text. Post-1993 (103rd Congress), use FDSys. Presently, Congress.gov also provides coverage back to the 103rd Congress with plans to continue adding materials backwards. You can look up the status of legislation at THOMAS going back to 1973 (93rd Congress), but there will be no bill text. Lexis and Westlaw only cover bill text back to 1995 (104th Congress). Prior to 1993, Senate bills can sometimes be found printed in the Congressional Record on the day they were introduced. Both House and Senate bills are also sometimes printed in Hearing records.
  2. Committee Reports. Post-1995 (104th Congress), use FDSys. Pre-1995, use USCCAN. There is a gray period between 1970 and 1990 where, depending on where you work, all reports are not available electronically. Some libraries may have access to the full Serial Set in Lexis (academic and some government). Otherwise, reports are available in Westlaw (USCCAN-REP) back to 1990 (101st Congress, 2d Session) and in Lexis (CMTRPT) back to 1990 (spotty coverage from 1990-1993, 101st and 102nd Congresses). All pre-1970 reports are available through ProQuest Congressional. If a report printed between 1970 and 1990 was not associated with a public law, and you do not have access to the Serial Set, then you will only be able to access the report if it was included in a GAO legislative history or other print legislative history, or if someone happens to have it, or from the Library of Congress.
  3. Hearings/Committee Materials. Post-1995 (104th Congress), use FDSys or the Committee’s website. Pre-1995, other sources for hearing records include already compiled legislative histories (print, Westlaw’s GAO database, Heinonline) and ProQuest Congressional. Other subscription sites such as Federal News Service (FNS), CQ.com and Bloomberg Government provide transcripts of more recent hearings, usually back to 2000. CQ.com and Bloomberg Government provide mark-up reports. Westlaw and Lexis contain Congressional Testimony databases, but no database devoted solely to Hearing transcripts/records. Print hearing records are available at the Library of Congress.
  4. Debate. Post-1994 (103rd Congress, 2d Session), use FDSys for the Daily Record. Lexis and Westlaw have the daily Congressional Record back to 1985 (99th Congress). Heinonline has the entirety of Congressional debate back to the first Congress in their US Congressional Documents database, including the Congressional Record in both the Bound and Daily versions. ProQuest Congressional also provides access to the Bound and Daily versions of the Record.

Presentation Materials

For a guide on the various access points and how to use them to locate legislative materials, please see
alt How to Compile a Federal Legislative History: For Beginners

For a visual representation of the access points on the legislative research spectrum, please see
alt Flowchart: Legislative History Research

Please email your questions or comments to the Legislative SIS.