Researching Legislative History


Whenever possible, start with one of these sources for a compiled legislative history.  Below you will find sources for individual types of legislative documents as well as tutorials for how to use the different legislative research databases.  A list of treatises on statutory interpretation is available here.

Committee Hearings

Hearings come in several varieties—legislative and oversight are most common—and any hearing can be published or unpublished. Not all congressional hearings are published, as each committee makes its own decision regarding which hearings are to be published. The transcripts of unpublished hearings are transferred to the National Archives. Senate hearings generally remain closed for 20 years, and House hearings remain closed for 30 years. Hearings that contain classified or sensitive material generally remain closed for 50 years.  When they are released, unpublished hearings are not normally published by the committees, although in unusual circumstances they may be.  ProQuest Congressional provides online access to published as well as some unpublished hearings.   There is also an annotated print index by that same publisher for unpublished Senate and House hearings. 

Published Hearings:

Unpublished Hearings:

Each committee decides which of its hearings are to be published. A committee may decide not to publish a hearing because it contains classified or sensitive information, because it pertains to private legislation, etc. The National Archives has the transcripts of unpublished hearings. Senate hearings generally remain closed for 20 years, and House hearings remain closed for 30 years. Hearings that contain classified or sensitive material generally remain closed for 50 years.

Yale subscribes to ProQuest Congressional, which contains annotated indexing for unpublished hearings (Senate unpublished hearings from 1824-1984, and for House unpublished hearings from 1833-1972) and the full text of released hearings (1973 -1976).

Committee Prints

Committee prints can be anything a committee wants to print – some basic categories are: draft reports and bills, directories, statistical materials, investigative reports, historical reports, situational studies, confidential staff reports, hearings, and legislative analyses. The prints are an excellent resource for statistical and historical information, and for legislative analysis. The content of the prints will vary greatly due to the different concerns and actions of each committee.

Historical Prints: 1830 - present:

Committtee prints from 1970 - present:

Committee Reports

There are three general types of reports: a) House and Senate Reports (deal with proposed legislation and issues under investigation); b) Senate Executive Reports (treaties and nominations); and c) conference committee reports (differences on legislation between the House and Senate have been committed to conference committees to work out a settlement).  For legislative history research, a committee report is an essential document because it explains the text of the bill and reasons behind the legislation.

Congressional Bills

Bills are designated “H.R.” if they originate in the House of Representatives and “S.” if they originate in the Senate. They are assigned a number – chronologically, in the order in which they are introduced during the two-year period of a congressional term.  (See also Concurrent ResolutionJoint Resolution.) Public bills deal with general questions and become public laws if approved by Congress and signed by the president. Private bills deal with individual matters such as claims against the government, immigration and naturalization cases, and become private laws if approved and signed. Each printed version of a bill usually has some changes, allowing comparisons and illuminating choices made as the legislation developed. Varieties include: as introduced, as referredenrolledengrossed, and enacted bills. To track changes in legislation, GovTrack will help.  

Historical Bills: (House 1799-1873)  (Senate 1819-1873):

Bills issued between 1874 - 1932:

Bills issued between 1933 - 1989:

Bills issued after 1989:

Congressional Debates

Floor debates are generally located within the Congressional Record.  There are two versions of the Congressional Record — a daily edition and a permanent edition. The pagination is not the same and there is no cross-reference table. Each version contains the proceedings of Congress, separated by chamber. The daily edition has four sections: Senate, House, Extension of Remarks and Daily Digest. Following each session of Congress, the daily Congressional Record can be revised by members of Congress, and then it is printed and permanently bound.  The permanent edition lacks the daily digests, but includes an index.

Predecessors to the Congressional Record are the  Annals of Congress  (1789 - 1824),  Register of Debates (1824 - 1837), and the Congressional Globe (1833 – 1873). These are all available in the Library of Congress’ web collection,A Century of LawmakingProquest Congressional and in HeinOnline.

Congressional Procedure, Minutes & Calendar

The Library of Congress has a great, step-by-step overview of the legislative process here.  The Congressional process includes various activities and actions that are private and not observable by the public - if there is a document that you can’t find, please consult with a librarian to see if it is available.   See also:

CALENDARS: collection includes the Calendars of the U.S. House of Representatives and History of Legislation and the Senate Calendar of Business.

MINUTES (1981 - date): The Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States contains the “minutes” of each chamber’s session. It is the official, constitutionally required record of the business of Congress; however, for legislative history, it is usually not as helpful as the Congressional Record.

See also the Maclay’s Journal of Senate Proceedings (1789-1791), since Senate sessions were closed to the public until 1795, his is one of the few accounts of Senate floor activity in the early Congresses.  It is available in the Library of Congress’ web collection, A Century of Lawmaking.

Federal Legislative History Tutorials

Commentary on Legislative History

Signing Statements

When the President makes a statement upon signing a bill into law, it is printed in the Public Papers of the Presidents and the Weekly (now Daily) Compilation of Presidential Documents.

Other useful sites for statements by the President include the White House website, the National Archives and the American Presidency Project.  For commentary on the legality and use of signing statements please see here.

U.S. Legal Dictionaries

The use of dictionaries at the Supreme Court is increasingly popular for various reasons.  Black’s Law Dictionary is the most frequently used U.S. legal dictionary. It is available in print and on Westlaw

Other popular dictionaries include:

Ballentine’s Law Dictionary available in print and on LexisNexis.  This dictionary contains over 40,000 definitions of legal terms “based on the actual construction of those terms by courts of last resort, with each case cited to the page on which the definition appears.”

Modern Dictionary for the Legal Profession in print.  In addition to explaining legal concepts like “lemon law,” it also includes references to colloquial phrases heard in practice.

Words and Phrases available in print and on Westlaw.  Contains all judicial constructions and definitions of words and phrases by the state and federal courts from the earliest times, alphabetically arranged and indexed.

US Courts commonly used terms website and Westlaw’s Glossary of Commonly Used Terms in Legal Research here.

Updated Date: 
Wednesday, August 1, 2018