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Federal Legislative History Research

A how to guide for pinpointing congressional documents to help determine legislative intent

What is Legislative History?

Legislative history refers to the documents Congress produces when a bill is introduced, considered, and debated. A statute’s legislative history can be important for a number of reasons, such as determining legislative intent behind vague or ambiguous provisions, or understanding whether the legislature was aware of but rejected certain issues when passing the law.

This section provides an overview of the fundamentals of federal legislative history and discusses:

  • what material gets produced in the federal legislative process;
  • where to find those materials; and
  • how to find a law once it has passed.

For a detailed, visual review of the legislative process as well as a discussion of the documents generated during the legislative process, please see the “How Our Laws Are Made” infographic by Mike Wirth and Dr. Suzanne Cooper-Guasco, also reproduced below. State statutes follow many similar or parallel processes in their passage and publication, but the documents produced in state legislative processes may sometimes be harder to retrieve because they are not always published, let alone made available online. Federal legislative history, though, can serve as a model to assist when doing state legislative history.

Please note, state statutes follow many similar or parallel processes in their passage and publication, but the documents produced in state legislative processes may sometimes be harder to retrieve because they are not always published, let alone made available online. Federal legislative history, though, can serve as a model to assist when doing state legislative history.

Quick Links for Legislative History Research

ProQuest Congressional, ProQuest Legislative Insight, Congress.gov, and Govinfo contain many of the resources you need to understand legislative intent when researching federal legislative history questions. 

“How Our Laws Are Made” infographic by Mike Wirth and Dr. Suzanne Cooper-Guasco

“How Our Laws Are Made” infographic by Mike Wirth and Dr. Suzanne Cooper-Guasco