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Following is a basic outline of resources to consult when first researching a federal legislative history. Materials such as bills, committee hearings, committee reports, congressional debate and other documents (e.g. committee prints or presidential messages) can provide insight into the legislative intent of a particular law.

Getting Started

Before you begin your research, you should know the following two pieces of information:

  • The public law citation or the Statutes at Large citation (e.g. P.L. 107-56; 115 Stat. 272)
  • The bill number and Congress of the Act or Resolution (e.g. H.R. 3162 from the 107th Congress)

If all you have is the popular name of the statute (e.g. USA PATRIOT Act), you can use Shepard's Acts and Cases by Popular Names (RR Desk) or the Popular Names Table included with the United States Code (Row 2), United States Code Annotated (Row 3) or the United States Code Service (Row 4) to find the public law and Statutes at Large citation.

Bill numbers can be found in the United States Statutes at Large (Row 5 & 7) since 1904; to locate bill numbers for laws passed before 1904 use Eugene Nabors, Legislative Reference Checklist: The Key To Legislative Histories From 1789 To 1903 (RR Desk).

To learn if a compiled legislative history exists for the law you are researching, consult

  • Nancy P. Johnson, Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories: a Bibliography of Government Documents, Periodical Articles, and Books, 1st Congress-94th Congress (RR Desk), or
  • Bernard D. Reams, Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources (RR Desk).

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Primary Resources

CIS Annual (Row 9) This print publication indexes and abstracts congressional publications including House and Senate reports, hearings, committee prints and public laws since 1970. The Law Library maintains a copy of the accompanying full-text microfiche set. Use the following Congressional Information Service (CIS) resources based on the date of your legislation:

  • From 1970 - 1983, the annual CIS Annual contains two types of volumes: Index and Abstracts. At the back of each Abstracts volume, there is a condensed 'Legislative History' section which lists congressional documents by public law number.
  • From 1984 forward, the CIS Annual includes three types of volumes: Index, Abstracts and a separate Legislative Histories volume.
  • Other Indexes by CIS are available for researching pre-1970 legislation (see Quick Guide below for more information).

United States Code, Congressional & Administrative News (USCAAN) (Row 1) USCAAN public law volumes reprint all of the public laws appearing in the Statutes at Large since 1941. Beginning in 1948, USCAAN contains legislative history volumes which print excerpts of congressional reports for selected legislation with additional citations to the Congressional Record and Presidential signing statements.

United States Statutes at Large (Row 7) Beginning in 1963, the Statutes at Large contains legislative history citations for all public laws. For volumes 77 (1963) through 88 (1974), there is a table at the back entitled 'Guide to Legislative History of Bills Enacted into Public Law'. For volume 89 forward, legislative history citations to reports, the Congressional Record, and the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents appear at the end of individual public laws.

Congressional Record Index (Row 9) From 1873 to the present, each volume contains a 'History of Bills and Resolutions' section which includes citations to relevant floor debate as well as congressional reports and documents.

THOMAS (http://thomas.loc.gov) THOMAS is a web site created by the Library of Congress that offers free access to federal legislative information. Starting with the 104th Congress, THOMAS offers full-text access to public laws, congressional bills (these date back to 101st Congress), House and Senate reports, and the Congressional Record (1989 forward). Additionally, it includes a bill status and summary listing for bills going back to 1973.

GPO FDsys (http://www.fdsys.gov) The official web site of the Government Printing Office offers full-text access to bills beginning with the 103rd Congress, the Congressional Record from the 104th Congress forward, selected hearings, House and Senate documents and reports from the 104th Congress forward, and the 'History of Bills and Resolutions' section of the Congressional Record Index from 1983 to the present.

Century of Lawmaking (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html) Century of Lawmaking is a web site sponsored by the Library of Congress which brings together online the records and acts of Congress from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention through the 43rd Congress, including the first three volumes of the Congressional Record, 1873-75.

Reference Librarians The reference staff of the Law Library of Congress is available to assist researchers in developing an effective, comprehensive and efficient legislative history research strategy. Call the reference desk at 202-707-5079 for further assistance.

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Quick Guide to Reference Sources

Document Type Major Reference Sources
Committee Reports United States Code Congressional & Administrative News (USCAAN)
1948 forward
Row 1
(Legislative History volumes)

Post 1969: CIS Annual

Row 9

Pre-1970: U.S. Serial Set Index
1789-1969
Row 9

Congressional Record Index
1873 forward
Row 10
(History of Bills & Resolutions)

THOMAS
1995 forward

GPO FDsys
1995 forward
Congressional Debate Congressional Record
1873 forward
1953 forward in Rows 41B-41E; Thru 1992 in Microform
THOMAS
1989 forward
GPO FDsys
1994 forward

Congressional Record Index
1873 forward
Row 10
THOMAS
1995 forward
GPO FDsys
1983 forward

Congressional Globe
1833-1873
Microform & Century of Lawmaking

Register of Debates
1824-1837
Microform & Century of Lawmaking

Annals of Congress
1789-1824
Microform & Century of Lawmaking
Committee Hearings Post 1969: CIS Annual
Row 9

Pre-1970: CIS U.S. Congressional Committee Hearings Index
1833-1969
Row 9

CIS Unpublished U.S. Senate Committee Hearings Index
1823-1980
Row 9

CIS Unpublished U.S. House of Representatives Committee Hearings Index
1833-1968
Row 9

GPO FDsys
1997 forward
(selective)
Presidential Messages Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents
1965 forward
Row 5
GPO FDsys
1993 forward

Congressional Record
1873 forward
1953 forward in Rows 41B-41E; Thru 1992 in Microform

May be printed as Congressional Document:

Post 1969: CIS Annual
Row 9

Pre-1970: CIS US Serial Set Index
1789-1969
Row 9
Committee Prints Post 1969: CIS Annual
Row 9

Pre-1970: CIS U.S. Congressional Committee Prints
Row 9

GPO FDsys
1995 forward
Congressional Documents Post 1969:CIS Annual
Row 9

Pre-1970: CIS U.S. Serial Set Index
1789-1969
Row 9

GPO FDsys
1995 forward

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Last Updated: 02/28/2014