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Federal Legislative History Research: Overview

This guide will outline the resources available at the University of Missouri School of Law for federal legislative history research.

What is Legislative History?

The legislative history of a law is the sequence of steps taken to arrive at the final version of the law along with 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. Legislative history is evidence that members of the legislative body were aware of particular issues and facts. Lawyers and judges differ on the weight they give to legislative intent in regard to statutory interpretation. All legislative documents are only persuasive legal authority. 

Types of Documents

  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: Miscellaneous 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

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.

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

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.

How Our Laws Are Made

Click to enlarge. Used with Creative Commons permission from

An Abbreviated Refresher on 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.

Key Electronic Resources

Key Free Sites of Legislative Documents