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Locating Sources of Federal Legislative Histories (Part 1)

Judith Kaul  /  Wednesday, March 15, 2017  /  Categories: Just in Case, Databases and Subscription Resources, Legal Research Tips  /  Rate this article:

The standard elements of a federal Legislative History include:

1. Documents of Preliminary Consideration.

These could be a variety of resources that indicate developing Congressional concerns, such as earlier bills that were not enacted; committee or commission hearings to investigate particular problems; Presidential recommendations, especially the Presidential State of the Union speech.  

2. Congressional Bills.

Each bill is assigned a number and printed as initially proposed.  The bill number is essential to tracing all subsequent legislative actions. The bills may be rewritten several times.  Each change may reflect input from different legislators, witnesses, and committees.  The change of certain language as the bill goes through the legislative process may be an indication of legislative intent. 

3. Hearings.

Congressional Committees or Subcommittees hold hearings on proposed legislation which consists of
transcripts of questions from legislators and replies from witnesses.  The witnesses may be experts in their fields or they may represent special interest groups with specific perspectives on the proposed legislation or may be promoting alternative legislation.

4. Committee Reports.

These are the reports of the Congressional committees of each house of Congress. If a joint conference committee was convened to reconcile differences in the bills approved by each house, then Joint Conference Committee reports are often issued.  They usually include the final version of the proposed bill, an analysis of it, and most importantly, if included, a statement of intent. Judges often depend on a joint conference report as the most reliable source for interpreting that statute.

5. Committee Prints.

Committee prints are prepared for the use of the legislative committees and frequently includes the version of the bill that was received by that committee.

6. Congressional Debates-Congressional Record.

Debate on the floor of each house of Congress is reported in the Congressional Record (since 1893). (Published earlier under other titles).

7. Presidential Approval or Veto.

When legislation is passed by both house of Congress it goes to the President for approval or veto.  Whether signing or vetoing, what presidents include in their statement indicates their reasons or thoughts about the legislation. These also can be important for legal interpretations of legislation. Signing statements are reported in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents.

8. Public Law Number assigned.

The Public Law Number is an important element of the Legislative History. It can be used to find references in the Statutes at Large, articles and other documents.

Other types of documents may be published by Congress, but these are the core documents that currently make up the legislative history.

Your Choices of Tools:

If you have access to the ProQuest legislative resources databases, as we do at CWRU, some might recommend you go directly to those databases. Our user agreement specifies that walk-in users may access the ProQuest databases as long as users are not systematically downloading hundreds of documents.   CWRU librarians may also access these databases for interlibrary loan requests. I believe we have the standard agreements from ProQuest, so if you are not here in Cuyahoga County, perhaps you can find a local law library or a large Public Library that has access to the ProQuest databases.  More on the ProQuest databases in my next blog posting on this topic.

Don’t feel deprived if you don’t have access to the ProQuest suite of databases.  There are many free sources of compiled legislative histories available.

You can find most of the documents of recent legislative histories from the 104th Congress (1995-1996) through the present 115th Congress (2017-2018)  via the freely available FDsys (U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO)) via . In fact, on the main screen of FDsys, in the right side navigation bar, under the heading “Browse” is a list that includes links to many of the documents included in a legislative history.

Legislative History documents that can be found in FDsys include:

1.  Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents. (includes State of the Union Addresses Signing  & Veto Messages). 
      State of the Union addresses back to 1790 can be found at

2. Congressional Bills.
      About Congressional Bills  

3. Committee Hearings
      Congressional Committee Browse Page.
      About the Congressional Hearings.

4. Congressional Reports.
      About Congressional Reports.

5. Committee Prints

6. Congressional Record.
      About Congressional Record

Compiled Legislative Histories:  Has the work been already been done for you?

If you just want the House, Senate or Joint Committee reports.  You can quickly locate excerpts of  these through Thomson Reuters/West’s United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (U.S.C.C.A.N.) if it is legislation since 1941. But beware: U.S.C.C.A.N.’s editors usually only include excerpts of these reports—the parts that they deem important.  If they do not include the part you need, you will next search to locate the full documents.  The good news is that someone may have already done the work of compiling the documents of the legislative history for you!

Below are some of the sources that index or list previously-compiled legislative histories.  


The Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, D.C. (LLSDC) maintains the Legislative Histories of
Selected U.S. Laws on the Internet: Free Sources
 (many of these are compiled and maintained by
government departments or agencies or available through HathiTrust).

Legislative Histories of U.S. Laws on the Internet: Commercial Sources

LLSDC also provides (for free) an excellent guide from a practitioner’s viewpoint, with a step-by-step outline: Rick McKinney and Ellen Sweet, Federal Legislative History Research: A Practitioner’s Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent (2015).  
LLSDC’s Legislative Source Book is an outstanding reference for Federal legislative information, including other websites with useful legislative information, Quick Links to Committee Hearings, Sources for the Text of Congressional Bills and Resolutions from 1789 to the present, and much more.

Print Sources

Bernard D. Reams, Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography And Index To Officially Published Sources. Law Library KF 42.2 1994.

Bernard D. Reams, The Internal Revenue Acts of the United States, 1909-1950:  Legislative Histories, Laws and Administrative Documents.  Law Library KF42.2 1994.

Edward Prince Hutchinson, Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798-1965 (1981). Law Library Print: KF4805.8 1981.

Kaminstein Legislative History Project: A Compendium and Analytical Index of Materials
Leading to the Copyright Act of 1976
(Alan Latman & James F. Lightstone, eds. 1981-1985). Law Library KF2989.56.A16K35 1981.  (6 volumes). 

Legislative History of the 1909 Copyright Act (Legislative History of the 1909 Copyright Act
(E. Fulton Brylawski & Abe Goldman eds., 1976). Law Library KF2989.54.A15 1976. (6 volumes). 

A Legislative History of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, Together with Section-by-Section Index
(Prepared by the Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division of the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for the Committee on Environment and Public Works, U.S. Senate.)
(1993).  Law Library Y 4.P 96/10:S.PRT.103-38/.  (6 volumes).

A Legislative History of the Federal Communications Act of 1934
(Max D. Paglin ed., 1988).  Law Library KF2792.113.A15 1988.  

Through the U.S. Government Printing Office, we also receive many documents that comprise the
legislative history as separate documents in the catalog, such as Leahy-Smith America Invents ActThe catalog record itself provides the Statutes at Large and Public Law citations.

Find additional compiled legislative histories using the library catalog or the Summon search tool. Locate them if you conduct subject searches for “legislative history” or if you conduct a title search of the popular name of the act you are seeking.  

Don’t forget that often multi-volume legal treatises collate relevant legislative histories in the
appendices volumes. For example, the appendices of Nimmer on Copyright, (both online on Lexis Advance and in print includes selected Public Laws, House Reports, Senate Reports, Conference Reports, and even Treaties covering various copyright acts, legislation and treaties The appendices of Patry on Fair Use on Westlaw and Patry on Copyright (online on Westlaw and in print in the Law Library) also includes selected documents from relevant legislative histories.

HeinOnline (HOL)

Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories (2014), by Nancy P. Johnson,  published by William S. Hein is another directory of sources of previously-compiled legislative histories, or sources that include one or more legislative history elements. It includes citations to law review articles citing Public Law numbers. Online it is available in the HeinOnline database, U.S. Federal Legislative History Database. It begins with the First Congress and is current through the 113th Congress (2013-14). 

Many of the compilations of legislative histories are are available via HeinOnline, either in the HeinOnline Taxation and Economic Reform Library Parts 1 & 2, or in HeinOnline U.S. Federal Legislative History Library.  HOL also provides sources that assist users in locating other compiled legislative histories. 

If you do have to build your own legislative history, HOL provides libraries that contain the following legislative history components:

U.S. Statutes at Large (vols. 1-125, 1789-2011, plus links to the most recent Public Laws)
U.S. Code (1925-1926 ed. – 2012 ed.)

The U.S. Congressional Documents collection includes: 
The Congressional Record
The Congressional Record Daily (Updated daily).

The predecessors to the Congressional Record:

The Annals of Congress (1789—1824).
The Register of Debates in Congress (1824-1837).
Congressional Globe (1833-1873).

It may be less expensive to use these HeinOnline versions of the documents that make up a legislative history, if you are building your own legislative history. It depends on the resources and plans available in your workplace.

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