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  Federal Legislative History Research

Interested in the legislative history of a state law? Please consult our listing of State Legislative History Guides or our research guide on Pennsylvania Materials and Legislative History.


The goal of legislative history research is to locate documents created by Congress related to a particular law. These documents can provide insight into the intent of the legislators who wrote or argued for or against the passage of a bill, or can provide information on the status of a bill that is currently pending in Congress or one that was introduced but never became law.

A legislative history may include references to the following materials:

Type of Document
Example Citation
Committee Report
S. Rep. No. 104-249
S. 2550, 82nd Cong.
113 Cong. Rec. H915 (daily ed. Feb. 2, 1967)
Committee Hearings
Removal of Criminal and Illegal Aliens, Subcom. on Immigration and Claims, House Committee on Judiciary (Sept. 5, 1996)
Committee Prints
Staff of H. Comm. on the Judiciary, 95th Cong., Impact of S. 1437 Upon Present Federal Criminal Laws (Comm. Print 1978)
Congressional Documents
H. Doc. No. 104-68

These documents are generated at various stages in the law-making process. For an interesting illustration of this process, look at this excellent infographic on how a bill becomes a law. For more in-depth information on the legislative process, consult John V. Sullivan, How Our Laws are Made, Revised and Updated, H.R. Doc. No. 110-49 (2007).

         Research Steps for Legislative Histories

Conducting a legislative history can be a complicated research task. The ease with which you complete a legislative history depends upon what sources of compiled legislative histories available to you, as well as the year of the law you wish to research. Always begin by locating the citations you need for your targeted law. After you have determined the appropriate citations to your law, check to see if a compiled legislative history exists for this law by consulting all sources of precompiled histories at your disposal. If a precompiled legislative history does not exist or is unavailable to you, you will need to consult various sources to determine what Congressional documents are relevant to the passage of your law. Finally, you will use the citations located in the precompiled legislative history or the citations you discovered in your research to locate the full text of these documents in electronic databases or print and microfiche collections.

         Locating Citations

There are a number of different ways to cite to one piece of legislation, with different citations attached to a law a different stages in the legislative process. For example, the following citations all point toward the same law, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952:

Citations to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952:
Type of Citation
H.R. 5678, 82nd Cong.
House Bill
Pub. L. 82-414
Public Law
66 Stat. 163
Statutes at Large
8 U.S.C. 1101 note et seq.
United States Code
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (“INA”)
Popular Name

It is recommend to have a few different citations to your law, ideally to the Public Law and Statutes at Large, when you begin your research. Ways to locate these citations to your law include:

By Name

Look the name of your law in a popular name index to find its corresponding public law citation. Such indexes include:

By United States Code Citation

If you would like the legislative history of a section of the United States Code, you will need to visit that particular section and consult the CREDIT notes located after the statutory language. These notes will direct you to the Public Laws that created or altered that particular section of the code. You can locate the U.S.C. online for free through the Federal Depository System (FDsys).

By Statutes at Large Citation

Retrieve your law in the Statutes at Large [Biddle Stacks KF 50 .U5], a collection of all laws passed in the United States, organized chronologically. The Statutes at Large is also available electronically through HeinOnline and for free at the Federal Digital System website (FDsys). The public law citation and bill number will be provided on the first page of your law. Citations are also provided throughout the text of the law to places in the United States Code where the language will be codified. You may also consult the tables in the United States Code or the Westlaw and Lexis publications of the Code to determine where a particular law in the Statutes at Large appears in the U.S.C.

By Public Law Number

You can retrieve a public law at the Federal Digital System website (FDsys). PDFs of the Public Laws will look identical to the Statutes at Large and will also provide the Statutes at Large citaiton, Bill Number, and corresponding United States Code citations. If the Public Law you are looking for is not included in the FDsys digital collection, consult the Statutes at Large tables in the United States Code, also available digitally on Westlaw or LexisNexis.

By Bill Number

If you have the bill number and the bill was passed into law, consult the CIS Index’s tables to locate the public law citation. [Biddle Reference KF 49 .C62]. Pulling up the text of the passed bill will usually direct you to a Statutes at Large citation as well. You may also consult the CCH Congressional Index [Biddle Reference KF 49 .C6] for the corresponding year of your bill and check the status to locate a public law citation, if applicable.

If the bill you are researching was never passed into law, you will only have access to the bill citation and possibly a popular name. Please note that most compiled legislative histories are only available for bills that were passed into law.

For questions about the relationship between these citations and publications, consult Biddle’s guide on federal statutes or ask a reference librarian.

         Precompiled Legislative Histories

Once you have citations to your law, check to see if a compiled legislative history already exists. Precompiled legislative histories will, at the very minimum, provide a list of citations to Congressional documents related to your law. Some compiled legislative histories will also provide the full text of these listed documents. Sources of precompiled legislative histories are:

  • CIS Index, Legislative History Volumes [Biddle Law Library Reference, KF49 .C62].  Available digitally on ProQuest Congressional. You can search the legislative histories by selecting the “Legislative Histories, Bills and Laws” link on the left and using your gathered citations in the Get a Document tab.
  • ProQuest Legislative Insight
  • Legislative Insight provides full-text legislative histories for selected laws. If a law is included in this database you will have the full text of all affiliated Congressional documents available to you.
  • Westlaw.  The following databases available in Westlaw provide compiled legislative histories. Please note that that coverage in these databases is not comprehensive, and if you cannot find what you need in Westlaw or Lexis it may still exist. Possible databases to search include:
  • U.S. GAO Federal Legislative Histories (FED-LH)
  • Arnold and Porter Collection
  • Multiple legislative history files to search, organized by name. To locate in Westlaw, search the Westlaw directory for “Arnold and Porter.” In WestlawNext, search for “Compiled Legislative Histories - Specific Acts” to see the collection.
  • LexisNexis CIS Legislative Histories. The full-text of listed documents in these CIS Legislative Histories are not always available in Lexis. You may search for the same CIS Legislative Histories and obtain many full-text documents through ProQuest Congressional
  • Law Review Articles and Books. Researchers may publish their legislative history research in a scholarly article or book. Try searching law review databases such as the Index to Legal Periodicals or Westlaw and LexisNexis for articles on your particular law. Also consult Biddle Law Library’s online catalog, LOLA, by books or other documents containing a legislative history. You can search the catalog by subject using the term “legislative history” to retrieve a multitude of topical legislative histories to assist you with your research.

         Compiling a Legislative History

If a precompiled legislative history does not exist, determine what Congressional documents are relevant to the passage of your law by using the following resources:

  • CCH Congressional Index [Biddle Reference KF49 .C6]. To locate the legislative history of a particular bill, consult the status tables in these volumes, which are organized by chamber and bill number. Coverage begins in 1939. This is an especially useful resource for researching bills that were not passed into law.
  • Library of Congress: Thomas.  This is a free resource provided by the Law Library of Congress. Look up your bill in Thomas’s Bill Summary and Status section to locate a chronological list of Committee Reports and Congressional Record Debates. Full text of these reports and debates may be available in Thomas depending on the date. Bill Summary and Status coverage begins with the 93rd Congress (1973) and goes to the present day.
  • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN), [Biddle Law Library Reference or Stacks, KF48 .U5], also available on Westlaw [USCCAN].  The legislative history volumes in USCCAN provide researchers with the dates of passage and consideration, citations to committe and conference reports, and presidential signing statements affilated with a passed law, if any. Full text for some documents are provided. The legislative history tables in USCCAN are also a valuable resource for quickly identifying the House and Senate report citations and dates of passage Please note that the citations provided may not be comprehensive and that other reports and materials might exist for the law you are researching.
  • Statutes at Large [Biddle Stacks KF50 .U5], also available on HeinOnline and  Locate your law in the Statutes at Large and find a selected legislative history after the text of the law. Please note that this list of legislative history documents is not comprehensive.

         Locating Documents

The final step in conducting a legislative history is to locate the full-text of all legislative documents affiliated with your law. Some precompiled legislative histories provide the full-text documents immediately. If you have compiled your own legislative history or are using a history that only provided citations to legislative documents, you will now need to locate the full text documents you wish to see.

Biddle Law Library maintains a useful guide of Federal Legislative Sources Available in PDF. This guide is organized by type of document and provides links to databases and free websites where you can obtain those particular materials. Coverage will vary by date.

A useful resource is the United States Congressional Serial Set, which is also available electronically on ProQuest Congressional. The Serial Set contains full-text House and Senate Reports, documents, and Presidential documents, among other Congressional publications. The CIS Index, available in print or electronically, is a useful finding aid for locating relevant documents published in the Serial Set. For research on legislation passed before the publication of the CIS Index, consult the CIS U.S. Serial Set Index, which is also available in print or electronically through Biddle. Once you have located what documents you are interested in viewing through the indexes, you can navigate the Serial Set volumes by consulting the schedule of volumes to the U.S. Serial Set.

Not all documents are available electronically. Search LOLA, Biddle’s catalog, for print copies of legislative documents. You can search for individual reports or hearings by name to locate a copy in Biddle’s holdings.

Finally, the CIS Microfiche collection is another useful tool for locating full-text legislative documents. Using either ProQuest Congressional or the print volumes of the CIS Abstracts, locate the abstract for the legislative document you would like to see. A CIS accession number is attached to each individual document. You can use this accession number to locate the corresponding fiche in Biddle’s collection to view the full text.

Need Assistance?

Legislative History research can be a challenging research task. For further assistance, feel free to contact a reference librarian