Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law

Law Library

Federal Legislative History

This research guide will assist you in compiling a legislative history for a federal statute. A legislative history consists of documents created during the passage of a piece of legislation.


If you know the popular name or public-law number, see if someone else has done the work for you.

For major pieces of federal legislation, exhaustive legislative histories are sometimes compiled and published. The following sources list these histories by name and public law number:

You may also locate compiled legislative histories using the ASU Libraries Catalog.  If a compiled legislative history has not been published, you will need to gather the documents yourself.


If you have a code section:

Locate the latest version of the code section you wish to research. Most sources for the United States Code include historical information which will be in a parenthetical at the end of each section.  The parenthetical will list all public laws that added or amended the section. Historical notes provide details about what changes were made. Determine which amendments are relevant to your research and note the public-law number for each amendment. 

Find the Public Law as passed by Congress.

Go to one of the following places to locate the relevant public laws:

The original bill number assigned to the proposed legislation when it was introduced in Congress can be found on the public law in any of these sources. Note the bill number.


Compare with the bill as introduced and any amendments.

Proposed laws are introduced in Congress as bills or joint resolutions. As they go through the legislative process they can be changed many times. Compare the public law with the bill as introduced and with any amendments offered to see how the language changed. Changes that were made or rejected may give you an indication as to intent. Find bills and information about amendments and status in the following places:

Follow the path the public law took through Congress.

You can view the path the public law took through Congress using the following sources:

Locate Committee Reports and Hearings.

Committee Reports and Conference Reports

Conference reports are frequently the best source of legislative intent because they represent the compromises made between the House and Senate and can include language which explains the intent of the legislation. Conference reports are numbered as either a House or Senate committee report and considered part of the same series. Citation: H.Rept. [Congress No.]-[Report No.], or S.Rept. [Congress No.]-[Report No.]. Find committee and conference reports in the following places:   

  • ProQuest Congressional: House and Senate Reports (1817 to the present)
  • United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (USCCAN) (Law Core) is a convenient and quick way to find selected reports, but does not include everything necessary for a complete legislative history on a public law nor does it include material for all public laws passed by Congress. What you are likely to find are: conference reports and citations to Congressional Record debates. USCCAN legislative history volumes are clearly marked.
  • GPO Access: Congressional Reports: 104th Congress (1995–96) to the present
  • 104th Congress (1995–96) to the present

Hearings and Committee Prints

Hearings provide insight into what issues and questions the Committee considered important. Hearings frequently include expert testimony from citizens and interested parties. Hearings are not considered as important for determining legislative intent as are Committee Reports.

Other Congressional Documents

Check for Debates

Discussions on the floors of Congress are available in the Congressional Record.  Find the Congressional Record in the following places:

Additional sources of information about the legislative process:

Consult CQ Weekly Reports or search the CQ Library for discussions about major pieces of legislation and their progress through the two Congressional bodies.

CRS — Legislative History Research: A Basic Guide
This report provides an overview of federal legislative history research, the legislative process, and where to find congressional documents. The report also summarizes some of the reasons researchers are interested in legislative history, briefly describes the actions a piece of legislation might undergo during the legislative process, and provides a list of easily accessible print and electronic resources.


For information about how courts have construed a statute:

Consult the case annotations following the relevant code sections in the U.S.C.A. or U.S.C.S., or run a search on LexisNexis or Westlaw.

updated 7/2014 


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