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Legislative History Research (Federal): The Process

Legislative History - Brief Definition

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

Useful Background Resources

Legislative Process Overview page by includes a diagram and a 5-minute video (with transcript) of the legislative process, as well as links to short videos on topics such as Committee Consideration and Resolving Differences, and to many resources including a Glossary 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, focused on relevant documents and sources of federal legislative histories.

How Our Laws Are Made  was prepared by the Office of the Parliamentarian of the U.S. House of Representatives in consultation with the Office of the Parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate. This provides an outline 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.
  • 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, etc., along with the Bill, is sent to the full House or Senate if the committee approves the bill.Often 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 procedure.
  • If necessary, a Conference Report is created that reconciles the differences between the House and Senate.
  • 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. 

Reference & Academic Outreach Librarian

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Jennifer Sekula
Julien and Virginia Cornell Library
Vermont Law School