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Cornell Library at Vermont Law & Graduate School

Legislative History Research (Federal): The Process

Legislative History - Brief Definition

Legislative History is made up of documents preceding and accompanying the enactment of a law. These documents generally include bills, public laws, floor debates, and committee hearings, prints, and reports. They can be used to determine the legislative intent behind a statute.

Useful Background Resources

Legislative Process Overview from includes a diagram and a 5-minute video (with transcript) about the legislative process, as well as links to short videos on topics such as Committee Consideration and Resolving Differences. The "Other Resources" menu offers a Glossary of Legislative Terms and additional House and Senate Resources.

Compiling a Federal Legislative History: A Beginner's Guide  is a research guide created by the Library of Congress that focuses on relevant documents and sources of federal legislative histories.

How Our Laws Are Made (prepared by the Office of the Parliamentarian of the House of Representatives) provides a detailed discussion of the numerous steps involved in the federal lawmaking process, from an idea for a legislative proposal through its publication as a statute.

Federal Legislative History Research: A Practitioner's Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent by the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.  

Congressional Glossary includes definitions of terms used in the legislative process.

The Legislative Process - A Quick Outline

  • Introduction of a bill by a member of Congress, and the assignment of a House (H.R.)  or a Senate (S.) bill number.
  • Referral of the bill to an appropriate congressional committee and then to a  subcommittee. The committee/subcommittee may choose to amend the bill's text during markup sessions.
  • Hearings (if the committee decides to act on the bill) are held to gather opinions and information regarding the legislation.
  • A Committee Report, describing the intent and scope of the legislation, along with the new version of the bill (if amended by the committee), is sent to the full House or Senate if the committee approves the bill. Committee Reports are generally considered the most authoritative of the legislative history documents. 
  • Debate in the House or the Senate, which is documented in the Congressional Record.
  • The bill is passed or defeated by a vote of the House or Senate members.
  • The bill moves to the other chamber and follows the same procedures.
  • If necessary, a Conference Report is created that reconciles the differences between the House and Senate and a compromise bill is generated.
  • The compromise bill is voted on by both chambers.
  • Once the bill has been approved by both the House and the Senate it is sent to the President
  • If the President signs the bill or has not vetoed it after ten days, it becomes Law and is assigned a Public Law number. 
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