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Federal Legislative History

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

What Is in This Guide?

Federal Legislative History

"Legislative history" refers to the documents produced during the legislative process. Legislative history research is done to help interpret the intended meaning of an act, clarify ambiguous statutory language, provide background information on the political process, or for current awareness of legislation actively being considered by Congress.

The Law Library has an extensive collection of documents to help compile a legislative history, including subscription based and free electronic resources. 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 you are researching. 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.