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Federal Legislative History Research

Legislative History Background


U.S. Capitol in June. Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol, U.S.-PD

This guide provides an overview of resources for performing federal legislative history research. Online and print resources available from the University of Minnesota Law Library are highlighted.  For information and resources relating to Minnesota legislative history research, consult the legislative history section of our Minnesota Law Research Guide. A recommended guide for researching legislative history for other states is the State Legislative History Research Guides Inventory, from the Law Library of the Maurer School of Law, University of Indiana, Bloomington. 

This guide was originally authored by Vicente Garces, and was last updated by Andrew Martineau in March of 2018.

 

Bills must overcome many hurdles before they are signed into law.  As bills wind their way through the legislative process, they leave behind a paper trail of various kinds of documents, including reports, transcripts, amendments, different bill versions, and others.  These documents make up the bill’s legislative history. 

When lawyers research legislative history, they are usually looking for evidence of legislative intent. By discerning how Congress intended a law to behave, a lawyer can better understand a statute that may be unclear or ambiguous. Although legislative history is frequently cited in court briefs, it is only considered to be persuasive, rather than mandatory, authority when considered by a judge.

Before researching the legislative history of a statute, it is important to be familiar with two concepts: 1) the codification process, and 2) the legislative process.


Codification

Generally, when researching a statute, it is best to start with the United States Code.  This is because the U.S. Code is arranged by topic and kept up to date with new amendments, deletions, and additions. 

Every U.S. Code provision began as a public law passed by Congress.  When Congress passes a public law, it is published as an individual slip law and given a Public Law Number.  For example, Public Law 101-214 is the 214th law passed by the 101st Congress.  These individual slip laws are then codified (that is, arranged by topic systematically) in the United States Code. 

At the end of each section of the United States Code (under “credits”), you’ll find a list of the public laws that added and later amended that code section.  The first step to researching the legislative history of a code section is to browse through these public laws and decide which require further investigation.


The Legislative Process

Every public law began its life as a bill.  Bills generally go through the following process in their journey to becoming enacted as a law:

1. Before bill is introduced

  • Congress will sometimes hold hearings and debates, issue reports, or solicit committee reprints about a particular issue or subject matter before a bill is introduced.   

2. Bill is introduced

  • At this stage, you can find the text of the bill as introduced, and statements of the sponsor in the Congressional Record.

3. Bill is referred to committee

  • Committees produce some of the best legislative history, such as committee prints, hearing transcripts, and, best of all, committee reports.

4.  Bill is debated, possibly amended

  • At this stage, you'll find debate transcripts in the Congressional Record, the text of amendments, and new versions of the bill.

 5. Bill is voted on

  • Voting records are available through Congress.gov and in the Congressional Record.

 6. Bill goes to Conference Committee (if Senate and House pass inconsistent versions)

  • Here, the Conference Committee will issue a new report on the changes made to the bill.

7.  Bill goes to the president

  • Often, the president will issue a "signing statement" when signing a bill into law

Further Reading on the Legislative Process


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