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Federal Legislative History

This guide provides an overview of how to locate federal legislative history.

Introduction

Federal legislative history can provide information about legislative intent and clarify terms in a federal statute. Here is how to locate it.

Getting Started

Legislative history is found in the collection of documents created during the legislative process. This chart provides a detailed overview of the path a piece of proposed legislation must travel in order to become a law.

The first question to ask yourself:  Has someone done the work for you? Many legislative histories have  been compiled, so if you need a legislative history for a major statute,  look first to see if you can find a complete one before assembling one yourself.
 

Practice note: few bills make it through this labyrinth.  Only about 5% of proposed bills become law. Each committee and stage of the process represents an opportunity for a bill to die. 

As a researcher, you want to find documents that are produced during the legislative process.  The most prominent are: 

  • Bill Text (Example, House as the origin:  H.R. 301; Senate as origin:  S. 2599).  
  • Committee Hearing Testimony, Committee Reports
  • Floor Debates
  • Bill Amendments
  • Votes
  • Conference Committee Testimony and Reports (Conference Committees arise when members of the House and Senate meet to reconcile two different versions of the same bill)
  • Presidential papers or action (Sign, veto, statements)
  • Final bill enacted.  Look for Public Law number, prior to assignment of U.S. Code section

(Note: you may not find all of these items for each enacted statute.)  

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