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Compiling a Federal Legislative History: A Beginner’s Guide

Published Congressional Hearings

In 1947, aviation and film industry executive Howard Hughes testified before a hearing of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. The hearings that followed were contentious, with the committee investigating Kaiser-Hughes Aircraft for receiving taxpayer dollars for aircraft that were never delivered, including the flying boat called the Hercules, also known as the Spruce-Goose. Hughes responded by accusing Committee Chairman Senator Brewster of singling out Kaiser-Hughes for scrutiny because Hughes declined to support Senator Brewster’s Community Airline Bill and Hughes opposed a merger of Trans World Airlines with Pan-Am. If any of this sounds familiar, it is likely because this hearing was dramatized in the movie The Aviator and televised film clips from the hearing are currently available on YouTube.

Harris & Ewing. Howard Hughes speaking before the Press Club. Washington, D.C. Howard Hughes, speaking at the National Press Club today, before hundreds of government officials and representatives of foreign governments. Hughes today envisioned a future in aviation when giant flying boats, almost as large as modern ocean liners, will fly the Atlantic under conditions in which the element of luck will play no part, speaking at the luncheon in his honor, he described in detail the type of flying craft and equipment he believes the future will see but which is now nothing more than an aeronautical engineers dream. July 21, 1938. Harris & Ewing Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Using these hearings as an example, we hope to demonstrate how you can locate transcripts of committee hearings. As noted by the Government Publishing Office,

A hearing is a meeting or session of a Senate, House, joint, or special committee of Congress, usually open to the public, to obtain information and opinions on proposed legislation, conduct an investigation, or evaluate/oversee the activities of a government department or the implementation of a Federal law. In addition, hearings may also be purely exploratory in nature, providing testimony and data about topics of current interest.

 

In light of the information they contain, congressional committee hearings can often serve as a component in constructing a legislative history.  Transcripts of committee hearings are not immediately available, however.  As noted by the Congressional Research Service, “[p]rinted hearings…often are not published for months after the hearing, but are usually available for inspection in committee offices; witness testimony is often available on-line.” Where to find these published hearings can sometimes be a challenge, and as such, we will go into the congressional committee hearing research process in greater detail below.

Please note that this LibGuide page focuses on published hearings. Transcripts for hearings which were initially not published, and which were later made available by the Congressional Information Service in microfiche and through online resources such as ProQuest is the subject of the "Unpublished Congressional Hearings" section of this guide.

Print Resources

Researchers can also access hearings through print-based resources.  The two main print-based resources for published congressional committee hearings were both initially collected by the Congressional Information Service (CIS), and are titled CIS US Congressional Committee Hearings Index and the CIS Index (also known as the CIS Annual).  The two resources are largely divided by coverage dates, with the CIS US Congressional Committee Hearings Index dealing with hearings from 1833 to 1969, and the CIS Annual dealing with hearings from 1970 to the present.

 

Because the Hughes hearing occurred in the late 1940s, a print-based researcher would turn to the CIS Congressional Committee Hearings Index, specifically the volumes covering the 79th – 82nd Congresses, 1945-1952. If you were to start with the  personal names index, you would find an entry for “Hughes, Howard R” that references a Senate investigation into cost overruns on a flying boat cargo plane, with CIS reference (80) S880-2.  If I did not know the name of a witness, I could also have chosen the index by subjects and organizations volume, and ultimately be brought to the same reference number. This CIS reference number can be used to pull up the hearing on microfiche or be used in ProQuest Congressional’s search by number feature. This hearing spans several days and was published in several parts, so you would want to take advantage of the table of contents in the hearing to jump to particular exchanges of interest.

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