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Federal Legislative History: Overview of Legislative History

This research guide provides assistance to UCLA School of Law students tracing the legislative history of a federal statute.

Important Note About Access to Databases

Be sure to read the Access to Databases Guide carefully before beginning your research.

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A legislative history of a bill is the sequence of steps or path taken to arrive at the final version of the law; the term is also used to refer to the documents reflecting that history.  One of the purposes in compiling a legislative history is to try to ascertain what the legislature intended in authoring the bill, or the purpose and meaning of specific legislative language.  Congress publishes and UCLA Law Library collects virtually all of the important documents of legislative intent.

While every statute has a legislative history, conducting a comprehensive legislative history search is not always necessary when researching a statute or code section.  Before beginning a legislative history search, you should check the sources outlined in our guide Finding Federal Statutes. Legislative history research can be time consuming.  If you are a summer associate, law clerk, or research assistant you should consult with your supervising attorney or professor to determine if conducting legislative history research is necessary to your particular research question.

Consider the following road map when compiling a legislative history (the remainder of this guide will walk you through these steps in greater detail):

  1. What information do you have about the statute? You will need the Public Law Number, Bill Number and Number of Congress in order to use many of the tools referred to in this guide.

  2. Using the above information:

    • Find out if a compiled legislative history already exists;
    • Consult finding tools referenced in this guide to determine the documents related to the bill or statute (reports, debates, committee prints, hearings, etc.).

  3. Once you have determined the documents that exist, attempt to locate the full text online or in print.

The tools and documents available depend on the age of the statute or bill. Many legislative documents, usually from 1990 or later, are becoming available on the Internet and are noted in this guide. 

How a bill becomes a law

Illustrated flow chart of how a federal bill becomes law.

Source: Mike Wirth & Dr. Suzanne Cooper Guasco, How Our Laws Are Made,

The Federal Legislative Process

Source:, The Legislative Process, at

The Legislative Process

  1. Bill is introduced in the House (H.R.####) or Senate (S.####).

  2. Bill is assigned to a committee.

  3. The committee may let the bill die or hold hearings and mark up the bill.

  4. The committee votes to report the bill and writes a report on its thought process.

  5. The bill is sent to the floor of its originating house for debate and voting.

  6. Once a bill passes in its originating house, it is called an engrossed bill.  It is sent to the other house and the same process begins again.  Once it is sent to the other house, it is called an act.

  7. If the two houses disagree on aspects of the bill, they may have a conference to resolve disputes.  They will draft a report showing how they came to their conclusions.

  8. Once the bill passes both houses, it is called an "enrolled act."

  9. The enrolled act is sent to the President for who will either sign or veto it.

For a more detailed account of how federal laws are made, see the GPO publication John V. Sullivan, How Our Laws Are Made (2007). A visualization of how federal laws are made is provided in the box below. You may click on the image to view a larger version.

The "How Our Laws Are Made" image was created by Mike Wirth and Dr. Suzanne Cooper Guasco and is licensed for use under the Creative Commons Atrribution 3.0 United States License.

Types of Materials

  1. Bill or Act in various versions, e.g. as introduced, as reported out of committee, as sent to the president, etc.

  2. Hearing Records: Witnesses oral/written statements, committee Q&As, statements and exhibits submitted by interested parties.

  3. Committee Prints: Research reports prepared by committee staff, consultants, the Library of Congress, and others.

  4. House or Senate Documents: Miscellanious category including communications from the President, reports of committee activities, etc.

  5. Committee Reports: Description & analysis of the bill, discussion of its background, committee's findings/recommendations, text of recommended bill, minority views, recommended costs.

  6. Floor Debates & Proceedings: Statements made and/or actions taken in a chamber of Congress.

  7. Presidential Messages: Signing statements or veto messages.


Relative Importance of Materials

  1. Committee reports are generally given the most weight in determining legislative intent, because they are produced by the committee to which Congress has delegated the responsibility for detailed study and recommendation.

  2. Changes of language in the bill as it is amended are given high significance.

  3. Other documents, though less valuable than reports or the variant text of bills, may shed light on the context in which legislators considered the bill in question:

    • Legislative debates in the Congressional Record may include statements by a bill’s sponsors or the chairs of the committees considering the bills, which are given more weight than comments by Representatives or Senators not involved with the specific bill.  However, statements may be contradictory (making it difficult to infer the intent) and can be altered prior to publication. 

    • Hearings must be used critically since testimony includes both that of disinterested experts and highly partisan interest groups. 

    • Committee prints are prepared by committee staff for use by legislators; as such, they cannot reflect intent, but nonetheless can be enlightening. 

    • House and Senate Documents (available in the Serial Set, see #3 under “Legislative Process” above) often consist of executive reports and proposals which may be useful for understanding bills proposed by the executive branch.

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