Subject Guides


How to find legislative histories, laws, and related documents at the federal level.

What is a legislative history?

What is a federal legislative history?

A legislative history is the documentation created by Congress during the process of federal law-making. Legislative history documents include bills, committee hearings, committee prints, committee reports, congressional debate, and public laws. You may also be interested in presidential signing statements that accompany bills signed into law by the President.

What is the difference between legislative history and legislative intent?

Legislative history is simply the record of how the law came to be. Legislative intent is the purpose the legislation itself. Clues can be found by looking at the information contained within the history, such as remarks and debates related to the bill; changes in wording to the proposed legislation; and presidential signing statements; and other remarks made once this bill is passed by Congress or signed into law. However, a diligent researcher must also consider external factors, such as the political and economic environment at the time the legislation was developed and passed, the politics of the major players behind the bill - both formal and informal, and other legislation moving through Congress. Legislative intent may be clarified by administrative law or court action after the law in enacted.

What is helpful to know when you start researching a legislative history?

You should know the bill or public law name or the bill or public law number. See the Bills and Public Laws page for more information how to do this.

You also need to have a general understanding of the overall legislative process. A brief explanation is provided here, or you can read a more in-depth description of the process from the US House Parliamentarian.


Sources for legislative histories

For some more influential and well-known federal laws, it is possible that books or articles have been written containing legislative histories as well. You can try a search in the Library Catalog or in a related article database for such literature.  In addition, you can also try the prin sources below.

  • CIS Annual Legislative Histories (UDC Ref JK 1001 .C79), 1984-2003
    Abstracts of laws and citations to relevant reports, hearings, debates and Presidential statements. For 1970-1983 see the back of the CIS/Abstracts volumes. This set contains the legislative histories of all laws for this time period, so if it missing in ProQuest Congressional, look for it here.
  • U.S. Code Congressional & Administrative News (Bartle Ref K U5 U6), 1969-
    Text of public laws, committee reports, and congressional debate, and Presidential signing statements. Tables lists each public law, date approved, bill and report numbers, recommending committees, and dates of consideration and passage.
  • Federal Legislative Histories, an Annotated Bibliography, 1862-1890 (Bartle Ref KF 42.2 1994)
    A guide to complied legislative histories for acts.
  • Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories, 1789-1992 (Bartle Ref KF 42 .S6)
    Bibliography of government documents, periodical articles, and books, creating legislative histories for laws discussed in law journals.
  • Digest of Public General Bills and Resolutions (Docs LC 14.6), 1964-1990
    Provides summaries of bills (includes those that were not signed into acts) and resolutions.

Subject Guide

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Dave Vose
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