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Federal Legislative History

Getting Started

 Save time!

Starting with a compiled legislative history - one that someone else has already gathered and published - can save you time and effort. 

Trace the history of a federal law

No compiled history? No problem. Start with these sources to trace the history of a law through the legislative process.

Find a specific congressional document

Have a title or citation? Start here.

What is Legislative History?

Legislative history is the official documentary record of the passage of a proposed statute through the stages of the legislative process.

Legislative History

  • Formally starts with the introduction of a measure in Congress by a Senator or Representative
  • For major initiatives, may begin before the formal introduction with a background Congressional investigative study, committee hearing from a previous Congress or draft of proposed legislation by the President.
  • Concludes with a Presidential signing into law or veto, unless it terminates short of enactment (the most common outcome)

Use legislative history tools to

  • Discover the intent behind a piece of legislation
  • Track pending legislation
  • Trace the history of changes to a law

Dig Deeper: Legislative History & the Legislative Process

Legislative History Step-by-Step

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. 

Want to learn more?

Where to Find...

Compiled Histories

Starting Points: Compiled Legislative Histories

Bills & Bill Status

Starting Points: Bills & Bill Tracking

Dig Deeper: Bills & Bill Tracking Online

Bill Text

Bill Tracking

Dig Deeper: Bills & Bill Indexes in Print & Microform

Bill Index (Print)

Bill Text (Microforms)

Reports, Documents & Prints

Starting Points: Committee Reports, Documents and Prints

Dig Deeper: Reports, Prints & Documents Online

Dig Deeper: Reports, Prints & Documents in Print & Microform

Hearings

Starting Points: Hearings

Dig Deeper: Hearings Online

Dig Deeper: Hearings in Print/Microfilm

Full-Text

Print Indexes

For more:

Congressional Debates

Starting Points: Congressional Debates

Dig Deeper: The Congressional Record Daily Edition

What's in the Daily Edition?

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). 

Dig Deeper: The Congressional Record Permanent Edition

What's in the Permanent Edition? 

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

Dig Deeper: The Congressional Globe, 1833-1873

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.

Dig Deeper: Register of Debates, 1824-1837

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.

Dig Deeper: The Annals of Congress, 1789-1824

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.

House & Senate Journals

Getting Started House & Senate Journals

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 Exec. Docs, Treaty Docs, & Reports

Starting Points: Senate Executive Documents and Reports

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. 

Dig Deeper: Senate Executive Documents, Treaty Documents and Executive Reports

More about Senate Executive Documents and Reports

Senate Executive Documents

Prior to 1895 the designation "Senate Executive Documents" was applied to two largely distinct categories of Executive materials:

  • Messages to the Senate from the President:
    • Treaty Communications: Confidential Presidential messages to the Senate concerned specifically with treaties, Included arguments and information supporting favorable Senate action, and the full text of the proposed treaties
    • Executive Nominations: Nomination messages typically including only a listing of positions to be filled and the names of nominees
    • Printed in very limited numbers,  not included in the Serial Set and hence not originally widely accessible.
    • 1930: Confidential status was rescinded by the Senate in 1930
    • 1970:  First formally published as a component of the LexisNexis (CIS) microfiche service.
    • 1980: Incorporated in the Serial Set and added to the Federal Depository Library Program. At this point they become generally available to the public.
    • 1981: Renamed Treaty Documents and designated with a  the longstanding use of consecutive letters as the basis for citing individual documents within a Congress was replaced by a numerical sequence.
  • Messages to the Senate from executive departments or agencies
    • Non-confidential and often routine administrative subject matter communicated by executive department or agency reports.
    • Some non-confidential treaty and nomination messages
    • Included in the Serial Set
    • 1895: The Senate Executive Documents category was dropped from the Serial Set. All Serial Set documents that previously would have been assigned to it have been published simply as "Senate Documents".

Senate Executive Reports

  • Recommendations of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in response to Presidential treaty ratification proposals
  • Recommendations of Senate committees concerning Executive nominations of candidates for positions in the federal government. 
  • Initially confidential.
  • 1930: Confidential status was rescinded by the Senate in 1930.
  • 1970:  First formally published as a component of the LexisNexis (CIS) microfiche service.
  • 1980: Incorporated in the Serial Set and added to the Federal Depository Library Program. At this point they become generally available to the public.

 

American State Papers

American State Papers

American State Papers is a collection of topically arranged legislative and executive documents of Congress that date from 1789 to 1838

Presidential Documents

Starting Points: Presidential Documents

Dig Deeper: Compilations of Presidential Documents

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.

Dig Deeper: Public Papers of Presidents of the United States

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.

Compilation of Messages and Papers of the Presidents

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.

Other Sources for Presidential Papers

Research & Reports: CRS, GAO, CBO

Online

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.

CRS

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.

Although CRS is prohibited from distributing its work directly to the public, non-confidential reports are available from a number of sources.

GAO Print

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.

CBO Print

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) produces independent nonpartisan analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.

Office of Technology Assessment

The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) provided Congress with objective analysis of scientific and technical issues. The OTA existed from 1972-1995. 

News & Public Opinion

News Sources

Social Media

Public Opinion

State Legislative History

Massachusetts Legislative History

For Massachusetts legislative history, please see our guide to Massachusetts Legal Research.

Getting Started: State Legistative History Guides

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. 

Dig Deeper: State Legislation and Bill Tracking

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Credits

This guide was originally written by Terry Swanlund, former Harvard Law School Library Reference Librarian.