Skip to main content

Compiling a Federal Legislative History: A Beginner’s Guide

Debates of Congress

Often, researchers will want information about the votes and debates made on the floor of Congress in order to track the history of the bills and resolutions in which they are interested. The best resources for this information are located in what is called the “debates of Congress,” which have been published in several different resources, depending on the time period in which the debates occurred. These resources include: Annals of Congress (1789 to 1824); Register of Debates (1824 to 1837); Congressional Globe (1833 to 1873); and Congressional Record (1873 to present).

Although this post will focus more on where a researcher can find full-text copies of the debates of Congress, true beginners in the area of legislative history research may want to first read an overview of the history and structure of the Congressional Record and its predecessor publications in order to determine whether these publications can be useful to them. Some very helpful resources that offer this background information about the debates of Congress, and the Congressional Record specifically, are:

One important aspect of the Congressional Record that should be mentioned before discussing its availability is that it is published in two main forms—the Daily and Bound Editions. The Daily Edition is, as its title suggests, printed on a “daily, over-night basis,” and allows for separate pagination for “the proceedings of the House, the proceedings of the Senate, the Extensions of Remarks…and the Daily Digest of activity in the Congress.” The Bound Edition is instead printed at the end of each congressional session, and does not distinguish between proceedings for its pagination. As such, if your Congressional Record citation has an “H,” “S,” “E,” or “D” before the page number, you are likely dealing with the Daily Edition rather than the Bound Edition.

Subscription Resources

The subscription resources marked with a padlock  are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress.  If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.

Free Online Resources

[1] Until 1795, Senate sessions were not open to the public. The Annals of Congress represent an attempt to reconstruct earlier proceedings. You may supplement the Annals with Senator Maclay’s Journal.

Print Resources

Next Steps

The libraries most likely to have print volumes of the Congressional Record and/or access to subscription databases with copies of the debates of Congress, you seek are those that are part of the Federal Depository Library Program. These federal depository libraries make available all sorts of “historic and current publications” from the federal government. To find a federal depository library in your area, visit the Federal Depository Library Directory website, and click the “FDLP for Public Page” link. On the next page, choose your state and browse through the list of libraries available near your location.