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Federal Legislative History Research

How to perform federal legislative history research.

What Are Bills?

After a piece of legislation is drafted, the first step in the legislative process is the introduction of a bill in the House or Senate. The bill is then referred to committee(s) for consideration. Because a bill's introduction happens on the floor of Congress, this step in a bill's progress is noted in the Congressional Record. Since a bill eventually has to work its way through both the House and Senate to become law, sometimes, to save time, a bill introduced in one chamber will have a companion bill introduced concurrently in the other.

A bill is numbered as H.R.___ or S.____. Numbers are assigned in the order of introduction in a session of Congress, with the numbers thus starting anew every two years. Within a session of Congress, there can be multiple official versions of a bill reflecting changes on its way to passage, including:

  • Introduced: First version of legislation submitted by member of a chamber 
  • Reported: Amended text; changes made in committee 
  • Engrossed: Passed by one chamber; new version designated as an “Act” 
  • Conference Report: If there is a need for a conference committee, a compromise text will result, approved by both chambers. This text is always printed in the Congressional Record with section-by-section analysis, including dissenting views.
  • Enrolled: Version presented to the President - not officially published and available online only

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.

What are Resolutions?

Beyond bills, Congress can also take three other kinds of legislative measures known as Resolutions that are similar to, but distinct from, bills.

  1. Joint Resolutions. Cited as either H.R.J. Res.____ or S.J. Res.____, Joint Resolutions require passage by both houses as well as the President's signature. Congress usually uses joint resolutions for continuing or emergency appropriations, to create temporary exceptions to current laws, and to declare war. Congress also uses Joint Resolutions to propose Constitutional Amendments, which require approval of 2/3 of each house of government and 3/4 of the states to become law. 
  2. Concurrent Resolutions. These resolutions, which are cited as H.R. Con. Res.____ or S. Con. Res.____, must be passed by both chambers, but do not require presidential signature. Accordingly, they do not have the force of law. Instead, Congress primarily uses Concurrent Resolutions to make or amend rules for both houses of government. Also, Congress uses Concurrent Resolutions for the annual congressional budget resolution, which sets its yearly revenue and spending goals. These resolutions can also raise awareness on a particular issue and act as blueprints for state legislators to craft their own bills.
  3. Simple Resolutions. Simple Resolutions, designated as H.R. Res.____ or S. Res.____, relate entirely to the actions of one chamber and only require passage by the house to which they relate. Simple Resolutions might be used to create or alter the rules for either the House or the Senate, to express the sentiments of one house, to give "advice" on foreign policy, etc.

Joint, Concurrent, and Simple Resolutions can generally be found using the same resources that you would use to find bills. 

See Bluebook citation, Rule 13.2.

Example of a Bill

The standard elements of a bill's layout include:

  • Number and session of Congress in which it is introduced
  • Abbreviation for which house it is from (H.R. or S.)
  • Number of the bill itself
  • Brief description of its purpose
  • Date on which the bill was introduced
  • Names of sponsors and any co-sponsors
  • Proposed language, including the "Short Title," i.e., the "popular name" of the law if passed

Bluebook citation, Rule 13.2: H.R. 1, 107th Cong. (2001).


Bill from GPOAccess

View full-text at GPOAccess.

Where to Find Bills - Online

The resources below will help you located the text of bills. However, if you are not able to find them in a resource below remember the following tips:

  • Text of bills are often reprinted in hearings and committee reports
  • Selected bills, especially older Senate ones, are reprinted in the Congressional Record
  • GovTrack: bill status information from 82nd Congress (1951) onward

Where to Find Bills - Microform

Where to Find Bills - Offsite

Clifford Berryman Political Cartoon, 1906

Political cartoon by Berryman

Image from the National Archives.