The University of San Francisco: Gleeson Library

Federal Legislative Histories

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What is a law's legislative history?

It comprises the documents generated during the legislative process. These documents are a record of legislative intent and the people involved. Legislative intent - the rationale and purpose for the legislative body to enact the law - is important for both judicial and administrative interpretation of the law.  Histories include information about all congressional action in both chambers related to a bill and the vote and passage of the bill into law, and related information, such as Presidential statements.

Suggested starting places for legislative history research

Proquest Legislative Insight

Congress produces a variety of publications as a bill moves through the legislative process on its way to becoming a law. A compilation of these full text primary source publications produces a legislative history that is valuable to a wide variety of researchers. Legislative Insight offers a research citation page that not only links to the full text of the associated primary source publications, but allows the user to do a Search Within from that very page that searches the full text of all the associated publications with one-click.

Proquest Congressional

Widely respected as the most comprehensive index of all congressional publications, Proquest Congressional contains a detailed legislative history for each Public Law passed since 1984 and lists the congressional and other publications related to its passage. The histories are comprehensive and often lengthy and include a chronology of congressional action and links to the full-text publications produced in the process. The database also contains background information about legislation and Congress in sections such as Members and Inside Washington.

THOMAS: Legislative Information on the Internet -- Library of Congress

THOMAS provides legislative histories through its Bill Summary and Status, 1973-current. The histories provide a chronology of action, the text of the bill, and references other publications. THOMAS also includes the Congressional Record and the Congressional Record Index, public laws, roll call votes, Congressional committee reports, some Congressional committee hearings, historical documents, and information about the legislative process.

FDsys -- U.S. Government Printing Office

FDsys provides access to full-text databases and finding tools for all types of U.S. Government information, it offers very brief legislative histories from the Congressional Record Index in History of Bills, 1983-current. The full-text databases include: the Congressional Record and Index, Congressional bills, Public Laws, the U.S. Code, General Accounting Office Reports, Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, and many others.

Content Comparison -- A guide showing the congressional publications included in various databases, courtesy of Lexis/Nexis Academic.

Items Commonly Included in a Legislative History

INTRODUCTION:

  • Bill number
  • Congress session
  • Introduced by
  • Date introduced
  • Committee referred to
  • Committee hearings
  • Committee prints
  • Date reported
  • Report number
  • Debate on pages ? of Congressional Record volume ?
  • Date of passage

IN OTHER CHAMBER:

  • Committee referred to
  • Committee hearings
  • Committee prints
  • Date reported
  • Report number
  • Debate on pages ? of Congressional Record volume ?
  • Date of passage
  • Conference report number (if any)

VOTE and PASSAGE:

  • Vote in Congressional Record
  • Presidential statements
  • Date approved
  • Title of law
  • Public Law number
  • Location in U.S. Statutes at Large
  • Location in U.S. Code
  • Related congressional publications (from CRS, CBO, or GAO, for example)
  • Related Executive Branch publications
  • Sources of background information

Tracing Legislation and Major Sources

The following list includes primary and secondary sources at Gleeson Library | Geschke Center, the School of Law Library (indicated with *), and on the Internet.  

Legislative process Guides to legislative action Related publications Guides to legislative publications
Bill is introduced and referred to committee Congressional Record (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS

Digest of Public General Bills & Resolutions* 

Congressional Index*
Bills, Resolutions

Proquest Congressional

Major Legislation of Congress* 

House and Senate bills (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS)

Committee holds hearings Congressional Record (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS

Congressional Index* 

Committee Web sites (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS
Hearings, Prints

Proquest Congressional

Catalog of U.S. Government Publications  

Committee Web sites (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS)

CRS, CBO, or GAO reports

Committee recommends passage Congressional Record (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS

Congressional Index*
Reports (House, Senate, and Conference)

Proquest Congressional 

Catalog of U.S. Government Publications  

U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News*

Reports (House, Senate, and Conference) THOMAS and GPO ACCESS)

Chamber debates Congressional Record (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS

National Journal

Congressional Index*

House and Senate Journals**
Proceedings Proquest Congressional (gives dates of debate) 

Congressional Record (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS

Congressional Record Index (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS)
Chamber votes Congressional Record (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS

National Journal

Congressional Index* 

House and Senate Journals 

Congressional Roll Call* (THOMAS)
Votes Recorded Proquest Congressional(gives dates of passage) 

Congressional Record (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS

National Journal

Congressional Index* 

House and Senate Journals 

Congressional Roll Call* (THOMAS)
Bill is sent to conference Congressional Record (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS

National Journal 

Congressional Index*
Reports

Proquest Congressional

Catalog of U.S. Government Publications

U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News*

House and Senate Reports (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS)

Presidential statements National Journal 

Washington Post
Presidential Statements

Proquest Congressional

Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 

Public Papers of the President

Passage of Law Congressional Record (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS

National Journal 

Congressional Index* 

Digest of Public General Bills & Resolutions*
Law

Proquest Congressional

U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News 

Public laws (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS

U.S. Statutes at Large* 

U.S. Code

Veto or overriding a veto Congressional Record (THOMAS and GPO ACCESS) |

National Journal 

Congressional Index* 

House and Senate Journals
Veto Message or Votes Recorded

Proquest Congressional

Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 

Public Papers of the President 

Catalog of U.S. Government Publications

House and Senate Journals 


The publications listed above are available in a variety of formats.  Check Ignacio for location.

Definitions of Primary Source Documents

CONGRESSIONAL DOCUMENTS:

Bill -- A form of proposed legislation, numbered H.R. # and S. # for the House and Senate, respectively, which includes a proposal for a new law or the amendment or repeal of an existing law.  A bill is the draft, unapproved form of a public law.  See also U.S. Statutes at Large.

Resolution -- A form of proposed legislation used to initiate administrative or housekeeping procedures to govern the action of the chamber in which they originate.

Concurrent resolution -- An expression by Congress not normally legislative in character which expresses a "sense", opinion, purpose, fact, or principle and which does not require the President's signature.

Joint resolution -- A legislative initiative used typically used for the introduction of constitutional amendments and for the proclamation of commemorative days, weeks, or months.

Hearing -- Transcripts of testimony before congressional committees, usually with substantial accompanying documentation.

Print -- Research reports with background information ordered printed by a congressional committee.

Markup -- Review by a congressional committee after hearings are held to make changes to a bill and to make recommendations to Congress about its passage.

Report -- Reports of Congressional committees concerning proposed legislation and/or findings on matters under investigation that describe the purpose and scope of a bill and the reasons for approval.

Conference report -- A report of a conference committee, a committee formed to reconcile different versions of a bill passed in the House and Senate.

Document -- A publication containing various other materials, such as Executive Branch agency reports or other communication, ordered printed by both chambers of Congress.

Senate Executive reports -- Reports of the Committee on Foreign Relations relating to Treaties between the United States and foreign nations which have been submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification or reports of various Senate Committees regarding nomination of individuals.

Senate Executive documents -- A publication containing the text of a Treaty as it is submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification by the President of the United States. Beginning with the 97th Congress in 1981, Executive (Lettered) Documents became known as Treaty Documents, and they are now numbered instead of lettered alphabetically.

Senate treaty documents -- A publication containing the text of a Treaty as it is submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification by the President of the United States. Beginning with the 97th Congress in 1981, Executive (Lettered) Documents became known as Treaty Documents, and they are now numbered instead of lettered alphabetically.

U. S. Congressional Serial Set -- A serially numbered collection of congressional publications dating back to 1789 which includes House and Senate Reports and Documents. (Distribution limited after the 104th Congress.) (Temporarily housed on the third floor of Gleeson Library | Geschke Center and currently uncataloged.)

Slip law -- First official publication of a public law.

U.S. Statutes at Large -- Arrangement in chronological and numerical order in separate series of public laws, private laws, joint resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and some Presidential materials into bound sessional volumes.

Congressional Record -- Transcript of the deliberations of the members of the House and Senate.

Journals (House Journal and Senate Journal) -- Annual official legislative record of each chamber, containing minutes of daily sessions, a concise record of legislative action.

OTHER DOCUMENTS:

Public law -- A law passed by Congress of general application.

Private law -- A law passed by Congress that generally benefits a particular person or group of individuals.

U.S. Code -- Codification of the general and permanent law of the United States.

Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents -- A weekly collection of presidential materials, including Executive orders, transcripts of news conferences, messages to Congress, list of presidential nominees, and public speeches and statements.

Public Papers of the President -- An official series containing the text of each president's speeches, news conferences, messages, statements, communications to Congress, executive orders, proclamations, nominations, and appointments.

Monthly Catalog of U.S. Government Publications -- Catalog of government documents distributed through the U.S. Government Printing Office Federal Depository Library Program.

Additional Sources for Legislative History Research

For periodical articles or other information about the issues and opinions behind Congressional legislation and action, consider the following secondary sources: 

Catalog of U.S. Government Publications


Congressional Quarterly Almanac Reference and Stacks JK1 .C74

National Journal

Congressional Quarterly Weekly (Library has issues from 1959 to August 2005)

Background Information

Session dates of U.S. Congresses, 1789 - present  Available in the LexisNexis Congressional Help menu.

How a bill becomes a law Available in the LexisNexis Congressional Help menu.

How Congress Works. Washington, D.C. : Congressional Quarterly, c1998. 3rd ed. REFERENCE  JK1021 .H69 1998 

How our laws are made  By Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian, U.S. House of Representatives.

Enactment of a law   By Robert B. Dove, Parliamentarian, U.S. Senate.

How a bill becomes a law   Project VoteSmart Introduction to the U.S. Government.

Legislative History Process   University of Michigan Library Documents Center. 

Tracing Federal Legislation   California State University, Fresno Henry Madden Library.

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