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Legislative History - Federal and State

Introduction to Federal Legislative History Research at Biddle

Researchers and lawyers use legislative histories in a number of ways -- 

  • to understand the context in which a law was enacted;
  • to understand the intent and the policy-making goals of the legislators who proposed a bill;
  • to determine meaning when a statute's plain language is ambiguous;
  • to track developments in the law.

To conduct legislative history effectively, it is helpful to understand the legislative process, identify the information the process generates, and locate the resources suited to your research goals.

Begin with a compiled legislative history if one exists, or use the following process map, instructional guides, and links to resources to compile one.

The Federal Legislative Process

This “How Our Laws Are Made” infographic by Mike Wirth and Dr. Suzanne Cooper-Guasco won first prize in the Sunlight Foundation “Design for America Competition” 2010.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

How Our Laws Are Made by Mike Wirth and Dr. Suzanne Cooper-Guasco


Documents Produced in the Federal Legislative Process

The legislative process steps shown in the graphic above are usually associated with materials commonly used in legislative history research.   

1) Proposed law introduced in house, senate, or both = bill / resolution

2) Referral to committee / subcommittee for hearing & research = hearing proceedings; committee print

3) Report out of committee to chamber floor = committee report

4) Floor debates = debate proceedings

5) Vote on passage, transfer to other chamber of Congress = conference report 

6) Passage, presentation to President for signature = presidential signing statement

Other documents can also be produced along the way.  These are considered less as evidence of legislative intent than for other research purposes since they often reflect the work of organizations outside Congress.  

1)  House and Senate Documents:  a catch-all name for documents that House or Senate members consider or produce.  

  • NGO reports; U.S. govt. budgets; executive Agency reports & memos; presidential messages
  • Senate treaty documents and executive reports

2)  CRS Reports:  Congressional Research Services, researches and authors reports on legislative topics at Congress's request.

Books about the Federal Legislative Process & Legislative History Research