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Federal Legislative History Research

How to perform federal legislative history research.

Introduction

A “legislative history” is a collection of documents that constitutes the pre-enactment record of Congressional action on a bill. These documents may may shed light on legislative intent for purposes of statutory interpretation, although a common argument exists that you should not look beyond a statute's "plain and ordinary meaning."

The documents that comprise a legislative history and the general order in which they are produced are:

  1. bills
  2. hearings
  3. reports
  4. debates, and,
  5. if there has been executive branch activity as well, presidential signing statements.

See this guide's timeline for a visual aid. You generally track down a legislative history using:

  • the law's popular name,
  • the number of the enacted bill, or
  • the law’s Public Law number or Statutes at Large citation, assigned as part of its enactment.

(See the First Steps page.) With these citations in hand, the next research step is to see whether a compiled history already exists, or whether you need to find a list of citations to gather the documents yourself.

If you are looking for an individual document and already have the citation for it, click on the appropriate tab to see the resources you can use to find it.

Research Tip: Because a committee report can be one of the most important pieces of a legislative history, you may decide to search first for any committee report(s) on a bill.

Please note, access to certain databases linked in this guide may be restricted to UT Law or the UT community; please see the library's Databases page that lays out access privileges.

Examples throughout the Guide

When using this guide, look for the Example boxes on the various sub-pages.

This guide highlights legislative history documents from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 as samples of what you might find in the process of doing legislative history research and their citation in Bluebook style.

Bluebook citation, Rule 12: No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 20 U.S.C. §§ 6301-7941 (2006).

Congress.gov's Overview of the Legislative Process

Additional videos on individual stages of the process are also available.