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Compiling a Federal Legislative History: A Beginner’s Guide

A comprehensive research guide on finding federal legislative history documents, including congressional committee reports and hearings, presidential signing statements, and the debates of Congress.

Introduction

Compiling a federal legislative history may seem intimidating at first glance, but it does not have to be. In this research guide, we will walk you through the steps you can use to compile your own federal legislative history. 

Dorothy Thompson, columnist, sat down before Foreign Affairs Chairman Key Pittman and told him and members that neutrality laws should be repealed to allow the country to be free in forming policies in foreign affairs. Photograph by Harris and Ewing.
Harris and Ewing. Woman columnist advocates repeal of Neutrality Act to allow U.S. freedom of policy. Washington, D.C., April 26. Staging her second appearance before Senate Committees within a week, Dorothy Thompson, columnist, sat down before Foreign Affairs Chairman Key Pittman and told him and members that neutrality laws should be repealed to allow the country to be free in forming policies in foreign affairs. 1939. Harris & Ewing Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When you begin your legislative history research, the first thing you should ask yourself is whether you need to compile your own federal legislative history. In several cases, someone might have already done the work for you, and compiled a legislative history report. To find more information about resources for pre-compiled legislative history reports, select the "Locating a Compiled Federal Legislative History" menu page in this guide.

If you were not able to find a pre-compiled legislative history report, you will have to roll up your sleeves and compile your own. To begin, you have to use the information you already have about the legislation of interest to lead you to other important citation information. If you are beginning with a U.S. Code citation, you will want to use the information on the "How to Trace Federal Legislation"  page in this guide to find the public law numbers, U.S. Statutes at Large citations, and bill information for both the legislation that gave rise to that section of the U.S. Code and any legislation that amended it.

Once you have this citation information, you will want to use it to find the legislative history documents that will make up your own legislative history report. We strongly suggest using the different pages of this "Beginner's Guide" to help you complete your research.

Keep in mind, when using legislative history documents in court, that judges are not of one mind as to the weight they give a legislative history document. Some judges believe these documents are invaluable in cases where the legislation is not necessarily clear from its text, while others believe these documents are at best an imperfect representation of the legislative intent.*


*Several legal scholars have examined the treatment of legislative history by judges. For a deeper discussion of these opposing views, see the article linked below: