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Federal Legislative History Basics

Outlines the basic steps for finding a compiled federal legislative history using library databases and internet sources.


In the ordinary course of statutory interpretation researchers can usually rely on the plain meaning of the text in hand to identify the statute's intent. However, sometimes the text of a statute can be complicated and/or ambiguous. In that case, the legislative history of a statute can be relevant in determining the legislature's intent at enactment.

The types of documents generated during the legislative process include bills, alternative bills, commitee reports, joint conference reports, committee hearings, committee prints, debates, and Presidential signing statements.

Locating these materials is time consuming - unless they have been previously compiled and published. A compiled legislative history, therefore, saves an enormous amount of time by pulling all the relevant materials together.

Legislative Process 

Finding Chastek Library's Compiled Legislative Histories in Print Collection

Chastek Library collects published compiled federal legislative histories. Consult our Compiled Federal Legislative History in Print (see below) guide to find out more.

Committee and Conference Reports Importance

Committee reports and conference reports are two of the primary legislative history research documents used by lawyers in deciphering the legislative intent of various laws.

Committee reports related to legislation frequently accompany bills and resolutions sent from a committee to the House or Senate floor. These reports generally try to advance the case for the bill's consideration and explain its content. The text of the legislation, how it affects current law, or its budget implications may be included.

Joint conference reports contain the agreed upon text between conferees of the House and Senate who have passed different versions of the same legislation. A conference report usually has a joint explanatory statement or an explanation from the bill managers.

Finding a Compiled Legislative History

You need one of the following items to search for a compiled legislative history:

  • United States Code (USC) citation
  • Public law number
  • Popular name of act
  • Statutes at Large citation
  • Bill number of legislation

Finding a USC Citation by Popular Name of an Act

Often legislation becomes known by a particular name rather than by it's public law number. In addition, newer legislation is often assigned a "short title" by which it becomes known. When only the name is known, use a popular name table to find where the legislation is codified:

Popular Name Tables - found at the end of the general indexes to USCUSCA, and USCS. Federal acts are listed alphabetically by their short titles or common names with citations to the appropriate title and section of the Code.

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