Introduction to Legislative Histories

This guide focuses on legislative history research.

Pedagogical Goals of this Guide

This guide focuses on how to perform a legislative history.  It includes materials from both the federal and state legislatures.  After reading this guide, students should be able to:

  • Identify the major documents produced by the state and federal legislatures.
  • Find pre-compiled federal legislative histories.
  • Use Lexis-Nexis Congressional to find legislative materials, including CRS reports.
  • Use California's LegInfo website to locate state legislative documents.

Why compile legislative histories?

Being able to locate legislative documents and compile them into a history is valuable tool in legal research.  Reading through legislative materials is helpful in discovering legislative intent and locating the resources legislators used when crafting and passing legislation.  If you need any assistance on how to compile a legislative history, or need help to locate a document not discussed in this research guide, please speak with a law librarian.

What is a legislative history and how is it used??

Brief definition:
A legislative history is a collection of the documents created by Congress or a state legislature during the process leading up to the enactment of a law. The legislative history provides evidence that members of the legislative body were aware of particular issues and facts, and includes comments and recommendations of committees and individual members of the legislative body.

WHY is it important?
A legislative history helps determine the intent of the legislators when a particular statute was passed. When a question arises concerning the applicability or interpretation of a statute, a legislative history can be consulted to better understand the reasons for the enactment of that statute.

Types of documents

The documents that make up a legislative history can include:

Bills and amendments
The text of the bill as introduced, reported from committees, and acted upon by either or both houses, provides information on the original language of the sponsor as well of evidence of deliberate exclusions and inclusions as to the bill as it made its way through the legislative process.

Hearings
These are primarily transcripts of the testimony of witnesses before House and Senate committees. Hearings are used to illustrate that certain issues and considerations were made known to Congress through the hearing process. Hearings may be held on an individual bill or a group of bills on the same or similar subject. Not all hearings are published.

Committee Prints
Committee prints can be research studies, compilations of materials or statutes, background information, or working drafts of a bill. Not all committee prints are published or distributed, and therefore can be hard to find.

Committee Reports
These are committees’ official communications to Congress explaining the purpose of the bill and setting forth the recommendations for the passage of the bill. Many also contain a report by the minority members of the committee on their objections to the language or the purpose of the bill. Committee reports, especially Conference committees, tend to carry a great deal of weight in ascertaining congressional intent.

Debates
These include comments and activities which occur on the floor of the two houses of Congress when in session. While individual comments during debates are not proof of congressional intent, statements by the bill’s sponsor or chair of the committee reporting the bill can have significant weight.

Presidential Messages
Sent to Congress by the President, these messages are the comments by the President explaining the reasons for suggesting, signing, or vetoing the legislation.

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