Originally published March 2014 by Christina Glon.
Last updated August 25, 2015 by Christina Glon.
For more information, see Legislative Process Videos at Congress.gov.
By studying the debates, reports and various mark-ups that occur throughout the legislative process, one can sometimes discern the legislative intent of the final, passed legislation. “Legislative Intent” is often used to reconcile conflicting interpretations of passed legislations.
Additionally, these documents can give insight to the views of individual sponsors, can highlight contentious provisions of the final bill, can include information on provisions left out of the final bill, and can sometimes give reasons for the specific language ultimately used in the final bill.
However, it is important to keep in mind that not all bills generate a significant amount of legislative history. Every bill does not pass through Congress in the same manner, and not every bill generates substantial documents along the way. Therefore, understand that while you really want to find a report on the “meaning” of a bill or provision, that report, debate, or hearing may not actually exist. It is not uncommon for Congress to legislate without conducting these debates and hearings or commissioning that report.
Before you can really begin your legislative history research, it is important to find some fundamental citations for your legislation. If the bill has been passed into law (Enacted), it will have been assigned a Public Law number and will have been published as a stand-alone pamphlet (also known as the “Slip Law”) and in the Statutes at Large (also known as the “Session Law”).
Public Law Numbers are assigned chronologically by congress. For example, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is also known as PL 111-148. It was the 148th law enacted by the 111th Congress (2010). The Statutes at Large citation is just like any other legal citation and includes the volume and page number of the law as it appears in the Statutes at Large print publication. For example, the PPACA was first published at 124 Stat 119. It was published on page 119 of the 124th volume of the Statutes at Large.
Finding Public Law and Statutes at Large Citations.
There are several ways to locate these fundamental citations for enacted laws. The easiest may truly be to simply google the title of the legislation. Wikipedia often includes key dates and citations to laws that will be helpful as you continue with your research. Alternatively, WestlawNext and Lexis Advance both provide “Popular Names” tables which can easily provide citations and links to legislation based purely on their popular names.
Remember, the text of the Public Law and the text of the Statute at Large is identical. It is the same bill simply published in two different locations.
Once you have a citation for a report, hearing, debate, or bill, there are several places to look for the documents online. When at all possible, it is best to use the official Government Printing Office’s digital repository website (www.govinfo.gov) to access official, authenticated government documents. Click here to learn more about govinfo and the importance of authenticated documents. However, there are several other places to look for legislative history documents.
Documents in WestlawNext
WestlawNext’s Legislative History collection contains both Federal and State material and also allows a few unique search features such as “veto messages” and “governor messages.” This page also provides a quick link to additional Tools and Resources such as Arnold & Porter Legislative Histories and the ABA Section of Taxation Comments to U.S. Congress, Federal Agencies & U.S. Tax Court. Finally, WestlawNext also provides the ability to search legislative histories compiled by the Government Accountability Office from 1921 through 1995 as well as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).
Documents in ProQuest Congressional
ProQuest Congressional is a comprehensive online collection of primary source congressional publications and legislative research materials. ProQuest Congressional offers basic Boolean searching as well as more advanced “Search by Number” features and the ability to narrow by document type. ProQuest Congressional also features a comprehensive search tool for congressional committees and their members as well as a variety of compiled legislative histories from 1969-present.
Documents in HeinOnline
HeinOnline is the place to go for .pdfs! If you have a congressional document citation, HeinOnline is extremely easy to use and allows you to retrieve .pdfs of the document in no time. By “drilling down” through the congressional publication’s library and dates, more than 100 million documents are available to you in .pdf format. Libraries include U.S. Congressional Documents (including the Congressional Record, Congressional Budget Office, Congressional Hearings, CRS Reports, and Committee Prints), Session Laws, Statutes at Large, and a U.S. and Federal Legislative History Library.
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