Guide to Federal Legislative History

Last Updated 03/2002

  1. Starting with a U.S.C., U.S.C.A. or U.S.C.S. citation:
    • Use the historical notes at the end of the citation to find the Public Law number. Many sections of the U.S. Code will have multiple P.L. numbers as the sections have been amended multiple times. It is helpful to know the approximate date the law passed to zero in on the relevant Public Law.

  2. Starting with the Popular Name of the legislation:
    • Find the Public Law number in Shepard's Acts by Popular Name (REF KF 90. S52) or look in the popular name tables in the pamphlets at the end of the U.S.C.A. or U.S.C.S.

  3. When you know the Public Law number:

    1. For the years 1970 to date, use the CIS Index (DOCREF KF 49.C62) to find a summary of the legislative history.
    2. For legislation passed from 1973 to the present, use Thomas (, a legislative database maintained by the Library of Congress. For a summary of the legislative history, find the Public Law number and select "Bill Status and Summary." One can also check the status of pending legislation through Thomas. For more recent legislation, Thomas provides hyperlinks to many of the relevant documents, including the Congressional Record, reports and hearings. The text of the hearings usually contains only the prepared statements submitted by witnesses, not actual testimony.

    3. The U.S. Code Congressional & Administrative News USCCAN (DOCREF KF 48. U54) contains the full text of Public Laws from 1941 to the present. Beginning in 1948 it contains legislative history summaries. The summaries are not as complete as those found in the CIS Index or on Thomas. Selected House and Senate Reports can be found in USCCAN, but the text of the reports may be redacted. Where possible obtain the text of reports from the Serial Set.

    4. At the end of the Congressional Record Index volume, or after 195?, in the Congressional Record Daily Digest Volume, there is a brief summary history of bills passed that year. The summary includes committee report numbers.

    5. Lexis and Westlaw - Both online services offer some legislative materials. In the USCCAN database, Westlaw offers the text of those reports that were printed in USCCAN since 1948. Beginning with 1990, all committee reports are available. Lexis also has all committee reports since 1990. For current legislation, Lexis and Westlaw may offer more comprehensive coverage than print sources.

  4. Finding legislative documents:
  5. A depository law library is usually the best place to research federal legislative history. For any given piece of legislation, the following documents may exist:

    Document Location
    Congressional Bills Congressional Record - Rows 2/99 -104
    Microfiche - Cabinets 24 & 25 - 94-106 Congresses
    Thomas: (101st - )
    GPO Access (103rd - ) Bills are in PDF format
    Lexis (101st - )
    Westlaw (104th - )
    House & Senate Reports Congressional Serial Set (Y1.1/2) - Rows 2/105-108
    (Print: 80th Congress, 2nd Session to present)
    Microfiche Cabinets 23 & 24 - 61st - 96th Congresses
    Opaque Microcard 15th - 21st Congresses (DOCREF)
    USCCAN - Selected Reports 1948 - present
    DOCREF KF 48. U54
    Westlaw, (selected reports 1948-1989) all reports 1990-
    Lexis - 1990 - present
    House & Senate Documents Congressional Serial Set (Y1.1/2) - Rows 2/105-108
    (Print 80th Congress 2nd Session to present)
    Microfiche Cabinets 23 & 24 - 61st - 96th Congresses
    Committee Prints Publications prepared for the use of committee members and staff. Not available for most bills. Some committee prints are distributed to depository libraries. Not all committee prints are directly related to legislation.
    Lexis - selected Prints - 1995 to present.(CMTPRN)
    Congressional Hearings (89th Congress - present, select hearings before 89th)
    Print: (Y4) Rows 2/113-127
    Microform cabinets 25-26
    Note: The library selects some committee hearings in print and others in microfiche - Check with the Documents office
    Congressional Debates Congressional Record (X 1.1 ) Rows 2/99-104
    Microform cabinet 23
    GPO database - 1995 - present
    Presidential signing statements or veto messages Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (AE 2.109)
    Row 2/76 1993- present

  6. Finding Compiled Legislative Histories:

In most cases it is necessary to compile a legislative history from scratch by locating all of the relevant documents listed above. But for some major legislative acts there may exist published legislative histories that bring together all of the relevant documents and may also contain added commentary and analysis by the author(s). Many of these compiled legislative histories are published by the staff of congressional committees (usually as Committee Prints) or the Congressional Research Service. Legislative histories are also published by executive agencies or by legal scholars as law review articles. Checking for the existence of a compiled legislative history can save the researcher a great deal of time and effort.

There are two major indexes for finding compiled legislative histories:

Johnson, Nancy P., Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories. Littleton, CO: Fred B. Rothman, 1981. [DOCREF- KF 42.2 .J6]

This work covers laws passed from the 1st through the 105th Congress, and is updated with looseleaf inserts.

Reams, Bernard D., Federal Legislative Histories: An Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. [DOCREF KF 42.2 1994]

This work is limited to legislative histories published by official government sources (Committee Prints or works by executive agencies). It covers laws passed from the 1st through 101st Congress. Though the scope is narrower than the Nancy Johnson work it contains some histories not covered in the Johnson index.

Online Sources:

Westlaw features the Arnold & Porter legislative history database that contains the full text of legislative documents for about two dozen major laws. Additionally, Westlaw also has three practice specific legislative databases for immigration law, securities & blue sky law and taxation.

For legislation from the 105th Congress forward, Thomas ( comes close to offering an online compiled history as it contains hyperlinks to many of the relevant documents. However, Thomas only links to those reports that have been digitized and the links to hearings are not the full hearings but only the prepared statements of witnesses.

The CIS Congressional Universe is a subscription database available from Lexis that provides full legislative histories with hyperlinks to all of the associated documents for legislation from 1970 to the present. It is not available through the basic Lexis account and Rutgers does not have a subscription to this database.

Back to top of page