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Zimmerman's Research Guide


Federal Legislative History

The legislative history of a bill is comprised of the various texts drafted by Congress from the time the bill is introduced in the House or Senate until it either becomes a Public Law or dies. For a discussion of the Federal legislative process and the various Federal legislative history materials, see Fundamentals of Legal Research (West) or another legal research treatise. For a visual representation of the legislative process, see the detailed map of How Our Laws Are Made.

Each bill has its own legislative history. If a particular section of the United States Code has been amended, then the complete legislative history of that section includes the legislative histories for the original bill that created the section plus all the bills that amended that section.

There are two ways to get a legislative history: (1) get only the easy parts; (2) get one compiled by someone else; or (3) compile it yourself.

(1) Getting the easy parts: In many cases, you don't need to get a complete legislative history. For example, I have worked in libraries where the only hard copy source for legislative history materials is the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN), which reprints the text of each law published since 1941 plus one Congressional Report. Back that up with anything available on Thomas, and two thirds of the time this was all it took to answer (or at least satisfy) the question at hand.

(2) Sources for compiled legislative histories: You can get compiled legislative histories for Federal bills from -

(a) Law libraries. Law libraries have been compiling legislative histories for major laws since the 19th Century. The trick is finding them. To do this, check Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories (in print or through HeinOnline) for a title and/or search OCLC's WorldCat and/or call any library that you think might have such a legislative history in its collection. In addition, LLSDC posts a Legislative Sourcebook that can direct you to legislative history resources.

(b) The GPO. The Government Printing Office publishes selected legislative histories. To find if they have a legislative history for the one you need, call the GPO Bookstore (202-512-1800) or visit the U.S. Government Bookstore.

(c) LLSDC posts Legislative Histories of Selected U.S. Laws on the Internet.

(d) HeinOnline offers subscribers a substanial collection of U.S. legislative histories.

(e) Private Publishers.

(f) Westlaw offers thousands of legislative histories for public laws compiled by the GAO. Coverage goes back to at at least 1954; check the database description for exact dates (FED-LH). Westlaw also has about two dozen legislative histories compiled by Arnold and Porter. To pull up all the documents for a Public Law, search using the format: (CI(PL) +2 CI(71-798 )).

(g) Legislative History Services. You can call the Legislative Intent Service (800-666-1917) or another good legislative research service and hire them to compile a Federal legislative history for you.

(3) Compiling a legislative history on your own: A legislative history really is the sum of its parts, so you compile a legislative history by (a) finding our what the parts are and then (b) getting them.

(a) Finding the parts. The CIS/Index to Congressional Publications and Public Laws indexes all the materials for all bills introduced since 1970. If you're tracking a particular law, though, you'll only care about the "Legislative Histories" section. From 1970 through 1983 the CIS/Index was two volumes, with the "Legislative Histories" section at the end of the first volume. Starting in 1984 the "Legislative History" section was given its own third volume.

The CIS/Index's Legislative Histories list exactly what legislative history materials were published for each law enacted that year, with thorough citations. For hearings, you'll even get an abstract of what was discussed (e.g., what each witness said at a hearing). The CIS/Index is a magnificent reference work.

The CIS/Index is published in hard copy (you can find copies at some large law library), on Lexis (LEGIS;CISINX) and on Proquest Congressional. Lexis also has a special file with just the material from the "Legislative History" volumes (LEGIS;CISLH) going back to 1984.

Note: Often some materials relating to a bill are not published until the year following its enactment, so always check the CIS/Index at least one year ahead to make sure you don't miss something.

For materials relating to bills introduced before 1970, you can look up your bill in the CIS Congressional Masterfile I, available on Lexis Lexis (LEGIS;CISINX). This indexes the documents in: the U.S. Serial Set, including Reported Bill Numbers (1789-1969); Senate Executive Documents and Reports (1817-1969); U.S. Congressional Committee Hearings (1833-1969); Unpublished U.S. Senate Committee Hearings (1823-1972); Unpublished U.S. House Committee Hearings (1833-1958) and U.S. Congressional Committee Prints (1830-1969).

Alternatively, you can look up the following pre-1970 information.

(1) Bill numbers: At least the main bill numbers behind Public Laws are listed in:

Statutes at Large back to 1903 (see "Statutes at Large"),

The CCH Congressional Index (in the Enactments - Vetoes section),

The Digest of Public General Bills and Resolutions and/or

USCCAN (Table 4 - Legislative History) back to 1941.

For older laws, use Nabors' Legislative Reference Checklist: The Key to Legislative Histories from 1789-1903. Getting the bill number(s) will help you look up all the following materials.

(2) Reports: You can get a list of the Report numbers in USCCAN (Table 4) back to 1941, the CCH Congressional Index (Status of Bills tables) back to 1941-2, the Digest of Public General Bills and Resolutions, CIS's U.S. Serial Set Index, CIS's Congressional Masterfile I CD-ROM, and Statutes at Large back to 1963 (either in the "Guide to Legislative History" from '63 to '74, or at the end of each bill since then).

(3) Debates: You can look up the dates the bill was discussed in the Congressional Record from the Congressional Record Index (History of Bills Table) back to at least 1934. Note: The Congressional Record Index is posted on FDsys back to 1983.

You can also look up the dates the bill was using Statutes at Large to back to 1963 (either in the "Guide to Legislative History" from '63 to '74, or at the end of each bill since then), the U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News a/k/a USCCAN (Table 4 - Legislative History) and the Dates are suggested in the Digest of Public General Bills and Resolutions. For information on retrieving debates, see the separate entry for the "Congressional Record."

(4) Hearings: You can look up Hearings by bill number, title or subject in CIS's U.S. Congressional Committee Hearings, which covers regularly published hearings. CIS also publishes a House Unpublished Hearings Index and Senate Unpublished Hearings Index All three Indexes are on CIS's Congressional Masterfile I CD-ROM.

Alternatives: The annual index to the GPO's Monthly Catalog lists hearings (with all other government publications) by subject and title. The "Status of Bills" section CCH Congressional Index lists the date when hearings were held for each bill, but there's no way to tell whether a particular hearing was ever published.

(5) Committee Prints: You can find Committee Prints in CIS's U.S. Congressional Committee Prints Index or their Congressional Masterfile I CD-ROM.

(b) Getting legislative history materials. The first place to get Federal legislative history materials is your own library. If that won't do it, consider visiting or getting copies from a Federal depository library. Depository libraries are located across the country - the GPO says there's at least one in almost every Congressional District. You can find a local Depository libraries on the GPO's Web site (catalog.gpo.gov/fdlpdir/FDLPdir.jsp). Note: The government documents section of all Depository libraries must be open to the public (by law) during normal business hours, even if the rest of the library isn't.

You'll also find Federal legislative history materials in most academic law libraries, even if they aren't depository libraries. Most large law firm libraries will at least have USCCAN, which gives you the text of each enacted law and one Committee Report.

Alternatively, you can always buy copies of Federal legislative history materials from the Legislative Intent Service (800-666-1917). You can buy materials listed in the CIS/Index directly from CIS (800-638-8380).

For a more comprehensive discussion of the topic, see Federal Legislative History Research: A Practitioner's Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent (last revised January 2015) by Richard J. McKinney and Ellen A. Sweet and/or Legislative History Research: A Basic Guide (2013) by Julie Taylor at the Congressional Research Service. For more information about how to get the various types of Federal legislative history materials, see the separate entries in this Guide for:

  1. Congressional Hearings
  2. Congressional Reports
  3. Congressional Debates
  4. Congressional Committee Prints
  5. Congressional Resolutions
  6. Federal Bills


Special Materials

Bankruptcy: For bankruptcy materials, see the Bankruptcy Code at the end of Norton's Bankruptcy Law and Practice.

Early-American: The Journals of the House and Senate, plus the Annals of Congress (a/k/a The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States)and Maclay's Diary -- all from the 1st & 2nd Congress (1774-1873) are posted on the Internet by the Library of Congress (http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html). The Library of Congress intends to add documents from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, then the records for Congress up to 1873, when the Congressional Record began.

Copyright: The subscription-based Intellectual Property Law Collection on HeinOnline has "over 100" pre-compiled legislative histories for U.S. copyright laws.

Tax: For special tax-related legislative history resources, see the Legislative History section of the "Internal Revenue Code and Regulations" entry. The legislative histories of U.S. tax treaties are compiled in Legislative History of United States Tax Conventions: Roberts and Holland Collection (W.S. Hein & Co.).


Strategy Section

When attorneys ask for the legislative history of a particular section of the United States Code that has been amended several times, they generally don't want the legislative history for all the bills, just the one(s) that affect the particular words they need to interpret. In this case, you can either (a) get all the bill text and see which ones are key or (b) get everything anyway. Since this can substantially affect the cost of the research, I generally let the attorney choose which way to go.

More strategy: Attorneys do not always understand that it is one thing to gather all the available legislative history materials for a particular bill, but it is another thing entirely to zero in on the answer to the question at hand. You can only zero in on answers if (a) there us a key term or phrase and (b) the key legislative history material is searchable online or well indexed. If this is not the situation, the attorney will have to go through the material page by page, regardless of how tedious or time consuming that may be.

See Also
Bill Status
Congressional Committee Prints
Congressional Hearings
Congressional Record
Congressional Reports
Congressional Research Service Reports
Congressional Resolutions
Federal Bills
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
Internal Revenue Code and Regulations
Legal Ethics
Statutes At Large
United States Congressional Serial Set

For comments, questions and suggestions, email the author
Copyright 2015 Andrew Zimmerman