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Compiling a Legislative History: A Pathfinder

Updated by: 
Renee Y. Rastorfer
Head of Research Services 
September 2014


Bill Tracking
Congressional Documents
Presidential Documents
The Law
Comprehensive Sources
Compiled Legislative Histories
State Legislative Histories
Additional Reading

Legislative history is the record of a bill's enactment into law. During this often lengthy process, many documents are created that can assist researchers in determining the legislature’s intent, which may then aid in analyzing unclear or ambiguous terms, or help in resolving potential disputes among parties. See, e.g., Veazey v. Communications & Cable of Chicago, Inc., 194 F.3rd 850 (7th Cir. 1999)(see, esp. Para. 45). These documents include many types of materials, such as original and amended texts of a bill, committee reports and prints, hearings, debates, records of votes, and other accompanying documents.  Since all legislation is in some sense unique, there are more documents for some laws than for others.

This pathfinder identifies the types of documents that comprise legislative history. Information about how and where these documents can be located is included. Keep in mind that much of the information about legislative history of a particular bill can be found in more than one place. Comprehensive sources for these materials are addressed last. Several of the sources have undergone some restructuring, so there may be periods for which certain pieces of information were not included.

Bill Tracking

Some sources provide information about how far along a current bill is on its journey to becoming law, or when a bill passed a particular stage in the process. This procedure, called “bill tracking,” is a good way to gather information about which documents may exist and when they were created, before searching for the documents themselves.

Sources: is the official website for U.S. federal legislative information. The site provides access to accurate, timely, and complete legislative information for Members of Congress, legislative agencies, and the public. It is presented by the Library of Congress (LOC) using data from the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Office of the Secretary of the Senate, the Government Printing Office, Congressional Budget Office, and the LOC's Congressional Research Service. is usually updated the morning after a session adjourns. Consult Coverage Dates for Legislative Information for the specific update schedules and start date for each collection.

Congressional Record Permanent Edition Stack 232A (Daily Digest and Index volumes), Microform Cabinets 2-3 (1st-109th Congress, 1789-2006), electronic (check the HeinOnline database for the rolling end date);

Congressional Record Daily Edition (1987-present), Stack 232A; electronic (check the HeinOnline database for the rolling end date):
The Congressional Record Daily Digest section provides a summary of each day's activity in the Senate and the House of Representatives, including chamber actions heard, committee meetings held, and public laws signed. In the Permanent Edition, these digests are compiled in chronological order for the entire congressional session. Each volume of the Congressional Record covers a different session of Congress. A bound index provides page numbers for each day of congressional action on an item. Information about Congresses prior to 1873 are found in the Annals of Congress (1789-1824) and the Register of Debates (1824-1837) located in Microform Cabinet 3, and also Congressional Globe (1833-1873) located in Microform Cabinet 2. These earlier publications are also available electronicallyPlease note that the page numbers vary between the Daily Edition and the Permanent Edition. For Daily Edition citations from January 21, 1986 through December 6, 2006, use the Congressional Record Daily to Bound Locator.

GPO Access, History of Bills (1983-present):
This site provides the text from the Congressional Record, identifying floor and committee action taken on bills. This information is accessible by bill number, sponsor's name, or keyword, searchable by Congress.

CIS Legislative Histories of U.S. Public Laws (1984-2008), KF49 .C62, Reference:
As will be discussed below, the CIS Legislative History volumes provide much more information than simple bill tracking data, but only for bills which ultimately became public laws. These volumes remain, however, a rich source of information, providing the researcher with the dates, titles and citations of hearings, committee prints, reports, versions of relevant bills, and floor debates. The full text of many of the identified documents is available through a companion set, CIS Microfiche.

Calendar of the United States House of Representatives and History of Legislation (1984-present) Stack 231B; Y1.2/2 (103rdCongress to present) and Electronic (104th- to present); Daily Edition (present congressional session):

Senate of the United States, Calendar of Business (1979-93), Stack 231B; Y1.3 (103rd-111th Congress, 1993-present) and Electronic (104th to present session); Daily Edition (present congressional session):
These sources provide limited information on the measures slated to be considered during a particular legislative day. They also list committee and subcommittee hearings scheduled.

United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN), Stack 231A:
USCCAN has been published by West since 1941. While it is not comprehensive, it is often a good starting point for compiling a legislative history. Tables within this publication guide the researcher from public law number to USCCAN citation, and the United States Code citation. The Legislative History table provides the date, bill number, report numbers, committee assignments, and relevant Congressional Record citations. A separate table of major bills enacted identifies the title, organized by committee, the date the measure was reported, the date the measure was passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the public law number assigned to it. There is also a table of popular names for acts.

Congressional Documents

When a bill is first introduced, it is read to one house of Congress by its sponsor. The sponsor may also read a statement at that point, explaining why the bill should be passed. The bill is then assigned to a committee and subcommittee for in-depth study and consideration. (Many bills which have no chance of ever gaining the approval of Congress never proceed beyond this stage; they are said to “die in committee.”) A subcommittee may accept testimony from experts and hold hearings before it makes a recommendation to the governing committee. The entire committee will then consider the matter, often adopting the recommendation of the subcommittee; they may hold additional hearings. Once a committee votes to recommend a bill, it is considered by the entire house in which it originated. It is scheduled for floor debate, and eventually a vote. Upon request, each member's vote will be recorded and published by name.

The documents generated as Congress considers each bill include at least one version of the bill, as it was originally introduced. There may be other versions, reflecting any changes that occur during the process. Additionally, documents may be generated while the bill is being considered, including hearing transcripts, reports, or prints at the committee level, a transcript of the floor debate in the entire house, more reports, and the results of the vote. Subcommittees do not generally produce documents.

Version as introduced
Thomas: Bill Text (101st Congress to present, 1989 to present):
Searchable by bill number or words and phrases, this Library of Congress site provides versions of bills, including the text as introduced. Various other versions may also be available, depending on what changes were made to the bill text during its journey through Congress. Introduced versions are noted on Thomas as .IH (introduced in the House) or .IS (introduced in the Senate).

Congressional Record, Stack 231B, Stack 232A, Microform Cabinets 2-3, electronic:
The Congressional Record Daily Digest section provides the text of each bill as it is read to each house of Congress.

Congressional Bills (103rd Congress to the the present):
This site, updated daily, provides the complete text of each published version of Congressional bills.

ProQuest Congressional Bill Text (101st Congress to the present)
This database provides the text of bills, and is updated daily while Congress is in session. User name, barcode number, and PIN required for off-campus access.

Sponsor’s message
Congressional Record, Stack 231B, Stack 232A, Microform Cabinets 2-3; Electronic through Westlaw (database CR), LexisNexis, and ProQuest Congressional (99th Congress to the present):
If the sponsor of a measure makes any comments when introducing the item to Congress, these are recorded in the Congressional Record. They precede the text of the measure.

Committee hearings
Cumulative Index of Congressional Committee Hearings (1967-1971), Reference KF40 .U527,
Index of Congressional Committee Hearings (1935-58), Reference KF40 .H8 1973,
Index Of Congressional Committee Hearings (prior to 1935), Reference KF40 .H34:
While these indexes do not provide the full text of congressional committee hearings, they do provide enough information to locate hearing transcripts, in the Law Library or elsewhere. In general, these indexes provide access by subject, by committee name, and by bill number, and give citations to the report or document, volume, and number for documented items, and library volume, part, and number for "undocumented" items.

ProQuest Congressional Hearings:
This database provides the abstracts and indexes for all published hearings from 1970 to the present, and selected testimony transcripts from 1988 to the present. User name, barcode number, and PIN required for off-campus access.

Congressional Hearings (104th to the present):
Committee hearings are searchable by keyword, or may be browsed by Congressional session. Senate and House Committee hearings are both available at this site.

Committee prints
Congressional Committee Prints (105th Congress to the present):
Committee hearings are searchable by keyword or number. Senate and House Committee hearings are both available at this site.

The Law Library owns transcripts of selected committee hearings and committee prints. Searching the library catalog, WILDPAC, for the committee as an author, or for the title of a hearing will find relevant documents within the Law Library.

Committee reports
Thomas: Committee Reports
(104th-111th Congress, 1995-present):
The full text of committee reports are available on Thomas by report or bill number, committee name, or keyword.

CIS U.S. Serial Set Index, Z1223 .Z9 C65, Reference:
This index of Congressional publications from 1789 to 1969 provides access to committee reports by subject or number. The Index directs the researcher to full text items contain in the U.S. Serial Set on Microfiche and the ProQuest Congressional database.

U.S. Serial Set on Microfiche, Microforms Cabinets 3-5:
The U.S. Serial Set has published congressional materials since 1789. Originally published in paper, this set is comprised of more than 14,000 volumes of Congressional reports and documents, in addition to other materials published at Congress's behest, such as committee reports. This version provides the full text of the U.S. Serial Set from 1789 to 1969.

ProQuest Congressional:
This electronic version of the CIS U.S. Serial Set provides material from the U.S. Serial Set ranging from 1817 to 1969, the full span of material published in the print set. These materials are searchable by bill number, topic, and CIS Accession number. User name, barcode number, and PIN required for off-campus access.

CIS Microfiche (1970-present), Microforms Cabinets 5-14:
This publication, a continuation of the U.S. Serial Set on Microfiche, provides the full text of congressional reports and publications, including committee reports, since 1970. These publications are accessible by their CIS Accession numbers.

USCCAN, Stack 231A:
Excerpts from some committee reports are available in USCCAN. Only major public laws are treated in this set, and full reports are not printed. However, relevant portions of committee reports are reprinted in the volumes.

Floor debate
Congressional Record, Stack 231B, Stack 232A, Microform Cabinets 2-3, electronic:
The Congressional Record publishes a transcript of events that occur in Congress. If a member of Congress uses his alloted time, but has not finished his remarks on an item, they are published in the Congressional Record, labeled an "Extension of Remarks." From 1955 through 1968, these Extensions were only included in the Daily Edition of the Congressional Record. For other periods, the Extensions are also included in the Permanent (bound) Edition.

Journal of the House of Representatives and Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, and also at Stack 231B:
The Constitutionally-mandated record of Congressional activity, the Journals for the respective houses include messages to and from the other house, and to and from the President; notices of committee hearings and reports; notices of bills introduced and referred, without including the full text of the bills, and any accompanying statements, or the substance of debates. It does provide the date of Congressional debate.

Congressional Reports
CIS U.S. Serial Set Index, Z1223 .Z9 C65, Reference:
In addition to committee reports, this index includes Congressional reports and documents, accessible by subject or number.

U.S. Serial Set on Microfiche, Microforms Cabinets 4-5:
This set provides the full text of the U.S. Serial Set from 1789 to 1969, including Congressional reports.

CIS Microfiche (1970-present), Microforms Cabinets 6-15:
The full texts of Congressional reports and publications are accessible by CIS Accession numbers in this microform publication.

Roll call votes
Thomas: House and Senate Roll Call Votes
(101st Congress, 2d Session to the present):
Each Congressional body has a menu of roll call votes by session, identifying the date, issue, result, and a brief description. For each vote, a chart is available identifying yea and nay votes by member. Each member's party affiliation is also noted. Note: Senate votes are available from the 101st Congress, 1st session (1989).

Congressional Record, Stack 231B, Stack 232A, Microform Cabinets 2-3, electronic:
The Congressional Record publishes the result of the votes, separated into groups of Aye, No, Present, and Not Voting.

Journal of the House of Representatives and Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, Stack 231B:
The results of recorded votes are published in the Journal, separated into groups of Aye, No, Present, and Not Voting.

Version as passed
Thomas: Bill Text (101st Congress to the present):
Versions passed by one house are noted either .EAS (Engrossed or Agreed to As Passed by Senate) or .EH (Engrossed or Agreed to As Passed by House).

Journal of the House of Representatives and Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, Stack 231B:
Versions of bills as voted upon appear in the Journals, just prior to the recorded votes.

U.S. Congressional Public Bills and Resolutions (96th-106th Congress, 1979-2002), Microforms Cabinet 1:
The bills considered by Congress are arranged, within each congressional session, by bill type and number.

Once passed by one house, a bill (now called an “act”) is then sent to the second house of Congress for consideration. The act goes through a parallel process of consideration by a subcommittee, a full committee and then the entire body. Similar reports, prints, hearings, transcripts, and voting records are generated in the second house; these documents are also found in the sources discussed above. If there are any differences between the version passed by the House of Representatives and the version passed by the Senate, the act is sent to a Conference Committee for agreement on the version to be sent to the President. This final version is known as an “enrolled bill.”

Conference Committee Reports
USCCAN, Stack 231 A:
Excerpts from Conference Committee Reports are sometimes included in the USCCAN legislative histories.

Enrolled Bill
Thomas: Bill Text (101-111th Congresses, 1989-present):
Another version of a bill which will appear on Thomas, the enrolled bill is noted as .ENR.

Explanatory Statements by Congressional Leaders
USCCAN, Stack 231A:
Statements from Congressional leaders are sometimes included in the selectively published legislative histories in USCCAN.

Presidential Documents
After the President receives the enrolled bill from Congress, he may sign the bill, veto the bill, or take no action at all. The bill only becomes law if the President signs it. If he signs or vetoes, he may issue a message at that time, known as a signing message or a veto message. These messages may prove helpful in determining the attitude of the Executive toward the measure.

Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (1965-1976), KF5051 .A1 U51; Microforms (1992-2009), Cabinet 19; Electronic (1993-2009):
This publication, issued each Monday, provides a swift printed version of many presidential documents, including veto and signing messages.

Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents (2009-present) Electronic
Replaced the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents on January 20, 2009.

Public Papers of the President (1929-present, with gaps), KF5051 .A1 U5; Electronic (1991-2005):
This compiled edition of presidential papers contains much the same information as does the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. These volumes are compiled semi-annually. Presidential veto and signing messages have been included in the Public Papers since 1957.

USCCAN, Stack 231A:
Presidential signing statements are often included in the legislative histories published in USCCAN. They appear at the end of the legislative history, beginning in 1985.

Journal of the House of Representatives, Stack 231B:
Presidential veto messages are included in the Journal as they are returned to the House of Representatives.

Obama Presidential Documents, available on Westlaw, database PRES-OBAMA.  This database includes documents released by White House staff, Executive Orders, Determinations, Signing Statements, etc.  Coverage from November, 2008.

The Law

After a law is passed, it is published in pamphlet form, and is known as a Slip Law. These Slip Laws are collected and bound as the Statutes at Large at the end of each Congressional session. Later, the new statutes are incorporated into the United States Code.


Slip Laws, Stack 230B:
The Law Library maintains Slip Laws only until they are replaced by the Statutes at Large. A brief summary of legislative history information is contained in the Slip Law.

Statutes at Large, Stack 230B:
This publication compiles the public laws passed during each session of Congress, located sequentially by public law number. This compilation reprints the legislative history information from the Slip Law.

Thomas: Public Laws (101st Congress to the present):
Electronic versions of laws available by public law number. Summary information is available for the 93rd Congress to the present.

Codified Law
United States Code, United States Code Service, United States Code Annotated, Stack 230A;
Lexis, Federal Legal > USCS; Westlaw, database: USCA; U.S. Code
These sources all provide access to the current laws of the United States.  Since the USCS and the USCA are annotated by different publishers, annotations may differ, but the text of the laws is consistent regardless of publisher. The official version, the United States Code, is unannotated.

United States Code (Historical), (1925-1994) Microform Cabinet 23:
Historical versions of the official United States Code are available on microfiche.

Popular Names of Statutes
USC Popular Names, USCA Popular Name Table, USCS Popular Names, Stack 230A
These tables give public law and U.S. Code citations for laws known by popular names, such as The Patriot Act. The USC version is contained in the last volume of the Code, after Title 50. The USCA table is published separately and replaced each year. The USCS version is published together with Executive Orders and Proclamations, and supplemented each year with a pocket part supplement. Popular name tables are also available through Lexis and Westlaw.

Comprehensive Sources
LexisNexis and Westlaw provide many avenues for finding legislative history information. On LexisNexis, the path Legal > Federal Legal U.S. > Legislative Histories & Materials will lead to a wealth of electronic material, including some prepared legislative histories. On Westlaw, look for the Legislative History and Arnold & Porter Collection - Legislative Histories within United States Federal materials, in addition to some databases noted below.

LexisNexis, Legal > Federal Legal U.S. > Legislative Histories & Materials
This page provides access to compiled legislative histories as well as databases useful in compiling new histories. Databases include Bill Tracking, Committee Prints, Committee Reports, Congressional Record, House and Senate Documents, House and Senate Floor Voting Records, CIS Legislative Histories, and the CIS/Historical Index. Availability of documents varies by database. Many of these sources can be combined to search multiple databases at once.

Westlaw provides a Legislative History - Fed tab that displays an overview of the bill-making process. There are links from this graphical representation to databases containing documents produced at each stage of the process. These databases can also be accessed individually. A "Recent Developments" page also displays the most recent activity in various bill-making categories.

ProQuest Congressional (1969-present):
This database provides summary information and links to the full text of legislative history documents for public laws. Information is accessible by subject, public law number, bill number, committee name, title, and witness name. User name, barcode number, and PIN required for off-campus access..

CIS Legislative Histories of Public Laws (1984-present). Reference KF49 .C62:
This set provides summary information and citations of a variety of legislative history information for public laws. More information is provided for "major" bills than for minor bills. Some of the information identified includes the public law number, any published reports, related bills, Congressional action, hearings, Committee prints and other documents, and Presidential signing statements. When available, the CIS Accession number, which refers to the CIS Microfiche, is provided for each item.

USCCAN, Stack 231A:
These volumes contain selective Legislative Histories for the more important laws of each congressional session. These Legislative Histories contain excerpts of Senate, House and Committee Reports, although it omits "duplicative and unnecessary" information. The strength of this set is that the report text is included in the volume itself, rather than directing the researcher to another source, volume, or microform.

Compiled Legislative Histories
In addition to source documents for compiling a federal legislative history, the Law Library also holds information about legislative histories already compiled and published. Search WILDPAC, using the keywords "legislative" and ("history" or "histories") for compiled legislative histories owned by the Law Library. In addition, legislative histories are sometimes published as articles in law reviews and journals. Title searches for the words “legislative history” in databases such as LexisNexis, Westlaw, Index to Legal Periodicals and Books, and HeinOnline will often return such articles. The following sources provide information about published legislative histories.

Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories: A Bibliography of Government Documents, Periodical Articles, and Books (Rothman 1979-). Reference KF42.4 1979. Electronic via HeinOnline.

Union List of Legislative Histories (7th ed., LLSDC 2000-). Reference KF4 .U54 2000.

Legislative History Union List of the Chicago Association of Law Libraries (Rothman 2001). KF4 .G7 2001.

Bernard D. Reams, Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources (Greenwood Press 1994). Reference KF42.6 1994.

Hein Online U.S. Federal Legislative History Library:
This database provides full-text legislative histories and texts related to legislative histories. Texts are provided as page images of original printed legislative histories. The histories here are somewhat older than the histories included in other databases. The library also links to other pathfinders on federal legislative histories.

United States GAO Legislative Histories. Westlaw (FED-LH).
This database provides selective coverage for laws enacted between 1976-1995. Documents are available in PDF.

State Legislative Histories
It is often necessary or desirable to prepare legislative histories for state legislation, a more difficult task than for federal legislation. Documents containing state legislative history information may not exist, be difficult to access, be out of print, or be expensive. The official website for the Executive Office for Administration and Finance (ANF) of the State contains a guide to Massachusetts Legislative History that is quite comprehensive. For other states, please consult the following sources.

State Legislative Sourcebook – Resource Guide to Legislative Information in the Fifty States (Government Research Service). Ready Reference JK2403 .H4.

"Appendix B: State Guides to Legal Research," in Steven M. Barkan, Roy M. Mersky and Donald J. Dunn, Fundamentals of Legal Research (9th ed., Foundation Press 2009). Reserve KF240 .B37 2009.
This appendix lists legal research guides tailored to the legislative process and court system of each state. Many of these guides, or similar publications, are in the Ready Reference Collection.

Westlaw Legislative History Files
Databases are currently available for all states, with varying degrees of comprehensiveness. From the Westlaw Directory, select a state, and then click the Legislative Histories folder for the available materials. To see the materials available for all states, select U.S. State Materials, then Legislative Histories. Tabs for each of these areas are available.

Additional Reading

Mary Garvey Algero, Federal Legal Research (Carolina Academic Press 2012). Law Ready Reference KF240 .F48 2012. 

Morris L. Cohen, Robert C. Berring & Kent C. Olson, How to Find the Law (9th ed., West 1989) 217-60. Reserve KF240 .H6 1989.

Morris L. Cohen & Kent C. Olson, Legal Research in a Nutshell (10th ed., Thomson/West 2010) 216-60. Reserve KF240 .C54 2010.

F. Reed Dickerson, The Interpretation and Application of Statutes (Little, Brown 1975). KF425 .D53.

Elizabeth Finley, Crystal Gazing: The Problem of Legislative History, 45 Am. B. Ass’n J. 1281 (1959).  HeinOnline

Gwendolyn B. Folsom, Legislative History: Research for the Interpretation of Laws (University Press of Virginia 1972). KF240 .F64.

Robert U. Goehlert & Fenton S. Martin, Congress and Law-Making: Researching the Legislative Process (2nd ed., ABC-Clio 1989). KF240 .G63 1989.

Charles W. Johnson III, How Our Laws Are Made (GPO 2003). Reference KF4945 .Z9 J66 2003 and Electronic.

Richard Leiter, “Federal Legislative Histories,” in Steven M. Barkan, Roy M. Mersky & Donald J. Dunn, Fundamentals of Legal Research (9th ed., Foundation Press 2009) 157-194. Reserve KF240 .B37 2009.

Isa Lang, Reading Between the Lines: Legislative History for Law Students, 79 Law Libr. J. 203 (1987). HeinOnline

Isa Lang, Researching Tax Legislative History, 80 Law Libr. J. 633 (1988). HeinOnline

Susan Lewis-Somers, Compiling Federal Legislative Histories (Yale Law Library 1991). Reference KF4945 .L48 1991.

Richard J. McKinney & Ellen A. Sweet, Federal Legislative History Research: A Practitioner's Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent (Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C. 2001, updated 2006). Electronic.

Joe Morehead, Introduction to United States Government Information Sources (6th ed., Libraries Unlimited 1999). Ready Reference Z1223 .Z7 M665 1999.

Eugene Nabors, Legislative History and Government Documents – Another Step in Legal Research, 3 Gov’t Publications Rev. 15 (1976).

Walter J. Oleszek, Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process (8th ed., CQ Press 2010). KF4937 .O44 2010.

Barbara M. Powloski, Research in Contemporary Legislative History, 3 Legal Reference Services Q. 39 (Fall 1983).

Norman J. Singer, Statutes and Statutory Construction (7th ed., West 2007). [Spine Title: Sutherland Statutory Construction]. KF425 .S25 2007.

United States Department of Justice, Office of Legal Policy, Using and Misusing Legislative History: A Reevaluation of the Status of Legislative History in Statutory Interpretation (Office of Legal Policy 1989). KF425 .U85 1989.

United States Senate, Enactment of a Law: Procedural Steps in the Legislative Process (Robert B. Dove, ed., 1997). Electronic.

Christopher G. Wren & Jill Robinson Wren, The Legal Research Manual: A Game Plan for Legal Research and Analysis (2d ed., A-R Editions 1986) 85-86, 177-219. KF240 .W7 1986.

Jerrold Zwirn, Congressional Publications and Proceedings: Research on Legislation, Budgets, and Treaties (2d ed., Libraries Unlimited 1988). Reference KF49 .Z95 1988.


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