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Legislative Histories

Understanding the Legislative Process

Start with these basic overviews of the legislative process:

and then visit LexisNexis Congressional for a chart and step-by-step review:

or the following resources from Congress:

or the following resource:

What is a legislative history and how is it used?

A legislative history

  • traces the events leading to the passage of a Public Law;
  • documents the issues and facts considered by Congress in reaching its decision; and
  • includes publications such as reports from committees and the record of testimony at public hearings.
A legislative history is consulted to resolve questions as to how a law should be interpreted or applied. The original process of crafting the law is examined to determine legislative intent. Those seeking to modify existing laws or to enact related legislation may also review legislative histories to gain insights about the key issues and to identify likely opponents and supporters, both within and outside Congress.

provides additional guides with more details about legislative histories.

Step-by-Step Research about a Public Law

  1. Identify the Public Law number.
  2. Locate and read overviews of the bill's history.
  3. Retrieve a compiled legislative history list of bills, hearings, reports, debate, etc.
  4. Retrieve the Bill Tracking Report.
  5. Retrieve the brief "Guide to Legislative History" list of bills, reports and debate.
  6. Retrieve the list of reports and documents by bill number(s).
  7. Retrieve the list of reports, documents, and hearings by subject.
  8. Retrieve articles from journals and newspapers.
  9. Search for information from organizations concerned with the issue.
  10. Check other resources for information.

Where to Find the Text of Congressional Publications

Potential Research Problems

Not a Public Law
If the topic being researched is not a Public Law passed by Congress, then there won't be federal legislative history materials about it.
Examples include:
  • Federal Regulations
  • Executive Orders - For Example, charitable choice was implemented by Executive Order 13279 on Dec. 12, 2002.
  • State Laws and Regulations - Documentation of the intent of state legislatures can be very difficult to research.
    For example, see Documenting Florida Legislative Intent
  • Failed or Vetoed Congressional Bills - Some of the publications discussed above will exist, but there won't be ready-made guides to the legislative history since the bill never became a law.
Publications Never or Not Yet Published
Some Congressional committees have been extremely slow to publish their reports and documents.
Lack of Congressional Documentation
If the legislation flew through Congress with little or no opposition, there may have been no hearings and no committee reports produced. In 1995 the rush to meet the 100-day goal of the "Contract with America" resulted in some bills moving forward without hearings and with limited debate.
No Record of How Individuals Voted, e.g. Voice Vote
It is not possible to determine how individual members of Congress voted unless the vote was recorded name by name. Voice votes are simply a shouted chorus of "ayes" versus a shouted chorus of "nays"; there is no record of how specific individuals voted in a voice vote.
No Specific Citation Listed in the Legislative History
If the report or hearing had not yet been published at the time CIS went to press with the Legislative History volume, then CIS identified the report or hearing by subject, committee, and date, but there won't be a citation that directs you to the microfiche by number. That problem carries over into the electronic product because they just imported the legislative history information from the print version without updating it.
So how do you find those reports and hearings?
You can still search for them using the online LexisNexis Congressional, but the details won't show up in the Legislative History section. Instead,
  • go to the home page of LexisNexis Congressional, and then
    1. If you have the Congressional report or hearing number, use the last tab for " Search By Number" and then enter the number to retrieve descriptive information for the report or hearing. Otherwise, use the second tab for " Advanced Search".
    2. Search by a few of the key words and limit by date, but go from the year of the report or hearing to one or two years later to allow for the publication date not matching the actual hearing date.
      • Avoid too tight a phrase search, even if you think you know the title. Example, the actual title of a 1999 hearing when published was "Challenges Confronting Older Children Leaving Foster Care" but the description published in the legislative history was "Hearings on challenges confronting children aging out of foster care", so a search for the phrase "challenges confronting children" misses retrieving the actual hearing.
    3. In the results list, it is usually easiest to scan the list for the date of the hearing. Months are sometimes abbreviated and sometimes spelled out, e.g., "Oct" or "October".
Microfiche Missing
If the fiche are not in the CIS drawer and you cannot find them on top of the cabinets waiting to be refiled, you can try using the SUDOC number (e.g., Y4.W36:106-26) to find a copy in our depository microfiche. You do NOT need both versions.

Citation Guides

Looking for something else? Ask for assistance at the UCF Libraries' Research Assistance Desk or contact Ask A Librarian.

Prepared by: Rich Gause, Government Documents Librarian
URL of this page:

Last updated October 13, 2011 9:30:36 AM

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