Get a head start & save time with compiled legislative histories - ones where someone else has already gathered and published the relevant documents
No compiled history? No problem. Start with these sources to trace the history of a law through the legislative process.
Have the title or a citation to a congressional document or report? Start with ProQuest Congressional.
Legislative history is the official documentary record of the passage of a proposed statute through the stages of the legislative process.
How do you trace the history of a law? Follow these basic steps.
Locate & read your law
Note key information:
Use the history and notes in an annotated U.S. Code to find dates of passage, amendments and identifying public law numbers (P.L.) or Statutes at Large (Stat) citations
Save time & use compiled legislative histories!
Someone may have already done the work for you. An already compiled legislative history of your law you will save time and effort.
Gather congressional reports & publications related to your law
During the legislative process, Congressional committees often produce Committee Reports, Documents and Prints.
Locate any hearings & debates
The day to day business of Congress is published in the Congressional Record. Testimony and accompanying documentation from Congressional Hearings are published separately.
Find other related governmental sources
Other useful materials for tracing the history of a law include research reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), General Accounting Office (GAO) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). You may also want to look at Executive and Presidential materials, including proclamations and signing statements.
Examine news & commentary
News, polls, public opinion and social media can also inform your history.
Floor debates on legislative proposals, text of all floor amendments, occasional House and Senate bills and some Conference committee reports. The Daily Edition is organized into separately paginated sections - H (House), S (Senate), E (Extension of Remarks) and D (Daily Digest).
The rearranged contents of the Daily edition organized in a single numeric page sequence that integrates the daily chronology of House and Senate activities. It also includes an annual index for each session of Congress.
Rule 13.5 of the Bluebook requires citation to the permanent edition of the Congressional Record when available
The Congressional Globe covers debates in Congress from 1833-1873. Early volumes overlap with the Register of Debates. Early coverage only summarizes the debates, but extensive, almost verbatim coverage began around 1851.
The Register of Debates in Congress covers the period from1824-1837 (18th Congress, 2d session - 25th Congress). It summarizes the "leading debates and incidents" in Congress. Coverage overlaps with the Congressional Globe.
The Annals of Congress, officially known as The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States..., covers the period from 1789-1824. Note that the accounts are not verbatim. Material is summarized and was compiled at a later date.
The House Journal and Senate Journal and record the minutes of floor actions in Congress, including matters considered and votes.
The Senate Executive Journal records the Senate's Executive actions such as considering nominations and treaties.
Senate Executive Documents (continued by Treaty Documents in 1981) communicate either Presidential messages to the Senate concerning proposed treaties or executive nominations for government positions. Senate Executive Reports document Senate committee action on treaties.
Prior to 1895 the designation "Senate Executive Documents" was applied to two largely distinct categories of Executive materials:
American State Papers is a collection of topically arranged legislative and executive documents of Congress that date from 1789 to 1838
The Compilation of Presidential Documents includes the Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents (2009-present) and its predecessor, the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (1965-2009). It includes such material as proclamations, executive orders, speeches, White House announcements, signing and veto statements, nominations, appointments and press releases.
The Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States are the official record of the public writings, addresses, and remarks of the President. The series began with the Presidency of Herbert Hoover, but excludes the papers of President Franklin Roosevelt which had already been published privately.
Per Bluebook Rule 14.7(b), you should always cite to the Public Papers if a document has been published therein.
The Compilation of Messages and Papers of the Presidents was a privately published collection of proclamations, special messages, and inauguration speeches from several presidents. It was originally published in 1897 and covered the George Washington through McKinley. Subsequent editions included papers from Presidents through Herbert Hoover.
Although not part of the official legislative history of a federal statute, reports from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) are often useful to researchers.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation.
CRS Reports often provide analysis of key federal statutes or significant legislative proposals under consideration by Congress. CRS also frequently compiles official legislative histories for the statutes with which it has been concerned.
New and updated CRS reports are available online via Congress.gov. Before 2018, CRS was prohibited from distributing its work directly to the public. Older non-confidential reports are available from a number of sources linked below.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.
GAO Reports are frequently consulted by researchers, particularly when they are the published record of GAO's contribution to the drafting of legislation or its review of a legislative proposal before Congress.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) produces independent nonpartisan analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.
The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) provided Congress with objective analysis of scientific and technical issues. The OTA existed from 1972-1995.
For Massachusetts legislative history, please see our guide to Massachusetts Legal Research.
The legislative process and the availability of state legislative history materials will vary from state to state. Bills and bill tracking are often available on the website of the state's official legislative body. The availability of other legislative materials will vary.
Start your research with a research guide for your state to determine what sources are available and how to find them.
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