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Federal Legislative History Guide

How to locate, compile, and understand the legislative history of federal acts.


This guide is designed to help you understand the Federal Legislative process as well as what documents comprise a legilative history. It covers the major print materials, free web sources, and online databases. The guide can be used by students, faculty members, lawyers, and the general public.

For an in-depth examination of the legislative process see Sullivan, J. V, & Brady, R. A., How our laws are made. (2007), available in through the Library of Congress.


A bit about the law

“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”  John Godfrey Saxe

Food for thought

  • If ambiguity exists, the first place to look beyond the statute’s own text for legal authority is to judicial interpretation.
  • Legislative histories are not controlling or binding on any court.
  • Not all Judges are amenable to legislative history arguments (some are quite hostile).
  • Not all legislative documents are created equal.

What is a legislative history and why should you care?

Federal legislative history refers to the documents produced by Congress as a bill is introduced, studied and debated.  Thus, a legislative history is an attempt to determine the intent of the legislature.  The intent of the legislature is one of the arguments you can use when arguing how a ambiguous statute should be interpreted. 

When are Legislative Histories used?

  1. to seek the current status of a bill
  2. to determine where a bill is in the legislative process
  3. to determine the intent or meaning of an enacted law through the consideration of the documents produced in the process (statutory intent).

Don’t reinvent the wheel!

Legislative histories for major laws are sometimes compiled and published in a single collection. These compilations can be very helpful because they gather all of the legislative sources relating to a law in one place. Therefore, it may be worth your while to determine if one of these exists before attempting to compile the sources on your own.  Check out the Compilations tab for more information.

The Most Important Stuff

The most important documents produced during the legislative process, that is the documents most indicative of legislative intent, are as follows:

  1. Conference Report (if there is one)
  2. Committee Report
  3. Committee Hearing Transcript
  4. Floor Debates

Always look for these materials first when researching legislative history.

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