Federal Legislative History

Scope and Access

The purpose of this guide is to identify and outline sources of information about Laws enacted by the United States Congress. Unless specified, this tutorial will work generally for researching the legislative history of legislation passed from 1970 to the present. A legislative history can only be done using the Public Law or statute number. See also Federal Legislative History on the Web.

The links on this page are to free websites, to information about publications available in the law library, and to commercial databases available on library computers. Library locations and call numbers link to library catalog records, which provide information about location, availability, and currency of each item in the Ross-Blakley Law Library.

Westlaw and LexisNexis links will take you to the specified database if you have a password. These links work better if you are already logged in. The College of Law provides Westlaw and LexisNexis passwords to its law faculty, staff, and students.

HeinOnline and LexisNexis Congressional databases are available on the ASU computer network, including remote access for ASU faculty, staff, and students.

Links to commercial databases and outside web sites will open in a new tab or window.


If you know the name or public-law number, see if someone else has done the work for you.

For major pieces of federal legislation, exhaustive legislative histories are sometimes compiled and published. The following sources list these histories by name and public law number:

If a compiled legislative history has been published, check the library catalog to determine if the library has a copy. (If the legislative history is a periodical article, check the catalog under the periodical title, not the name of the article providing the history.) HeinOnline also has a number of compiled legislative histories in its U.S. Federal Legislative History Library.

If a compiled legislative history has not been published, you will need to gather the documents yourself.


If you have a code section:

Locate the latest version of the code section you wish to research in one of the two annotated codes: United States Code Annotated (U.S.C.A.) or United States Code Service (U.S.C.S.). Both annotated codes are located in the Core section of the law library. (Note that the official code, United States Code (U.S.C.) is only issued once every six years and the annual supplements are two to three years behind the coverage.)

A parenthetical at the end of each section lists all public laws that added or amended the section. Historical notes provide details about what changes were made. Determine which amendments are relevant to your research and note the public-law number for each amendment. Don't forget to check the pocket part.


Find the Public Law as passed by Congress.

Go to one of the following places to locate the relevant public laws:

The original bill number assigned to the proposed legislation when it was introduced in Congress can be found on the public law in any of these sources. Note the bill number.


Compare with the bill as introduced and any amendments.

Proposed laws are introduced in Congress as bills or joint resolutions. As they go through the legislative process they can be changed many times. Compare the public law with the bill as introduced and with any amendments offered to see how the language changed. Changes that were made or rejected may give you an indication as to intent. Find bills and information about amendments and status in the following places:

Follow the path the public law took through Congress.

Look up the legislative-history entry for your public law in CIS Index to Publications of the United States Congress (Law Gov Docs Reference, 1970–current). CIS Legislative Histories are also included in LexisNexis Congressional: Legislative Histories.

The CIS Index is published in three annual volumes: Index, Abstracts, and Legislative Histories. From 1970 to 1984, legislative-history listings were included in the Abstracts volume. The Legislative Histories volumes are arranged by Public Law number and list the legislative-history documents for each public law, including citations to Committee Reports, Hearings, Committee Prints, and the dates of any discussion or debate on the floor in Congress as reported in the Congressional Record.


Locate Committee Reports and Hearings.

Committee Reports and Conference Reports

Conference reports are frequently the best source of legislative intent because they represent the compromises made between the House and Senate and can include language which explains the intent of the legislation. Conference reports are numbered as either a House or Senate committee report and considered part of the same series. Citation: H.Rept. [Congress No.]-[Report No.], or S.Rept. [Congress No.]-[Report No.]. Find committee and conference reports in the following places:

  • United States Congressional Serial Set (Y 1.1/2:SERIAL): 1789–current. The Serial Set 1789–1969 is also included in ASU's subscription to LexisNexis Congressional.
  • CIS (microfiche): Use the year of the CIS abstract and the CIS abstract number to retrieve fiche from this collection.) CIS committee reports are also included in LexisNexis Congressional: House and Senate Reports (1819–current).
  • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN) (Law Core) is a convenient and quick way to find selected reports, but does not include everything necessary for a complete legislative history on a public law nor does it include material for all public laws passed by Congress. What you are likely to find are: conference reports and citations to Congressional Record debates. USCCAN legislative history volumes are clearly marked.
  • GPO Access: Congressional Reports: 104th Congress (1995–96) to the present.
  • THOMAS (Library of Congress): Committee Reports 104th Congress (1995–96) to the present.

Hearings and Committee Prints

Hearings provide insight into what issues and questions the Committee considered important. Hearings frequently include expert testimony from citizens and interested parties. Hearings are not considered as important for determining legislative intent as are Committee Reports. Use the SuDocs numbers (numbers begin with “Y4”) given in CIS to access hearing and prints in the following places:

Other Congressional Documents

Check for Debates.

Discussions on the floors of Congress are available in the Congressional Record. Both CIS and USCCAN provide citations to the day a particular bill was debated in Congress. Using this citation, you can go directly to the Congressional Record for that day and look in the back of the issue under the “Daily Digest” for each chamber to determine the exact page numbers that need to be consulted. The daily edition of Congressional Record also has a bimonthly index and bound edition has an annual index. Both indexes provide access by bill number to the proceedings of each chamber. Find the Congressional Record in the following places:

Additional sources of information about the legislative process:

Consult CQ Weekly Reports (JK8 .C661) or search the CQ Library for discussions about major pieces of legislation and their progress through the two Congressional bodies.

There is an excellent flowchart of steps a bill takes on its way to passage in Kunz, The Process of Legal Research, 6th ed. (KF240.P76 2004) page 227.

CRS — Legislative History Research: A Basic Guide
This report provides an overview of federal legislative history research, the legislative process, and where to find congressional documents. The report also summarizes some of the reasons researchers are interested in legislative history, briefly describes the actions a piece of legislation might undergo during the legislative process, and provides a list of easily accessible print and electronic resources.

For information about the relative weight of various aspects of legislative history:

Consult Sands, Statutes and Statutory Construction (KF 425 .S25).


For information about how courts have construed a statute:

Consult the case annotations following the relevant code sections in the U.S.C.A. or U.S.C.S., or run a search on LexisNexis or Westlaw.


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