Fed. Legislative History
HomeLibrary › Fed. Legislative History FaceBookTwitterYouTube
This guide has been adapted, with permission, from Georgetown Law Library's Legislative History Research guide.

Page Outline:

Legislative Documents Presidential Signing Statements
Other Congressional Documents
Tools for Finding Legislative Documents Current Awareness


Federal legislative history refers to the documents produced by Congress as a bill is introduced, studied and debated. These legislative documents are often used as persuasive, not mandatory, legal authority in an attempt to determine Congressional intent or to clarify vague or ambiguous statutory language. To learn more about the legislative process, which can be quite complex, read How Our Laws Are Made, by Charles W. Johnson, Parliamentarian of the House of Representatives. For additional information about understanding statutes and applying legislative history to statutory interpretation, see list of Drake Law Library books on Statutory Construction and Interpretation

This guide discusses the types of documents that come out of the legislative process and their use and how to locate legislative documents for enacted and pending legislation. (Note: especially for older, important legislation, it can be wise to check to see if a legislative history has already been compiled.)

Legislative Documents

Committee Reports are usually considered the most important legislative documents and contain more analysis than the other documents. Bills and Congressional Debates also may be relevant. The other legislative materials provide little information that would help you to determine legislative intent, although they often provide valuable background and factual information on the issue being addressed by the legislation. If you are unsure in which Congress or year your law was passed, you may find it helpful to use the table of Years of Congress Conversion Table.


Introduction of a bill into Congress is the first step of the formal legislative process. After a bill is introduced, it is assigned a bill number, printed and referred to a committee. Bills are frequently amended throughout the legislative process and may be printed several times before they are finally passed. Comparing the various versions of a bill as it moved throughout the legislative process may help in determining the intended meaning of the law. Arguments regarding the meaning of a statutory section may be drawn based on the inclusion, deletion or modification of language in the text of the bill. Note, too, that the bill number is one of the keys to tracing legislative history. Bills are available as follows:
THOMAS (free web) From 101st Congress (1989) to present
GPO Fdsys (free web) From 102nd Congress (1991) to present; plus 1787-1788 
House & Senate Bills & Resolutions (free web) Selective coverage from 1799 through 1873 (6th to 42nd Congresses), with the exception of the 12th Congress.
GovTrack.us (free web--independent project) From 103rd Congress (1993) to present
Lexis-Nexis Congressional
(Drake login required)
From 101st Congress (1989) to present
Lexis (login required)

Current Congress: Legislation & Politics - U.S. & U.K. > U.S. Congress > Congressional Full Text Bills - Current Congress

Previous Congresses beginning with the 101st (1989): Federal Legal - U.S. > Archived Bill Text & Tracking

Westlaw (login required) CONG-BILLTXT-ALL database, from 104th Congress (1995) to present
Congressional material fiche cabinets At west end of Microform Room. Coverage from 96 to 106 Congress.
Congressional Record Index (free web) Choose a Congress, then browse the list of topics and link to a list of bills for the topic. From 104th Congress (1995) to present. [Available in print from 1945 to present at GovDoc X A.]
Congressional Index In print at KF49 .C6. Choose volume for correct Congress and see Subject Index for listing of bills.
Congressional Bills Glossary (free web) Definitions for bill and resolution types (enrolled, engrossed, etc.)


House and Senate committees hear testimony on proposed legislation in order to determine what is needed and to hear the views of various persons or organizations interested in the legislation. Hearings can provide a wealth of information for background research. Hearings are held for almost all substantive legislation and transcripts of most hearings (including exhibits provided by those testifying) are published. For interpreting enacted legislation, hearings are less useful than other legislative documents because they focus on the views of the parties testifying rather than the views of the committee or Congress. Hearings are published individually, and are available as follows:
GPO Fdsys (free web) Selected hearings from 102nd Congress (1991) to present (103 Congress, 1993-1994 currently missing) 
Selected Hearings, 1970s-1998 (free web) Rutgers School of Law (over 8,600 hearings available, with the collection growing.)
House and Senate Committees (free web) Links to the hearings pages of Congressional committees from Law Library Society of Washington, D.C.
Congressional Hearings on the Web (free web) Links to the hearings pages of Congressional committees from U. of Michigan Library
Lexis-Nexis Congressional
(Drake login required)
Selected coverage from 1988 to present. Under Advanced Search select only the "Hearings" option, and make sure to select the appropriate year or Congress at the bottom of the page.
Selected coverage from 1789 to 1969.  Under Advanced Search
Lexis (login required) Legislation & Politics - U.S. & U.K. > U.S. Congress > Committee Hearing Transcripts > CQ Transcriptions. Selected transcripts from 103rd Congress (1993) to present
Westlaw (login required) USTestimony database. Selected transcripts from 103rd Congress (1993) to present
Individual Hearing Transcripts Try a keyword search in our catalog to locate a specific hearing. If nothing comes up, use the SuDoc number obtained from LexisNexis Congressional to check the print Government Documents collection (selected coverage from 53 to 96 Congress).
Congressional material fiche cabinets At west end of Microform Room. Coverage includes 83 Congress to present.
Lexis-Nexis Congressional (Drake login required) Hearings are indexed from the 18th Congress (1824) to present. Select the "Hearings" button only, and make sure to select the appropriate year or Congress at the bottom of the page.
Lexis (login required) Federal Legal - U.S. > Legislative Histories  > CIS/Historical Index. Selected hearings indexed from 1789-1980

Federal Legal - U.S. > Legislative Histories & Materials > US - CIS Legislative Histories. Hearings indexed from 91st Congress, 2nd Session (1970) to present

Committee Reports (House, Senate, Conference)

Committee reports in general, and conference reports in particular, are the most important source of legislative history. Reports are issued for almost every bill that becomes a law, and there is usually a report from each of the House and Senate committees that considered the legislation.  A report will accompany the bill when it is sent to the full chamber for debate and voting. Reports usually reprint the text of the bill, describe its purposes, and give reasons for the committee's recommendations on the bill. Often, committee reports include the legislative history of the bill, the purposes of the bill, and what the committee regards as the need for new legislation. There is often a "section-by-section" analysis of the bill that is very helpful if your research is concentrated on just one section or sections. If a conference committee was appointed to draft a compromise bill acceptable to both the House and Senate (this occurs when the House and Senate versions of the bill are different), a conference report will be issued. Conference reports are particularly important because they come at the end of the legislative process and report on the text of the compromise bill. Committee reports are published in the United States Congressional Serial Set (look for unique Serial Set number), and are available as follows:
THOMAS (free web) From 104th Congress (1995) to present
GPO Fdsys (free web) From 104th Congress (1995) to present
U.S. Serial Set (free web) Selected reports from 23d to 64th Congresses (1833-1917)
Lexis (login required) Federal Legal - U.S. > Legislative Histories & Materials > Committee Reports. From 101st Congress, 2d Session (1990) to present, although coverage of the 101st and 102nd Congress is selective
Lexis-Nexis Congressional
(Drake login required)

Search in "Serial Set" for full text 1789-1969. Make sure to select the appropriate year or Congress at the bottom of the page.

Search in "House & Senate Reports" for full text from 1990-present. Make sure the select the appropriate year or Congress at the bottom of the page.

Westlaw (login required)

LH database. From 101st Congress, 2d Session (1990) to present

USCCAN-REP database. Selected reports from 1948 to present

United States Congressional Serial Set Select volumes from 88 to 95 Congress available at the end of Gov Docs collection
USCCAN (United States Code Congressional and Administrative News) Legislative History volumes, KF48 .U54. Selected reports from 78th Congress, 2d Session (1944)
Congressional material fiche cabinets At west end of Microform Room. Coverage includes 96 Congress to present.
Congressional Serial Set Catalog (free web) Choose Advanced Search. Under "catalogs to search" click on Congressional Serial Set. Coverage is complete from the 95th Congress (1977) to present
Lexis-Nexis Congressional
(Drake login required)
Under Advanced search, select "Serial Set" for full text 1789-1969. Make sure to select the appropriate year or Congress at the bottom of the page.

Under Advanced search, select "House & Senate Reports" for full text from 1990-present. Make sure the select the appropriate year or Congress at the bottom of the page.
U.S. Congressional Serial Set: Numerical Lists of Documents and Reports (free web) 85th to 109th Congress (1957-2006)
THOMAS (free web) Choose the appropriate Congress and click Browse Committee Reports for a list in numerical order. 104th to current Congress (from 1995)

Congressional Debates (Congressional Record)

The Congressional Record contains a transcript of the legislative proceedings and debates on the floor of the House and Senate. The Congressional Record may contain arguments for or against a proposed bill or amendment or explanations of provisions that are vague or unclear. The text of the debates in the Congressional Record is not necessarily verbatim transcript. One useful feature is the History of Bills that lists legislative actions on bills reported in the Congressional Record. For more information about the Congressional Record (and earlier sources of Congressional debate), see the library's guide Find Congressional Debate.

Presidential Statements

The President may issue a statement explaining his or her support for the bill upon signing it into law. These statements were traditionally brief and generally did not contain substantive analysis of the legislation. However, since the Reagan administration, and particularly during the presidency of George W. Bush, they have been used more vigorously and have become a subject of controversy. There is disagreement about their role in and importance to legislative history. For more information, see the Georgetown Law Library guide on Presidential Signing Statements. The full-text of presidential signing statements may be found in the following sources:
Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents January 29, 2009 to present
HeinOnline (Drake login required)  
GPO Fdsys (free web)  
Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents 1965 through January 29, 2009 
GPO Fdsys (free Web) coverage starts in 1993
Print at GOVDOC AE 2.109: 1985-2000
Print at GOVDOC GS 4.114: 1970-1985
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States 1957 to present
GPO Access (free Web) coverage starts in 1991
Lexis January 20, 2009 through current
Print at Gov Doc AE 2.114 1984 to present
Print at Gov Doc GS 4.113 1929-1933; 1945-1983
United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN)  
Print at KF48 .U54 selected coverage, 1944 - present
Electronic via Westlaw USCCAN-MSG database 1986 to present
Coherent Babble Blog's RSS Feed of Signing Statements 2001 to present
Presidential Signing Statements: Hoover to Obama 1929 to present


The Constitution provides for Congress to appropriate money to be spent by the Federal Government, so when the White House issues the Budget of the United States in February of each year, it can be confusing. (See GPO Access for older budgets.) For a detailed explanation of the legislature's role in the federal budget process, see the following: CongressLine: The Budget, published on LLRX.com For a discussion of the role of Congress in the appropriation process, versus the authorization process, see: CongressLine: Authorization and Appropriation, published on LLRX.com. See also the Economic Report of the President, an annual report written by the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and issued no later than 10 days after the release of the U.S. budget. 

Other Congressional Documents

Other types of material that may come out of the legislative process include committee prints and House and Senate documents. Committee prints contain information prepared for the use of the committee and sometimes include special reports or studies or compilations of earlier legislative history documents. House and Senate documents are usually of lesser importance for legislative history and contain special material prepared for Congress.  

Tools for Finding Legislative Documents

Compiled Legislative Histories

The legislative history of a particular law or area of law is often already compiled and published. These sources may be collections of reprinted documents, or just a narrative history that cites the important sources. To determine whether such a legislative history has been compiled, check the sources below: 

  1. Indexes listing legislative histories published in books and articles include Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories, KF 49 .B5 (and via HeinOnline in browse and searchable modes) and Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources, KF 49 .B55 1994. 
  2. Lexis, Federal Legal - U.S. > Legislative Histories & Materials
  3. Westlaw, U.S. Federal Materials > Legislative History includes the Arnold & Porter legislative history collection.
  4. HeinOnline, U.S. Federal Legislative History Library includes an alphabetical listing by title.
  5. Legislative Histories of Selected U.S. Laws in Electronic Format. Legislative history links to about 25 laws. Some require special logins.
  6. Lexis-Nexis Congressional has compiled legislative histories for laws from 1969. The histories includes listings of all documents associated with the law, arranged by type of document. Most compiled legislative histories link to the full text of the document. For instruction on using this database, see Harvard Law Library's online tutorial Finding Compiled Legislative Histories with LexisNexis Congressional.
  7. USCCAN (United States Code Congressional and Administrative News) lists and prints the full text of what are considered the most important legislative history documents for some laws enacted since 1944. USCCAN also provides the bill number, date of enactment, and a list of all committee reports for every law passed by Congress.
    • Westlaw USCCAN database
    • Print at KF 48 .U5 (use the Legislative History volumes)
  8. Legislative History in Books. Many books in our collection have legislative history information.
    • Drake catalog. In separate keyword search fields, enter the name of the law or topic you are searching, and the words "legislative history" (include the quotation marks). This will retrieve the items we have in our collection that have your search terms. 
  9. Legislative History in Articles. Use the Legal Periodicals & Books and the LegalTrac databases to identify articles that discuss a particular legislative history.
    • Search these databases together in Westlaw from the Directory. Enter both database names separated by a comma (ilp,lri) in the "Search These Databases" box.
    • Search these databases together in Lexis from Secondary Legal > Annotations & Indexes. Select the boxes next to "Legal Resources Index" &" Index to Legal Periodicals" and click the "Combine Sources" button.
    • Search the databases separately from our web site.


THOMAS is the legislative documents database from the Library of Congress. You can search or browse to the "Bill Summary & Status" for each bill or law. Click on "Text of Legislation" to see the full text of all versions of the bill," and on "All Congressional Actions" to see its chronological history, with links to full text of the documents produced (no hearings). Dates of coverage for different types of legislative documents varies. Check the coverage page in THOMAS for available dates for each type of document.


Use CIS Legislative Histories (from 1970) and CIS Historical Index (1789-1980) in Lexis to find listings of and links to Congressional documents related to a particular law.

CIS Legislative Histories [LexisNexis Congressional, Lexis and CIS Index]

  1. LexisNexis Congressional is the best tool for comprehensive legislative history information.
    • Laws enacted from 1969 to the present have compiled legislative histories available. Each history includes all documents related to the law, arranged by document type (committee reports, hearings, debates, etc.). Documents are included from all relevant Congresses, not just the Congress in which the law was passed. If the documents are not available in full text, then information is included to help locate them in print and/or microfiche.
    • Laws enacted prior to 1969 do not have compiled histories (there are some exceptions), but you may search by number for "congressional publications related to a particular bill or law" (choose that option in the drop-down box) from the 16th Congress (1819). You may also do a basic or advanced search.
  2. Lexis has LexisNexis Congressional in CIS Legislative Histories (from 1970) and CIS Historical Index (1789-1980), however there are no guided searches, and the coverage isn't as broad.
  3. CIS Index (Index Tables) is the print version of LexisNexis Congressional. There are Legislative History volumes for all laws enacted between 1984 and 2001. Like LexisNexis Congressional, all of the documents for each law are listed by document type. In addition to the Legislative History volumes, CIS indexes all House and Senate reports, hearings, prints, and documents, including materials relating to legislation that was not enacted. Searching is by subject, name, committee, public law number, bill number, or document number. Full text is not available in CIS Index.

Current Awareness

Use the following sources to find commentary on information on specific bills and laws.

Free Web

Databases (Drake login required):

  • CQ Researcher. Publishes 12,000-word reports covering the most current and controversial issues of the day with complete summaries, insight into all sides of the issues, bibliographies and more on a weekly basis. Includes all CQ Researcher reports published since 1991.
  • CQ Weekly. Provides nonpartisan news and analysis on the United States Congress. The service includes access to the full text of all articles published since 1983.
  • CQ Congress Collection. Provides information on Congressional voting with links to additional reports and analysis.

Updated 10/09 - KW

Last Modified: 10/22/2009 4:39:00 PM by Karen Wallace