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Federal Legislative History Research Guide: Home

Resources and process for locating the legislative history of a federal law.

Guide Overview

The Federal legislative process is well-documented, and it may be useful to your research to find legislative history documents explaining why a particular bill was introduced or law was passed. The information located when you do legislative history research is usually meant to persuade a court that a particular interpretation of a statute is correct. To compile a federal legislative history: 

Step 1. Look up your law on Proquest Legislative Insight
If you are a member of the UC Law SF community or an on-campus visitor, you can use our Proquest Legislative Insight database to locate legislative history documents for your law.

Step 2. Look for a compiled legislative history
If you don't find your law on Proquest Legislative Insight, check to see if someone has already compiled a legislative history on the law you are researching.   Prior to beginning your own search for individual documents, it is worthwhile to check the resources in the Compiled Legislative Histories section.

Step 3. Locating the public law number
If you cannot find a compiled legislative history, your next step is to locate the relevant public law number.  Many collections of legislative history documents are organized by public law number. 

Step 4. Finding citations for the legislative documents
The next step is to use an index to find citations to the various legislative documents associated with your law.

Step 5. Finding legislative documents
The next step is to find the legislative documents themselves using the citations found in Step 4./p>

Legislative History Basics


The "legislative history" of a particular law consists of all the documents created by the legislature during the process of the law’s passage. This material often becomes valuable later, when disputes arise from vague or ambiguous statutory language. Although some courts disapprove of using such "extrinsic evidence" to clarify the meaning of a law, the sheer volume of legislation in recent years has resulted in an increasing reliance on legislative history, particularly in the federal court system.

All legislative history materials have only persuasive legal authority, although courts consider certain types of documents to be more persuasive than others. Normally, the reports of the congressional committees that considered the proposed legislation and recommended its enactment are considered the best source for determining the intent behind a law.

Types of Documents (Legislative History Components)

A federal legislative history includes documentation from all steps in the law-making process. Different documents carry varying degrees of weight in showing congressional intent. The documents which can make up a legislative history include:

Committee Reports. These are committees’ official communications to Congress explaining the purpose of a bill and setting forth the recommendations for passage of the bill. Many also contain a report by the minority members of the committee on their objections to the language or purpose of the bill. Reports may be issued by House, Senate and Conference (i.e. joint) committees, and are numbered consecutively for each Congress. Committee reports, especially Conference committees, tend to carry a great deal of weight in ascertaining congressional intent.

Debates. These include all activities which occur on the floor of the two houses of Congress. While individual comments during debates are not proof of congressional intent, statements by the bill’s sponsor or chair of the committee reporting the bill, especially those with the stated intention of clarifying or explaining the bill, can have significant weight. Debates are particularly important when amendments to the bill are offered on the floor of the House or Senate. Debates can be found in the Congressional Record.

Bills and amendments. The text of a bill as introduced, reported from committees, and acted upon by either or both houses, provides information on the original language of its sponsor as well as evidence of deliberate exclusions and inclusions to the bill as it made its way through the legislative process. Bills are numbered consecutively by the chamber in which they were introduced for the two sessions of each Congress (e.g. S.2 is the second bill introduced in the Senate during a particular Congress).

Hearings. These are primarily transcripts of the testimony of witnesses before House and Senate committees. Hearing records are used to illustrate the fact that certain issues and considerations were made known to and considered by Congress prior to passing the bill. Hearings may be held on an individual bill or a group of bills on the same or similar subject. Not all hearings are published and there is often a lengthy delay for those hearings which are officially published. Final official versions may include other documentary evidence presented to a committee during the hearing process.

Committee Prints. Committee prints can be research studies, compilations of materials or statutes, background information, or working drafts of a bill. Not all committee prints are published or distributed. Some may be reissued as a House or Senate Document or Report or published in the Congressional Record. Although not significant in determining legislative intent they can provide valuable and often hard to find information for the researcher.


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