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Federal Legislative History Research

Compiling a Federal Legislative History

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What is a Federal Legislative History and why do one?

A federal legislative history is an analysis of the various Congressional documents that are generated in connection with the enactment of a law. Legislative histories are usually prepared to better understand why Congress passed a particular piece of legislation or to clarify the meaning or intent of a statutory provision. 

Starting out

To begin, you need the following information:

  1. the public law citation (ie. Pub. Law 101-336), or
  2. the Statutes at Large citation (ie. 104 Stat. 327)  and the bill number and Congress of the Act 

These are the key access points as most sources are organized by one or the other, though some online sources will allow you to perform keyword searches.

Public law numbers have been used to identify enacted legislation since 1957. The first number indicates the session of Congress in which the law was passed and the second number represents the order in which the law was passed during that session.

Bill numbers can be found on the first page of each statute as it appears in the United States Statutes at Large since 1904; to locate bill numbers for laws passed before 1904, consult Eugene Nabors, Legislative Reference Checklist: The Key to Legislative Histories from 1789 to 1903.

If you are starting with the popular name of the statute, consult a Popular Names table such as the one found in the United States Code, United States Code Annotated, or the United States Code Service to find the public law and Statutes at Large citation. 

If you are starting with a U.S. Code citation, consult the historical notes to find the public law public law and Statutes at Large citation. There may be several listed, in which case, you should record them all.

Next steps

The next step is to see whether an existing legislative history exists. If you can find a compiled legislative history, it will save you the effort of compiling the documents yourself. 

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