Federal Legislative Histories

What is a legislative history, and how is it useful to the legal researcher? This brief guide provides some answers to these questions and provides some starting points for you to help in locating and/or compiling a federal legislative history.

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.


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.


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.

Other Federal Research Guides

Subject Guide