Compiling Federal Legislative Histories

by Marianne Mason

Purpose


The purpose of compiling legislative histories is to determine the intent and meaning of federal statutes. A legislative history is both a chronological record of the stages that a bill goes through during the legislative process and a compilation of various official documents generated at each legislative stage. Such documents usually consist of bills, committee hearings and reports, committee prints, and debates in Congress. Frequently secondary material such as law review articles, and privately published material prove to be an invaluable component of a thorough legislative history compilation.

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Legislative Process


For a full discussion of the federal legislative process and primary legislative history sources, see:

How our Laws are Made. Revised and updated by Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Respresentatives, January 31, 2000.

Quick Summary of the Process and Corresponding Publications:

Process: Bill is introduced and referred to committee
Publication: Bills and Resolutions are issued in pamplet format

Process: Committee holds hearings and special studies may be requested
Publication: Hearings and Commitee Prints may be issued

Process: Committee recommends passage
Publication: House and Senate Reports may be issued

Process: Chamber debates and votes
Publication: CONGRESSIONAL RECORD, HOUSE and SENATE JOURNALS

Process: Bill sent to conference
Publication: Conference Reports

Process: Presidential Signing or Veto
Publication: Presidential Signing Statement or Veto Message in WEEKLY COMPILATION OF PRESIDENTIAL DOCUMENTS

Process: Bill becomes Law
Publication: Slip Law, STATUTES AT LARGE, U.S. CODE

Process: Overriding a veto
Publication: CONGRESSIONAL RECORD, HOUSE and SENATE JOURNALS

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To Begin...


You need to know at least one of the following before beginning your legislative search:

  1. Bill number and date introduced.
  2. Public Law number.

You can find these numbers in several places (this is not a complete list):

CIS LEGISLATIVE HISTORIES.
These histories are arranged by date and public law number, indexed by subject and name. (Reference J69 .C66)

CONGRESSIONAL UNIVERSE Database .
Choose bills or public laws database. Use restricted to I.U. Law School and Law Library facilities.

CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY WEEKLY REPORT.
CQ WEEKLY provides a weekly status table of major legislation. It is particularly good for tracking complex legislation such as appropriations bills. The annual CONGRESSIONAL QUARTERLY ALMANAC (Reference J69 .C62) gives a summary legislative history for public laws. (Reference J69 .C61)

CONGRESSIONAL RECORD INDEX.
The subject index gives bill numbers, and the History of Bills and Resolutions section, arranged by bill number, gives public law numbers for enacted bills. The table of "History of Bills Enacted into Public Law" in the Daily Digest section, arranged by public law number, gives bill numbers for each public law. Beginning with 1985, the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD can be searched through GPO ACCESS, LEXIS and WESTLAW. (Documents X/a:)

GPO ACCESS.
This Internet site provides several databases of primary importance to compilers of legislative histories, including those containing bills and public laws.

LEXIS and WESTLAW.
Search for public laws in these databases. LEXIS, through the Genfed library, PUBLAW file; WESTLAW, through US-PL database.

SHEPARD'S ACTS AND CASES BY POPULAR NAME.
Provides the public law number and date enacted. (Reference Collection)

STATUTES AT LARGE and the UNITED STATES CODE CONGRESSIONAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE NEWS. (U.S.C.C.A.N.)
Arranged by public law number, and lists bill number and short title for each public law. Includes subject index and tables. (Documents GS 4.111:vol., and AE 2.111:vol.; USCANN in Reference Collection)

THOMAS.
This is another good Internet site for locating legislative history materials, including bills and public laws.

UNITED STATES CODE, UNITED STATES CODE ANNOTATED (USCA), UNITED STATES CODE SERVICE (USCS).
The public law number and date of enactment are given in "history notes" following each U.S. Code section. Also, check the Popular Name Tables with each code compilation. USCA and USCS have a monthly advance sheet service for recently passed legislation. (Reference Collection)

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Compiled Legislative Histories


Often commercial publishers, congressional committees, governmental agencies, and authors of law review articles compile legislative histories bringing together in one collection the texts of the legislative documents pertaining to a particular statute. These compiled legislative histories save considerable research effort, even if only selected documents are brought together. The following list represents some of the best sources of compiled legislative histories.

AMERICAN LANDMARK LEGISLATION. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 1975.
Provides complete legislative histories for selected statutes that were and continue to be of national significance. (Reference KF65 .S65) Second series, 1984. (KF65 .S65 1984)

CIS LEGISLATIVE HISTORIES OF U.S. PUBLIC LAWS. Bethesda, MD: Congressional Information Service, 1970 - present.
This annual index lists all public laws, excluding those that are essentially ceremonial or "housekeeping" in nature, providing the most comprehensive listing of compiled legislative histories. (Reference J69 .C66)

CONGRESSIONAL UNIVERSE.
This is the most comprehensive legislative database for primary and selected secondary material. Indexes Congressional documents from 1970 to the present and provides full text of more recent materials. Use restricted to I.U. Law School and Law Library facilities.

CONGRESSIONAL RECORD. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1873 - present.
The Daily Digest volume of the Permanent Edition includes a section entitled "History of Bills Enacted into Public Law" which provides a selective legislative history of each public law. (Documents X Congress/Session: Volume/Part)

INDEX TO LEGAL PERIODICALS and LEGALTRAC.
Both of the indexes access legislative history compilations found in law review articles. These often overlooked sources are available though the Library's Internet workstations. LEXIS and WESTLAW also index periodical articles.

LEXIS and WESTLAW .
These online services have specialized databases devoted specifically to compiled legislative histories. See the database list for each service for specific file identifiers.

MAJOR STUDIES AND ISSUE BRIEFS OF THE CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE Bethesda, MD: UPA, 1916 - present.
This CD-ROM index and accompanying microfiche provides access to research studies prepared for members of congress on hundreds of legislative topics.

SOURCES OF COMPILED LEGISLATIVE HISTORIES: A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF GOVERNMENT DOCUMENTS, PERIODICAL ARTICLES, AND BOOKS 1ST CONGRESS - 101ST , compiled by Nancy P. Johnson. Littleton, CO: Fred B. Rothman, 1993.
This bibliography is intended as a locator of previously compiled legislative histories. All compilations are for major laws and refer to sources ranging from congressional documents to legal periodicals, and from treatises to looseleaf services. (Reference KF65 . S65)

UNION LIST OF LEGISLATIVE HISTORIES , 6th edition. Littleton, CO: Fred B. Rothman, 1993.
This publication provides a listing of libraries in the Washington, D.C. area that have compiled in-house legislative histories or have acquired published histories for particular laws of the United States beginning with public laws of the 37th Congress. Most of the libraries identified allow interlibrary loan of these histories. (Reference KF4 .U55)

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LEGISLATIVE HISTORY FROM 1970 TO THE PRESENT


You will discover that each publication has its strengths and weaknesses. Be familiar with the characteristics of each to better utilize the sources. Often one publication should be used in conjunction with another.

CIS/INDEX. Bethesda, MD: Congressional Information Service, 1970 - present. (monthly)
This annual index provides the most thorough indexing and abstracting service to laws, reports, documents, hearings and legislative histories. The three parts of each CIS/INDEX are the Abstracts, Index and Legislative Histories. The Abstract portion of this set provides the specific references to witness testimony and complete bibliographic information for documents being researched. Beginning in 1984, the Legislative History component expanded to an annual volume and includes extensive entries for each public law. (Reference J69 .C66). See also CONGRESSIONAL UNIVERSE .

CONGRESSIONAL UNIVERSE Database.
This comprehensive Internet database is the online counterpart to the CIS/INDEX with many value-added features including full-text of recent legislative publications with selected supporting secondary publications.

CONGRESSIONAL RECORD. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1873 - present.
This is the only source of debates heard in Congress. The RECORD is published daily while Congress is in session. These daily publications are indexed through biweekly indexes making research over a long time span cumbersome. Fortunately, for more recent congress coverage there are electronic sources which serve as better indexing tools. These databases are GPO ACCESS, THOMAS, LEXIS , and WESTLAW . Each of the electronic resources has their own unique method of search techniques. Please refer to the appropriate guide when using these electronic tools. (Documents X:Cong./no.)

DIGEST OF PUBLIC GENERAL BILLS AND RESOLUTIONS. Washington: Congressional Research Service, 1978 - 1990.
This indexes and provides a brief description of each bill introduced during a particular congressional session and provides a history of action taken on bills and resolutions. Ceased publication in 1990, but still useful for the time period covered. (Documents LC14.6:Cong./session)

GPO ACCESS. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993 - present.
This Internet site provides access to a variety of Congressional publications including bills, public laws, committee reports, CONGRESSIONAL RECORD, and UNITED STATES CODE. [Guide]

LEXIS . NY: Reed Elsevier.
This computer assisted legal research system now includes several Congressional publications in its Libraries such as the CONGRESSIONAL RECORD, limited coverage of House and Senate reports, presidential statements and bill tracking information. A few files are devoted to compiled legislative histories. Documents are full-text searchable. See the LEXIS DIRECTORY OF ONLINE SERVICES for specific library/file identifiers.

THOMAS. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1993 - present.
This Internet site provides access to Congressional publications as does GPO ACCESS, although the method of searching is different.

WEEKLY COMPILATION OF PRESIDENTIAL DOCUMENTS. Washington: Government Printing Office.
This publication is the best source of current presidential documents. The White House Web site also contains useful information. (recent dates available through GPO ACCESS; earlier dates at Documents AE 2.109 and Documents GS 4.114)

WESTLAW . St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.
This computer assisted legal research system covers similar databases as those found in LEXIS (CONGRESSIONAL RECORD, limited coverage of House and Senate reports, presidential statements and bill tracking information). There are a few specific database devoted to compiled legislative histories. Documents are full-text searchable. See the WESTLAW DATABASE LIST for specific database identifiers.

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LEGISLATIVE HISTORY PRIOR TO 1970


To find congressional reports...

AMERICAN STATE PAPERS. Washington, U.S. Congress.
Covers executive and legislative documents of the first 14 congresses issued between 1789 and 1838 including congressional reports, presidential communications and other documents arranged by subject categories. (Microforms Collection)

CIS U.S. SERIAL SET INDEX. Bethesda, MD: Congressional Information Service.
The SERIAL SET contains the text of House and Senate Reports and Documents from 1789 through 1969. The AMERICAN STATE PAPERS are part of the SERIAL SET as the first 38 parts. The subject/key word index gives complete titles of reports and documents, lists the type of report (Senate report, House report, etc.), Congress, session and the SERIAL SET volume number where the full text of reports may be located. This is a complete numerical listing and schedule of Serial Set volumes that is more comprehensive than the Government Printing Office's own NUMERICAL LIST. (Reference J69 .C65); on the Web through CONGRESSIONAL UNIVERSE .

MONTHLY CATALOG OF UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PUBLICATIONS.
Often referred to as MoCat, this is the oldest index of all types of government publications. It is indexed by author, title, subject and keyword. Earlier indexes are not as detailed as the later ones and are more difficult to use. The Monthly Catalog is also less convenient and less comprehensive than CIS for older Congressional documents. (Documents GP3.8/8:)

To find congressional hearings...

CIS CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE HEARINGS INDEX. Bethesda, MD: Congressional Information Service.
This set indexes and provides complete citations and brief abstracts for hearings from 1833 to 1969 (Reference J69 .C63); on the Web through CONGRESSIONAL UNIVERSE.

CIS INDEX TO UNPUBLISHED U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES COMMITTEE HEARINGS. Bethesda, MD: Congressional Information Service.
Contains references to unpublished House hearings from 1833-1958. (Reference J69 .C633); on the Web at CONGRESSIONAL UNIVERSE.

CIS INDEX TO UNPUBLISHED U.S. SENATE COMMITTEE HEARINGS. Congressional Information Service.
Contains references to unpublished Senate hearings from 1823-1972. (Reference J69 .C634); on the Web through CONGRESSIONAL UNIVERSE.

MONTHLY CATALOG OF UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PUBLICATIONS.
See general description in the Reports section. (Documents GP3.8/8:).

To Find Committee Prints...

CIS U.S. CONGRESSIONAL COMMITTEE PRINTS INDEX. Congressional Information Service.
This companion to the Hearings Index also provides a detailed subject and name index, and a brief abstract of each print (Reference J69 .C64); on the Web through CONGRESSIONAL UNIVERSE.

MONTHLY CATALOG OF UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PUBLICATIONS.
See general description in the Reports section. (Documents GP3.8/8:).

To Find Congressional Debates...

CONGRESSIONAL RECORD INDEX. Washington, Government Printing Office.
The "History of Bills and Resolutions" in the annual index volume lists all the pages where a bill is mentioned or debated. Predecessors of the CR are the ANNALS OF CONGRESS (1789-1824), REGISTER OF DEBATES (1824-1837), and the CONGRESSIONAL GLOBE (1833-1873). The ANNALS and the REGISTER contain indexes of subject terms and individuals at the back of each volume, while the GLOBE contains similar indexes at the front of each volume. (Microform for years 1874 through 1928; paper format from 1929 to present at Documents X/a:)

To Find Presidential Documents...

CIS INDEX TO PRESIDENTIAL EXECUTIVE ORDERS & PROCLAMATIONS. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Information Service, 1987.
20 vol. with accompanying microfiche.

PUBLIC PAPERS OF THE PRESIDENTS. Washington, Government Printing Office.
This set compiles the formal and informal documents from Herbert Hoover's administration to the present. (Documents AE 2.114 AND GS 4.113)

To Find Miscellaneous Publications...

A CENTURY OF LAW MAKING FOR A NEW NATION
This Internet site created by the Library of Congress reproduces the text and graphic images of documents of the Continental Congress and early legislative materials.

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DESCRIPTION OF LEGISLATIVE DOCUMENTS


Bills and Resolutions
Bills and resolutions are printed versions of a proposed law or resolution as introduced in the House or Senate. Bills are printed and reprinted at various stages of the legislative process. Bills introduced in the House of Representatives are prefixed with H.R. and S. in the Senate. Bills are numbered consecutively as they are introduced from the beginning of each congressional term. Joint resolutions go through the same process as a bill and have the same force of law. They are designated H.J.Res. or S.J.Res. They differ from bills in that they are usually introduced to deal with limited matters. Resolutions are designated H.Res. or S.Res. and concern only business of the house in which they originate. They become effective upon passage and do not require approval by the other house or require the signature of the President. Concurrent resolutions are designated H.Con.Res. or S.Con.Res. and are used for matters affecting the business of both houses. They do not require the signature of the President and do not have the effect of law.

Hearings
Hearings are designated by an alphanumeric classification system known as the SuDocs number. Hearings contain the oral testimony of witnesses in public sessions and written material submitted to committees of Congress. Witnesses include subject experts, government officials, private citizens, and spokesmen for groups which may be affected by the bill being considered.

Committee Prints
Committee prints are also given a SuDocs number. These are research studies requested by committees which are compiled by their research staff or Congressional Research Service. Prints compile background information regarding a bill and are often technical in nature. They might contain summaries of staff findings, histories of previous legislation and congressional efforts, and the implications of a bill if passed.

Committee Reports
Reports are designated H.Rept. or S.Rept. A report is issued after hearings are held and is the written justification of the committee's action. The report explains the scope and purpose of the bill. Reports are considered the most important document of a legislative history because they explain the bill's intent and are non-prejudicial, as hearings frequently are.

Proceedings
Proceedings include the daily printed debates, statements, and actions taken by each house. The Congressional Record is the only publication that contains all of these activities. The House and Senate Journals record the proceedings, but not the debates.

Conference Reports
Conference reports are the product of a conference committee which has been appointed to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of a bill. Conference Reports often contain the textual changes in the bill, as well as an explanation of the changes. The compromise bill must then be approved by both houses before it is sent to the President for signature.

Slip Laws
Slip laws are the first printed form of an enacted law and are individually printed in pamphlet form. They are designated as either a public law or a private law and are numbered by Congress and by a law number which is assigned consecutively through each Congress. For example: P.L.101-499.

Statutes at Large
Statutes at Large is the official permanent government compilation of all laws enacted in each session of Congress, replacing slip laws. Laws are printed chronologically, not by subject.

United States Code
The U.S. Code is the compilation of the permanent laws consolidated and arranged by subject. Every six years the code is revised, with supplements issued after each session of Congress. It is at least two years behind in supplementation. The privately published United States Code Annotated (USCA) and United States Code Service (USCS) are widely preferred for accurate and current research.

Presidential Statements
Presidential messages and vetoes also form a part of a law's history. Such statements may propose legislation as well as comment on the value or deficiencies of a bill under consideration.

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