Legislative History

Legislative History in the United States

Concept of legislative history

It is the official documentary record of the passage of a proposed statute – often involving multiple bills or resolutions – through the successive stages of the legislative process. At the federal level of government this process formally commences with the introduction of a measure in Congress by a Senator or Representative and unless terminating short of enactment, the most common outcome, concludes with a Presidential signing into law or veto. For major initiatives, however, the documentary record frequently begins before the introduction of a bill, perhaps with a background Congressional investigative study or committee hearing from a previous Congress or a draft of proposed legislation by the President.

Legislative History in Legal Research

The documents that make up the legislative history of a statute, including bills, committee reports, hearings, and floor debates, are helpful in interpreting provisions of such statute and in determining Congress’ intent in passing a statute. In order to compile a legislative history, the legal researcher must collect and read many of the documents produced in the course of a bill becoming law.

Learn more about the legislative process here, for most bills and the documents produced during that legislative process. About the Legislative Process in the U.S. Constitutional Enciclopedia of law, see here.

Introduction to Compiled Legislative History Contents

The purpose of Compiled Legislative History Contents is to provide a broad appreciation of the Compiled Legislative History Contents legal topic. Select from the list of U.S. legal topics for information (other than Compiled Legislative History Contents).

Researching Legislative History

Major purposes and Scope

In relation to the major purposes of legislative history research and how do they affect the scope and types of material selected for consultation:

1. The legislative history record of a statute is consulted by the courts, Congress, government agencies, legal scholars and others in an effort to clarify the legislative intent of Congress when the meaning of a legislative provision cannot be gleaned from the language of the statute itself. Although a legislative history is not legally binding it may influence judicial opinion or the course of future Congressional lawmaking. It may also serve the broader purpose of illuminating the social and political context from which a statute emerged and so lead a researcher to canvass not only the full complement of official legislative history publications but also the sometimes insightful commentary and analysis of unofficial secondary sources as well – law reviews, monographic studies, newspaper articles etc..

2. If interest is limited to the meaning of a particular section or subsection of a statute, a researcher may choose to consult only those Congressional sources that treat specific provisions in detail, primarily committee reports and to a lesser extent House and Senate floor debate from the Congressional Record. This is the most common approach to legislative history investigation adopted by the courts and those seeking to influence judicial interpretation of statutes.

3. Sometimes the interest of a legislative history researcher is narrower still, concerned with the documentary trail of a current bill but only as an indicator of its present status in the legislative processs. Has it been reported out of committee? Has it been debated or amended on the floor of the House or Senate? Alternatively, the focus of interest could well be the documentary record, not of a statute, but that of an unenacted legislaive measure from a past Congress.In either of these research scenarios it is “bill tracking” sources that should be consulted.

Typical Sequence of Steps in the Congressional legislative process

In relation to the typical sequence of steps in the Congressional legislative process and the legislative history documents normally associated with each step:

Legislative Steps :

  • Legislative Step 1: Legislation introduced by member(s) of Congress
  • Legislative Step 2: Referral for review to either whole committee or subcommittee and perhaps to multiple committees
  • Legislative Step 3:
  • Legislative Step 4: Markup session to make bill changes and additions
  • Legislative Step 5: Bill ordered to be reported by full committee to chamber of origin
  • Legislative Step 6: Floor debate, approval of possible amendments and vote on passage
  • Legislative Step 7: Referral to other chamber if no similar bill under consideration there. Conference committee formed to reconcile differences if measures passed by House and Senate significantly disagree
  • Legislative Step 8: Enrolled bill sent to President if conference report approved and bill passed by both House and Senate

Legislative History Publication Types associate with the above steps:

  • Legislative Step 1: House & Senate Bills and Resolutions; perhaps pre-introduction Exec. Branch draft legislation as House or Senate Document or an investigative Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report (Not an “official” legislative history document but often consulted by researchers for useful background information concerning proposed legislation)
  • Legislative Step 2: Committee Print – background study or research report often prepared by or for a subcommittee
  • Legislative Step 3: Hearings – Q & A and/or submitted testimony expressing views of Congressional witnesses
  • Legislative Step 4: No Legislative History Publication Type
  • Legislative Step 5: Committee Report – describes purpose and scope of bill, provides section by section analysis, discusses proposed amendments, if any, and includes dissenting member views
  • Legislative Step 6: Congressional Record – includes debate transcripts, Extension of Remarks, Daily Digest, History of Bills and Resolutions and vote tallies
  • Legislative Step 7: Conference Report – compromise recommendations, if agreement reached, by House and Senate committee conferees. Appears in Congressional Record and also often published as House Report.
  • Legislative Step 8: Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents – contains signing or veto messages.

Comprehensive accounts of the rules and procedures governing the Congressional legislative process are provided by the House and Senate Parliamentarians and a summarizing overview of how a bill becomes a law more detailed than that offered by the above table is available at the website of the U.S. House of Representatives. Analogous state-level legislative process information is typically available at legislative body websites of individual states.

Legislative history records Organization

Official legislative history records for a statute are compiled in terms of its Public Law number, a component of its Congressional session law citation, rather than the specific sections of the U.S. Code it has added or amended. The Public Law number can be obtained from a popular name table if a researcher begins with the name of the statute. It can otherwise be found at the end of the Code sections for which the statute is the sole or a contributing source.For measures falling short of enactment or still in the legislative process documentation is provided in terms of bill number and Congress, eg., H.R. 16, 107th Cong., (2001) or S. 125, 108th Cong. (2003).

Legislative History in the Context of Law Research

The Thurgood Marshall School of Law Library defined briefly Legislative History as: The record of a law’s evolution from bill to statute. A legislative history of a law will typically include committee hearings, committee reports, Congressional debates, and the various drafts of the bill and any amendments which were proposed.Legal research resources, including Legislative History, help to identify the law that governs an activity and to find materials that explain that law.

Legislative History: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Legislative History. This part provides references, in relation to Legislative History, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Legislative History by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Legislative History and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Legislative History or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Legislative History and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Legislative History. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Legislative History should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Legislative History when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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