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Federal Legislative History

Research guide about resources and strategies for researching federal legislative history.

What Is in This Guide?

U.S. Capitol Building

Federal Legislative History

Documents produced during the creation of legislation constitute "legislative history." Disputes over the meaning or application of a statute can lead to a search through legislative history for evidence of legislative intent. The Law Library has an extensive collection of documents required to compile a legislative history, including access to an increasing number of electronic sources, both subscription based and free.  The following pages provide information on how to find these resources:

Conducting Legislative History Research

When researching federal legislative history, the following tips will make your research more effective.  

  1. Before compiling your own legislative history materials, see if someone else has already compiled a legislative history on the legislation in which you are interested.  The Compiled Legislative Histories page lists resources that will help you find existing compiled legislative histories.  
  2. Legislative history is only persuasive authority and is not binding on courts.  Different judges have different opinions on how much of a role legislative history should play in statutory interpretation.   The resources listed under "Using Legislative History" on The Legislative Process page discuss this issue.  
  3. If you are interested in the legislative intent behind the legislation, the most important resources are congressional committee reports that give the committee members' perspective on the bill.  Of these, the most important committee report, if it exists, is the conference committee report which occurs near the end of the legislative process after the conflicts between the House and Senate versions of the bill have been reconciled.  The Committee Reports page lists resources that will help you find these reports.  
  4. Examining different versions of the bill text and transcripts of congressional debates (which are not always recorded verbatim) may also help determine legislative intent.  The Bills and Floor/Chamber Debates pages provide guidance on how to find these resources. Other legislative documents such as hearings and committee prints are less helpful because they do not provide the view of particular legislators, but they may be helpful for understanding the issues surrounding the legislation.  

Credit to Georgetown Law Library's Legislative History Research Guide for some of the above information.