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Federal Legislative History: Getting Started

Resources for locating compiled histories and individual documents for federal legislation.

A Note About Compiled Histories

Unless you have a specific legislative history document in mind, save yourself some time and look for a compiled legislative history for your statute first before following the steps below (see the Compiled Histories tab for guidance). The remaining tabs contain resources and tips for locating individual legislative history documents. Keep in mind that newer legislation and legislation that is smaller in scope may not have a compiled history available. 

Outline of the Process

Step 1: Why are You Researching this Statute?

Compiling a legislative history can be a daunting task so before you set out to uncover every single document produced in the course of a bill's passage, it helps to consider WHY you want to conduct this research and what information you hope to get out of it. Before starting your research, you may want to view a treatise or other resource on statutory interpretion to be sure that you are focusing on the most important legislative documents to suit your particular purpose. See the Statutory Interpretation tab for these resources.

Step 2: Look for a Compiled History

See the Compiled Histories tab for resources.

Step 3: Review the Annotated Code

Locate your statute and note its Public Law (slip law: P.L. or Pub. L) citation and its Statutes at Large citations (session law: ex. 345 Stat. 725). These citations will help you locate the bill as it was passed for your piece of legislation. Annotated codes may also give you commentary and a brief historical overview of important amendments and other information that can help you locate the correct bill. Read through this information to determine if your section was included in the original bill or added by amendment. Note the PL and Statutes-at-Large citation for that original bill or amendment.

Step 4: Review the Conference Committee Report

The Conference Committee is tasked with reviewing the two versions of a bill (one from the House and one from the Senate) and choosing language from one or the other. The Joint Explanatory Statement describes where the language comes from. Once you determine whether the House or the Senate bill was the source of the section of interest to you, you can start your search using the legislative history documents related to that Chamber's version of the bill.

Step 5: Review the Bill as Reported Out of Conference Committee

The Conference Committee sends its revised version of the bill to the floor for further debate. Look at this version of the bill and compare it to the bill as passed/codified. If the language in the bill differs, review that Joint Explanatory Statement. If that section isn't included in the Statement then it must have been added/amended during the debate on the floor. If that is the case, review the Congressional Record to find remarks made during that debate.

Step 6: Trace the Evolution of the Language

If the language was not added during the final debate on the bill, you'll need to go back even further. Try the Committee Reports next, then review Hearing transcripts from hearings held by those committees and finally compare the versions of the bill you've found to the bill as it was introduced. 

General Resources

I'm Just a Bill: A Classic Review of the Legislative Process

Legislative History Overview

CALI Tutorials

CALI (Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction) offers lessons on a variety of topics including legislative history research. CALI is a subscription resource available to faculty, staff, and students. Contact Lori Corso for the access code.