Federal Legislative History in the United States
A legislative history is made up of two components. The first is the chronology of events for the legislation in question: when the bill was introduced, when it was voted on, when it was signed into law, etc. The second component is the documents which were produced during the course of the chronology. In order to find out about these two components, it is necessary to understand the process by which legislation is enacted. There are various secondary sources through which the chronology and documents can be identified and located. One of the most useful is Nancy P. Johnson’s Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories (KF 49 .B5J6 Ready Ref.). It is worth checking this source to see if someone has already compiled a legislative history for the statute in which you are interested.
The cornerstone of a legislative history is the bill number. Bills are numbered sequentially in the order they are introduced and change with each new Congress. As a bill progresses through the legislative process, it generates several different kinds of documents. After a bill is introduced and numbered, it is assigned to a committee.
Committees produce four different types of documents: Committee Prints, Committee Documents, Hearings, and Reports. Committee Prints are compiled by the administrative staff of a Congressional committee as background for the committee members. They contain statistical data and may be reproduced from such sources as the Congressional Research Service. Committee Documents are sent to the committee by administrative agencies or the executive branch.
There are two kinds of hearings: legislative hearings in support of bills currently before the House of Representatives or Senate, and investigative hearings on important issues which are not currently being considered, but which may lead to legislation in the future. Finally, a Committee Report is issued. This document is written by the members of the committee and contains recommendations on why the bill should be passed. Of all the documents to come out of committee, the Committee Report is the most important in establishing legislative intent, because it contains the Congress members’ own words.
At this point, the reported bill is sent back to the appropriate chamber for consideration. Floor debates along with amendments and votes are contained in the Congressional Record. Floor debates are the other major source of direct evidence of legislative intent recognized by the courts, again because they contain the congress member’s own words.
After each chamber of Congress has agreed upon the final version of a bill, the enrolled bill is sent to the President for signature.
Chronology of Events
In developing a chronology of events it is important to use status tables and often secondary source materials which report on the activity of Congress. The various indexes which cover legislation reflect different periods of time and generally it is more difficult to compile a history the further back in time one needs to go. The Congressional Information Service has produced three useful indexes for the U.S. Serial Set (committee reports), U.S. Congressional Committee Hearings, and U.S. Congressional Committee Prints covering the years 1833 to 1969.
The Digest of Public General Bills and Resolutions (Documents LC 14.6:) began in 1936 and allows you to trace a bill from the public law number. The Monthly Catalog goes back to 1896 and covers documents published by the United States printing office.
The Commerce Clearing House Congressional Index began in 1965 and is a complete status table of bills showing all activity. The index to the Congressional Record will also contain notices of bill activity. CIS began publication of abstracts and indexes (CIS Index) to all reports and hearings in 1970, while the West Publishing Company’s United States Code Congressional and Administrative News began in 1941. Two other useful sources are Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report (periodicals) and the Congressional Quarterly Almanac (KF 49 C7) which is an annual compilation of Weekly Report articles. Both of these publications began in the mid-
The CIS Masterfile is an index searchable in several different ways and covers 1789 – present.
For a more detailed explanation of this topic please refer to the following sources:
- Price and Bitner. Effective Legal Research. 4th ed. (1979), Chapter 4 Legislative Histories of Federal Statutes. KF 240 .P7
- Jacobstein and Mersky. Fundamentals of Legal Research. 2d ed. (1981, Chapter 10 Federal Legislative Histories. KF 240 .J3
- Cohen and Berring. How to Find the Law. 9th ed. (1989), Chapter 7 Legislative History. KF 240 .C538
- Cohen and Olsen. Legal Research in a Nutshell. 6th ed. (1996), Chapter 7 Legislative History