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When possible, courts interpret statutes based on the plain meaning of the law. However, when the plain meaning of the law is ambiguous, a court tries to determine what the legislature intended in writing the statute. This requires gathering official background information and discussion leading up to a law's enactment, that is, the legislative history. Familiarity with the legislative process is important in this search.
|Introduction of bill or resolution by a legislator
|Bills are introduced into one or both houses of Congress by their sponsor. If a bill is not passed before the session of Congress ends, it dies. It will have to be reintroduced for another chance to become law.
|Assignment of a unique bill number
|Bills are numbered sequentially. H.R. for House bills and S. for Senate bills; H.J. Res. and S.J. Res. for joint resolutions. For bills introduced in both houses, two numbers are assigned.
|Referred to committee or subcommittee
Committee considers whether to recommend passage; if not, the bill dies.
Committee Reports are generally considered one of the most useful documents in a legislative history. They include the purpose and scope of the legislation, reasons for enactment, section-by-section analysis, a discussion of changes which will occur to existing laws, amendments proposed and adopted to original proposal, and executive documents.
In Hearings, witnesses give prepared statements and answer questions of the committee members. Hearings may include exhibits of interested parties and the text of the bill. Hearings are not held on all legislation or may have been heard during a previous session of Congress. Hearings are generally less important than committee reports. If the bill is recommended, a Committee Report is produced.
Committee prints are background information, statistics, historical, scientific or social data on specific subjects prepared for use of the committee members.
|Subcommittee reports to full committee; Committee reports to full legislative body
|Floor debates are discussion from the floor of Congress when the bill is out of committee. Floor debates are not weighted very heavily as persuasive material. Sponsors and committee members may correct misleading statements from the floor. Suggested amendments that may not have been previously considered in committee may appear here for the first time as well as additional discussion for and against the proposed legislation.
|Referred to conference committee
|If a bill is passed by both houses in significantly different versions, it is referred to a Conference Committee. Conference committee reports are produced when both houses pass a bill but can't agree on some issues. This report reconciles the differences between the two bills and gives a statement explaining the effect of the actions. It is a key legislative history tool.
|President signs or vetoes
|When the President signs a bill into law or vetoes a bill, he frequently makes comments about the law itself. These statements are published as Executive Documents or Presidential Signing Statements.
|Assigned a public law number
|Results in slip law or public law. These are published in consecutive order in the Statutes at Large.
The documents that are produced during the legislative process are available through a variety of resources. Most of them are in microfiche in our collection, and some are in print. Westlaw and Lexis both have legislative history information, for example, bills, public laws, congressional hearings, and floor debates back to the mid-1980s or early 1990s. For some types of legislation, they have full databases providing subject access on specific subject areas like tax and the environment.
For those affiliated with the University of Wyoming, one of the best sources for legislative materials is ProQuest Congressional. It has a wide collection of congressional documents dating back to 1789. Resources include committee prints, hearings, House and Senate documents, congressional journals, executive documents, treaties, and selected legislative histories. It is searchable by subject and by document number. You may access this resource from our Databases page.
HeinOnline has several databases that are useful for federal legislative histories: U.S. Statutes at Large, U.S. Congressional Documents including the Congressional Record and hearings, and U.S. Federal Legislative Histories with histories of legislative actions on many federal statutes.
There are some good Internet sites from which to access current and selected historical government documents, too.
GovInfo.gov has PDF files of government publications available through the Government Publishing Office, including bill texts, committee reports, Congressional Record, congressional hearings, and other congressional documents.
Congress.gov has bill texts and summaries, public laws, major legislation, committee reports, Congressional Record, and links to committee home pages since 1995. Legislative history summaries are available since 1973 as well as some selected older materials.
In addition to those available in HeinOnline, some extensive compilations on a single legislative act are published as treatises. This means that someone else has already done the work of searching out the relevant documents. It will save immeasurable time if you can find a legislative history already compiled. Check the online catalog for Law and UW Libraries using your statute title and "legislative history" in a keyword search.
To search for legislative histories in other libraries, initiate a search in WorldCat. WorldCat is a collection of materials that have been catalogued by libraries throughout the country and the world. Link to it from our Databases page. Use the same search terms you used in our library catalog above.
Occasionally, published legislative histories are mentioned in the annotations of the United States Code Annotated. It is worth a review of the Library References portion of your statute annotations to identify these sources.
Before giving up, try a bibliography of legislative history materials such as:
Nancy P. Johnson, Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories: A Bibliography of Government Documents, Periodical Articles and Books 1st Congress-113th Congress (1979). Reference KF 42.2 .J64 2014.
Eugene Nabors, Legislative Reference Checklist: the Key to Legislative Histories from 1789-1903 (1982). KF 49 .L43 1982.
Bernard D. Reams, Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources (1994). Reference KF 42.2 .R4 1994.
U.S. Federal Legislative History Library, HeinOnline
Norman J. Singer, Statutes and Statutory Construction, (8th ed. 2018). KF 425 .S56 2018.
Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C., Federal Legislative History Research: A Practitioner's Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent.
Steps to developing a legislative history
Location in the Law Library
Find the public law number, bill number, and year of passage of your Act. The bill number and public law number will be your most useful tools in formulating a legislative history as most sources are organized by either one or the other, though you may perform keyword searches in the electronic databases.
United States Code Service or United States Code Annotated
Citations to public laws appear at the end of the statute along with a brief list of enacted legislated changes. The text of the public law can be found in:
Statutes at Large U.S.C.C.A.N.
Both of these titles have a short legislative history at the end of the public law that gives the bill number and dates of consideration and passage.
Reference M-C-6 through M-C-8 (also available in Westlaw and Lexis)
Identify the documents that were created in the legislative process.
ProQuest Congressional is the most comprehensive tool for this. Use the most specific information you have. If you have the public law number of bill number, use Search by Number. The results will link to you other documents from the legislative process that are available electronically. Expect to find bills, committee reports, floor debates, hearings, executive documents (presidential statements), and committee prints. Access ProQuest on our databases page.
The Congressional Record table "History of Bills and Resolutions" goes back to the 19th century.
Committee Reports and Hearings:
Some are published individually as pamphlets and catalogued as part of the collection. Check our online catalog.
Conference Committee Reports:
Published in the Congressional Record.
Our holdings begin in 1977. The main library’s collection begins with 1789.
If the documents are not available in the electronic resources as full-text, you may have to seek out other formats. Record the citations for future retrieval. The Superintendent of Documents cites for congressional materials begins with Y.
The microfiche materials are arranged by Congress. We have microfiche sets going back to the 99th Congress, 1986.
U.S.C.C.A.N., in addition to printing the full text of the public laws, also published some selected reports and executive documents in its legislative history volumes for each Congress.
Basement and Microfiche cabinets
To search in non-electronic resources, try these.
Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, 1966-2001. Older issues and papers since 2001 are republished in: Public Papers of the President.
Can also be found in Federal Register, if you have the date, and in title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The current year is located in M-N-11. Older issues are in in the Basement in B56-58.
Also, some selected executive documents are republished in U.S.C.C.A.N.
Microfiche cabinets (labeled by Congress)