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Federal Legislative History: Getting Started

About This Guide

Using a research guide is a great way to start researching a new or unfamiliar topic. Research guides are not exhaustive lists of available material in a given field; instead, they highlight prominent works available in the library's collection as well as provide examples of resources a user may find helpful. Research guides may also contain research tips and information about a specific library policies, and collection. The user should always check the date a research guide was last updated to ensure finding current material.

This guide is adapted from Lee F. Peoples, Law Library Director and Frederick Charles Hicks Professor of Law, Oklahoma City University 2005 guide "Researching Federal Legislative History."

Some other guides that may be helpful include the following:

Gallagher Law Library at the University of Washington's Guide to Federal Legislative History

Georgetown Law Library's Legislative History Research Guide

What Does "Legislative History" Mean?

Black's Law Dictionary defines legislative history as "the background and events leading to the enactment of a statute, including hearings, committee reports, and debates." In addition, Black's provides definitions for legislative history terms such as:

  • Congressional Bills
  • Committee Reports--House and Senate
  • Committee Hearings--House and Senate
  • Congressional Debates
  • Presidential Documents
  • Executive Agency Documents

Why research legislative history?  There are many instances when legislative history may be important.  For an attorney or judge, they may need to discover the legislative intent behind a bill in order to better interpret and apply the law.

Online Introductory Material

CALI has several lessons on Federal Legislative History research, including "Federal Legislative History Research:  Compiled Legislative Histories" by Professor Lee F. Peoples, Director of the Chickasaw Nation Law Library at Oklahoma City University School of Law and "Researching Federal Legislative History" by Professor Nancy Johnson at Georgia State University.

John V. Sullivan, House of Representatives Parliamentarian, has compiled a brochure entitled "How Our Laws Are Made," available through the website.

Links to Other Useful LibGuides

The Federal Legislative Process

Infographic linked and used with permission from Mikewarthart.comIt is available for purchase at


The Legislative Process in a Nutshell

Legislation is introduced by members of the House or Senate. Each proposed new law is called a bill or joint resolution. Bills are numbered sequentially (for example, the first House bill will be numbered H.R. 1 and the first Senate bill will be S.1). Bills are assigned to committees in each house. After a bill passes the house in which it was introduced, it is sent to the other house for consideration. If a bill is approved by both houses, it is sent to the President to be signed. If the President signs the bill, it becomes law. If the President vetoes the bill, a two thirds vote in both houses will override the veto. Bills introduced but not passed in a Congress do not carry over to the next session.

The first bill to pass a Congress is designated Public Law No. 1 and given a public law number indicating the congressional session (ex: 107-1, the first law to pass the 107th Congress).

The summary above was taken from Jacobstein, Myron J., et. al., Fundamentals of Legal Research (New York: Foundation Press, 1998), Chapter 9 (see the chart on page 195 outlining the steps in the legislative process and the sources of legislative history produced along the way).
OCU Call # KF 240.J3.

Books on Statutory Construction

What Documents are Included in Legislative History?

Congressional Bills

House and Senate Reports

House and Senate Documents

Committee Prints

Congressional Hearings

Congressional Debates

Presidential Signing Statements or Veto Message

Congressional Research Reports

Congressional Research Service provides analytical reports to members of Congress on a variety of topics relevant to current political events. These reports are available to the public but are not easily accessible.

The group Demand Progress joined forces with the Congressional Data Coalition to provide free access to Congressional Research Service reports.

Over 8,000 CRS reports are currently available, and that number is growing. Click on to search the available reports.

Books about Legislative History

Legislative History and SCOTUS

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