This report provides an overview of federal legislative history research, the legislative process, and where to find congressional documents. The report also summarizes some of the reasons researchers are interested in legislative history, briefly describes the actions a piece of legislation might undergo during the legislative process, and provides a list of easily accessible print and electronic resources. This report will be updated as needed.
Black's Law Dictionary defines legislative history as "the background and events leading to the enactment of a statute, including hearings, committee reports, and floor debates." 1
It also describes one of the primary reasons legal, policy, and legislative researchers investigate the legislative history of a particular piece of legislation: "Legislative history is sometimes recorded so that it can later be used to aid in interpreting the statute."2
However, the purpose of legislative history research is not limited to statutory interpretation. Questions researchers may want to answer through legislative history include
To answer these and similar questions, researchers must identify the chronological steps the legislation followed through Congress and the materials that document what happened during each of these steps. This report briefly describes the actions a piece of legislation might undergo during the legislative process and provides information on resources for retrieving legislative history materials.
This report focuses on legislative history research, and therefore does not contain detailed information about the legislative process. However, because a general understanding of the legislative process is helpful when compiling a legislative history, overviews of certain congressional actions are provided. Detailed guides on the legislative process for the House and Senate are available online:
In addition, there are a number of Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports on various aspects of the legislative process referenced throughout this report and available on CRS's website at http://www.crs.gov.
The legislative history resource materials discussed below vary in scope and availability. For example, the Government Printing Office's (GPO's) Federal Digital System (FDsys), through its website http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/home.action, is an online collection of official congressional publications and databases containing texts of legislation, the Congressional Record, House and Senate calendars, committee prints, committee hearings, committee reports, and other material useful for legislative research. However, the information available on these websites is limited to more recent Congresses. By contrast, print publications may be more historically complete, but limited to only one type of document or information. For example, the Congressional Record and its predecessor publications, which are available in print going back to 1789, contain information on procedural actions for legislation and transcripts of the proceedings on the House and Senate floor, but do not contain the text of committee hearings.
The references cited below are available online through government sources or in hard copy through CRS or the Law Library of Congress. They are also commonly available at local libraries, law libraries, or federal depository libraries. GPO has a website to assist patrons in finding the nearest depository library, at http://catalog.gpo.gov/fdlpdir/FDLPdir.jsp. References to commercial services that require subscriptions are limited to those available in all congressional offices.3
In addition, some stages of the legislative process are more fully documented than others. For example, bills are often debated and amended extensively during their consideration by congressional subcommittees, but these deliberations are not usually transcribed and made widely available. In general, information on subcommittee action is limited to discussion in news accounts or reports from the full committee.
In some instances, a legislative history may have already been compiled. There are a few government and commercial sources for compiled legislative histories.
Proquest Legislative Insight
This commercial service offers compiled legislative histories that typically include bill text, Congressional Record references, committee documents, and miscellaneous publications for public laws enacted starting with the 57th Congress (1901-1903). Users can search by public law number, Statutes at Large citation, or enacted bill number.
Proquest Congressional, a commercial database, has legislative histories from 1969 to the present. Researchers can find legislative history compilations by keywords in the abstract, bill tracking, bill text, floor votes, public laws, United States Code or Statutes at Large. Results can be restricted by words in the title of the legislative history or the Congress.
Government Accountability Office (GAO) Legislative History Microfiche. This resource contains the legislative history for most public laws from 1921 to 1980. Reprints from the microfiche may be available from CRS, the Law Library of Congress, or at a federal depository library.
Committee Prints. On occasion, committees produce legislative histories of enactments within their jurisdiction. Reprints of published copies of committee prints may be available through CRS, the Library of Congress, or at a federal depository library.
Bills. Most legislation introduced by a Member of Congress (i.e., the legislation's sponsor) is introduced as a "bill," the general form used for legislation that will have the force of law if enacted.4 Bills are numbered sequentially in the order they were introduced. Bills introduced in the Senate are preceded by "S."; those in the House by "H.R." Bills remain pending from the time of introduction until final passage or the final adjournment of a Congress (i.e., the numbered two-year convocation of the House and Senate that begins January 3 following each biennial federal election). Bills not enacted during a Congress "die"; further legislative consideration requires that they be reintroduced in the next Congress.
Joint Resolutions. While bills are used for purposes of general legislation, joint resolutions (S.J. Res. or H.J. Res.) are used to propose constitutional amendments and for a variety of special or subordinate purposes, such as continuing appropriations.5 Except for those proposing constitutional amendments, joint resolutions become law in the same manner as bills.
If a legislative measure receives action, GPO publishes versions of the legislative text as it moves through the various stages of the legislative process. These versions include those marked reported, engrossed, engrossed House/Senate amendment,6 public print, and enrolled. By comparing different bill or resolution texts, researchers can determine at what stage in the legislative process revisions were made.
Government Printing Office (FDsys)
FDsys enables users to browse or search for bills and resolutions from the 103rd Congress (1993-1994) forward.
LIS is available to congressional researchers. Users can browse or search for bill and resolution texts starting with the 101st Congress (1989-1990). THOMAS is available to the general public and covers the same time period for legislative text.
American Memory's A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: Bills and Resolutions
The American Memory website contains scanned images of some historical bills and resolutions. Coverage for the House starts with the 6th Congress (1799-1800) through the 42nd Congress (1871-1872). For the Senate, coverage is from the 16th Congress (1819-1821) through the 42nd Congress (1871-1872).
Print versions of bills are available on microfiche or microfilm through the Law Library of Congress (1789-current) and certain federal depository libraries.
At its most fundamental, legislative history tracks congressional action on a piece of legislation and its status within the legislative process.8 When beginning a legislative history research project, one of the first steps a researcher may want to undertake is locating information on the history of the bill and citations to documents. Through the years, various government and private entities have tracked the history and status of bills.
LIS is available to congressional offices and provides bill summary and status information on bills and resolutions starting from the 93rd Congress (1973-1974) to the present. THOMAS, a public legislative service from the Library of Congress, contains the same information on a bill's history and status.
House and Senate calendars are published periodically during the session by the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate. The calendars provide a list of legislation. In the House calendar, the history and current status of legislation receiving action is summarized.9 FDsys contains final House and Senate calendars starting from the 104th Congress (1995-1996) to the present.
Digest of Public General Bills and Resolutions. The Bill Digest, a publication of the Library of Congress from 1936 until 1990, contains summaries and status of legislation.
House and Senate Calendars. Published copies of the calendars are available through CRS, the Law Library of Congress, or at a federal depository library.
Congressional Information Service (CIS). A commercial service, the CIS Index lists each public law in the Annual Abstracts volume and references publications concerning the law. These references include a list of congressional hearings, reports, documents, and prints back to 1970. The Legislative Histories volume contains the legislative history information on selected public laws, including dates of congressional debate, back to 1970. The CIS Historical Index contains congressional documents from 1789 through 1972.
Legislation is usually referred to a committee after introduction, according to its subject matter. Often, a committee will further refer the legislation to one of its subcommittees. The subcommittees may request reports from government agencies or departments, hold hearings, mark up the bill (meet to propose changes), and report the legislation to the full committee. The full committee may take similar action, with or without prior subcommittee consideration, and report the legislation to its full chamber (i.e., the House or Senate).
Hearings. Hearings provide a committee or subcommittee the opportunity to explore topics or legislation.10 Hearings may include statements of committee Members and interested parties, as well as the testimony of witnesses. GPO publishes hearings made available to them by committees.
Through FDsys, researchers can download selected committee hearings starting with the 105th Congress (1985-1986).
Proquest Congressional Hearings Digital Collection
Proquest Congressional, a commercial database, has scanned PDF images of published committee hearings from 1824 to the present.
Print versions of committee hearings are available through CRS and the Law Library of Congress. More recent hearings are available through the House and Senate Document Rooms. Individual hearings may be available through a federal depository library.
Reports. Most legislation never proceeds through full committee consideration and remains in committee for the remainder of a Congress. However, committees may, by majority vote, report some bills and resolutions for consideration by the entire chamber. The House requires a written report on the legislation, but the Senate does not. These committee reports can be particularly useful documents for legislative history research because they often describe the purpose of the legislation and summarize or explain specific provisions. The report will also give details on the committee's actions, understandings, and conclusions about the legislation. Changes to existing laws, votes on amendments during markups, and subcommittee information are supplemental material to the committee report that may also be useful for legislative history research.11 If the legislation was considered by a subcommittee, that information may also be covered in the full committee's report. Committee reports are published by GPO. Sometimes, the reports are reproduced in whole or part by commercial publishers.
Committee reports are identified as House Report (H. Rept. or H. Rep.) or Senate Report (S. Rept. or S. Rep.) and given a number (e.g., S.Rept. 107-31 is the 31st report to the Senate in the 107th Congress).
LIS is available to congressional researchers and has committee reports starting from the 104th Congress (1995-1996). THOMAS has the same coverage for committee reports.
FDsys contains committee reports starting from the 104th Congress (1995-1996).
Proquest Congressional U.S. Serial Set Collection
Proquest Congressional, a commercial database, has scanned PDF images of committee reports published in the Serial Set (described below) from 1817 to the present.
Print versions of committee reports are available through CRS, the Law Library of Congress, and possibly a federal depository library. More recent reports may be available through the House and Senate Document rooms.
The Serial Set. This serial publication contains House and Senate documents and reports bound by session of Congress beginning in 1817. It is available through CRS, the Law Library of Congress, and may be available through a federal depository library.
U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News ("USCCAN"). USCCAN, a commercial service, reprints the major reports and conference report or portions thereof, for most public laws enacted since 1941, along with the text of the public law. This publication is available through CRS, the Law Library of Congress, and may be in the collection of a federal depository library.
Prints and Documents. Committee prints and documents can be used to duplicate research papers or annual reports from executive branch agencies of interest to the committee, papers prepared by the committee staff, reports on investigative and oversight hearings and activities, and analytical information on legislation. Some committees use prints for reproducing compilations of laws that come under their legislative jurisdiction. Committee prints are identified as House Print (H. Prt.) or Senate Print (S. Prt.) and given a number (e.g. Senate Print 111-6 is the sixth numbered print for the Senate in the 111th Congress). Committee documents are identified as House Document (H. Doc.) or Senate Document (S. Doc.) and given a number (e.g. House Document 111-2 is the second numbered document for the House in the 111th Congress).
GPO FDsys—Committee Prints
FDsys has House and Senate committee prints starting from the 105th Congress (1997-1998).
GPO FDsys—Committee Documents
FDsys has House and Senate committee documents starting from the 104th Congress (1995-1996).
Proquest Congressional Research Digital Collection
Proquest Congressional has committee prints and miscellaneous documents that were published from 1830 to the present. They also have an assortment of House and Senate documents from 1871 to the present.
Copies of committee prints and documents are available through CRS and the subject collections of the Library of Congress. More recent prints and documents may be available through the House and Senate Document rooms. Individual prints and documents may be available through a federal depository library.
Legislation may be brought to the floor of the respective chambers for consideration by the full House or Senate. The length and scope of debate on the floor of Congress (e.g., which amendments, if any, will be considered) are governed by the rules of the respective chambers. For example, in the House, the measure is sometimes considered under the terms of a "special rule," that is, a simple resolution reported by the Committee on Rules, which may be accompanied by a written report specifying which amendments can be offered on the floor. Votes on amendments12 and final passage may or may not be in the form of a formal recorded vote, in which the vote of each Member is identified. The debates are published in the Congressional Record. Recorded votes, called "roll call votes," are published in the Congressional Record but they can also be found through other sources, such as the Clerk of the House website, the Secretary of the Senate, and commercial publishers.
After legislation is passed by one chamber, it is sent to the other chamber for action, where it is often referred to committee. If the second chamber chooses to consider the legislation and passes it without change, it is submitted to the President.
Remarks on the House or Senate floor can be useful for legislative history research because Members will often speak to the purpose of the legislation, emphasize or clarify certain provisions in the legislation; or raise concerns about the potential impact in their statements. In addition to debate on passage, sponsors and cosponsors may submit introductory remarks and materials on legislation into the Congressional Record. These remarks may explain the reasons for, and expected effects of, the legislation.
The Congressional Record is the official record of the proceedings and debates of Congress and contains a summary of the daily proceedings of the House and Senate. Predecessor publications for the Congressional Record are the Congressional Globe (1833-1873), Register of Debates in Congress (1825-1837), and Annals of the Congress of the United States (1789-1824).
Currently, there are two editions of the Congressional Record published by GPO—the daily edition and the permanent edition. The daily edition is published each day Congress is in session and the pages are lettered and numbered by chamber (e.g., Senate pages begin with "S" and House pages begin with "H"). The permanent or "bound" edition is published years later. It is continuously paginated (e.g., the pages are renumbered and the "S" and "H" designations are dropped) and the text may have been edited.
LIS is available to congressional researchers only and has links to the daily edition of the Congressional Record starting from the 101st Congress (1989-1990). THOMAS has the same coverage for the Congressional Record.
GPO FDsys—Congressional Record, Daily Edition
FDsys provides the Congressional Record from 1994 to the present. Users can search by keyword, page number, or browse by date of publication.
GPO FDsys—Congressional Record, Bound Edition
The bound edition of the Congressional Record is available through FDsys for the years December 19, 1998, through January 3, 2002.
GPO FDsys—Congressional Record Index
The Congressional Record Index lists all introduced legislation by number. References in the Index are to pages in that year's Congressional Record. Each Congress spans two years and typically is divided into two sessions, with each session conducted during a separate calendar year. Legislation introduced during the first session may also be referred to in the second session of the same Congress. Coverage for the Congressional Record Index through GPO online is 1983 to the present.
American Memory's A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates
Contains scanned images of the journals and debates of Congress from 1789 through 1875.
Proquest Congressional Congressional Record Permanent Digital Collection
Proquest Congressional has scanned PDF images the Congressional Record and its predecessor publications from 1789 to 1997.
Copies of the Congressional Record and its predecessor publications are available through CRS, the Law Library of Congress, and may be available at a federal depository library.
Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives
The House Clerk's website has roll call votes from 1990 to the present.
Secretary of the United States Senate
The Secretary of the Senate's website has roll call votes from 1989 to the present.
This fee-based subscription database provides searchable roll call votes from the 102nd Congress (1991-1992) to the present.
Congressional Quarterly Almanac. The CQ Almanac, a commercial publication, contains floor roll call votes. It also includes valuable background information as well as references to relevant material on major legislation. CQ Almanac has been published annually since 1945. These volumes may be available through CRS, the Law Library of Congress, and in the collection of a local library.
If there are differences between the House and Senate versions of a piece of legislation, the last chamber to adopt its version may send its language back to the other chamber for further consideration in amended form. The first chamber may take up the amended version, or the two chambers may establish a conference committee to reach agreement on a common version.13 Each chamber appoints conferees, usually members of the original reporting committees, who may take up only those areas in disagreement. A majority of the Senate conferees and a majority of the House conferees must agree on what to report back to their respective chambers.
Upon reaching agreement, a conference committee usually issues a report (usually printed as a House Report) that contains two parts: the agreed upon text and a joint explanatory statement. The joint explanatory statement in the conference report may discuss the differences between the House and Senate passed language, discuss the reasons certain provisions were chosen over others, and provide additional information on the purpose of the legislation.14
If passed by both chambers in identical form, the legislation is sent to the President.
Conference committee reports are available in the same formats and sources as regular committee reports. They can also be found in the Congressional Record.
The President may approve a bill or resolution, veto it, or take no action. If the President signs a bill into law, he may issue a signing statement.15 If no action is taken, the legislation becomes public law after 10 days (Sundays excepted) unless final adjournment of Congress has occurred, in which case the legislation does not become law (known as a "pocket veto").
If the President vetoes the legislation, Congress may override the veto.16 Two-thirds of the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senate must vote to override the veto. If the two chambers vote to override the veto, the legislation becomes law without the President's signature.
Compilation of Presidential Documents
The Compilation of Presidential Documents is the official publication of presidential documents issued by the National Archives and Records Administration's Office of the Federal Register. It consists of the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents and the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents. Of note for legislative history researchers, it contains presidential signing statements. It is available online through the GPO's website from 1993 to the present.
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Published by the National Archives and Records Administration's Office of the Federal Register, these volumes contain public messages, speeches, and statements of the Presidents beginning with President Herbert Hoover (1929) to the present. They are available through CRS, the Library of Congress, and federal depository libraries.
Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. Published beginning in 1965 and ending with the January 26, 2009, issue, it contains statements, messages, and other presidential materials released by the White House. It is available through CRS, the Law Library of Congress, and federal depository libraries.
The United States Statutes at Large contain public and private laws enacted since 1789. GPO publishes the official text of the public and private laws of the United States. Beginning with the 110th Congress (2007-2008), GPO has digitally signed and certified the PDF versions of individual public laws (also called "slip laws") available from its website.
GPO FDsys—United States Statutes at Large
Coverage on the GPO website is from the 82nd Congress (1951-1952) to the 111th Congress (2009-2010).
GPO FDsys—Public and Private Laws
Coverage on the GPO website is from the 104th Congress (1995-1996) to the present.
American Memory's A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: Statutes at Large
The American Memory website contains scanned images of the Statutes at Large from 1789 through 1875.
United States Statutes at Large. The Statutes at Large volumes contain public and private laws enacted since 1789. They are available through CRS, the Law Library of Congress, and at some federal depository libraries.
U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News ("USCCAN"). This commercial service reprints public laws enacted since 1941. This publication is available through CRS, the Law Library of Congress, and may be in the collection of a federal depository library.
Black's Law Dictionary, 9th Ed.
Ibid. For further analysis of the use of legislative history for the interpretation of statutes, see CRS Report 97-589, Statutory Interpretation: General Principles and Recent Trends, by [author name scrubbed].
Some subscription services with legislative information may be available through the Congressional Research Service's congressional research centers. For more contact information and hours, see the "Contact Us" page on the CRS.gov website, http://crs.gov/aboutcrs/Pages/ContactUs.aspx.
A bill is enacted only if both houses of Congress pass identical versions of it and either the President signs the passed version or, if the President vetoes the bill, two-third majorities of both houses pass the bill again thereby overriding the veto. For more information on vetoes, see CRS Report RS22188, Regular Vetoes and Pocket Vetoes: An Overview, by [author name scrubbed].
Simple and concurrent resolutions do not have the force of law and therefore were omitted from this discussion. For additional information on all types of bills and resolutions, see CRS Report 98-706, Bills and Resolutions: Examples of How Each Kind Is Used, by [author name scrubbed].
For additional information, see CRS Report 98-812, Amendments Between the Houses: A Brief Overview, by [author name scrubbed] and [author name scrubbed].
The Legislative Information System (LIS) is a product of the Congressional Research Service and is only available on legislative branch computers. The public equivalent of LIS is THOMAS. A new public beta website, which will eventually replace both LIS and THOMAS, was released by the Library of Congress in fall 2012, http://beta.congress.gov/.
For more information on tracking current legislation, see CRS Report RL33895, Researching Current Federal Legislation and Regulations: A Guide to Resources for Congressional Staff, by [author name scrubbed].
See CRS Report 98-437, Calendars of the House of Representatives, by [author name scrubbed]; CRS Report 98-429, The Senate's Calendar of Business, by [author name scrubbed]; and CRS Report 98-438, The Senate's Executive Calendar, by [author name scrubbed].
For additional information on hearings, see CRS Report 98-317, Types of Committee Hearings, by [author name scrubbed]; CRS Report RL30548, Hearings in the U.S. Senate: A Guide for Preparation and Procedure, by [author name scrubbed]; and CRS Report 98-488, House Committee Hearings: Preparation, by [author name scrubbed].
For a description of other required content for committee reports, see CRS Report 98-169, House Committee Reports: Required Contents, by [author name scrubbed] and CRS Report 98-305, Senate Committee Reports: Required Contents, by [author name scrubbed].
For additional information on the amending process, see CRS Report 98-853, The Amending Process in the Senate, by [author name scrubbed] and CRS Report 98-995, The Amending Process in the House of Representatives, by [author name scrubbed].
For additional information on conference committees, see CRS Report 98-696, Resolving Legislative Differences in Congress: Conference Committees and Amendments Between the Houses, by [author name scrubbed] and CRS Report RL34611, Whither the Role of Conference Committees: An Analysis, by [author name scrubbed].
For additional information, see CRS Report 98-382, Conference Reports and Joint Explanatory Statements, by [author name scrubbed].
For a discussion of the applicability of presidential signing statements, see CRS Report RL33667, Presidential Signing Statements: Constitutional and Institutional Implications, by [author name scrubbed].
For more information, see CRS Report RS22654, Veto Override Procedure in the House and Senate, by [author name scrubbed].