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Federal Legislative History Research: Research Path

This guide will outline the resources available at the University of Missouri School of Law for federal legislative history research / Last updated by Tyler Kraft, JD '24

Getting Started

Creating a Legislative History

There are many different resources published by Congress and private organizations that can be used to determine legislative intent.  Some are freely available online, some in print in the University of Missouri Law Library and some are available through proprietary databases that the Law Library licenses for use of our patrons.   

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 need to collect? Don't spin your wheels looking for every document connected to a law if you don't need to. 
  2. 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. If you are unsure about which Congress or year your law was passed, you may find it helpful to use the table of Years of Congress Conversion Table.
  3. Using the above information:
    1. Find out if a compiled legislative history already exists;
    2. Consult finding tools referenced in this guide to determine the documents related to the bill or statute (reports, debates, committee prints, hearings, etc.).
  4. Once you have determined the documents that exist, attempt to locate the full text online, in print or on microfiche.

Tip: The tools and documents available depend on the age of the statute or bill. Many legislative documents, usually from 1990 or later, are becoming freely available online and are noted in this guide.  Several Law Library databases provide electronic access to more historical materials.  Compiling a legislative history can be time consuming and challenging!  If you need help, reach out to your law librarians for assistance. 

Research Path

  1. Start with any version of the federal code to locate the public law(s) creating or amending the section of the code you are interested in. You will find this information at the end of each code section.  Public laws are cited to by Congressional session and chronological number of the bill passed, (e.g., 98-123 is the 123rd bill signed into law during the 98th Congress), and published in the order passed in United States Statutes at Large (Stat.).  You may also want to note any cases or law review articles listed in the code, since these may contain information on legislative intent.  Three versions of the code are available:

    United States Code (USC)
    United States Code Annotated (USCA)
    United States Code Service (USCS)
    LexisNexis: CODES;USCS for current USCS  
    CODES;USARCH for archived USCS from 102nd  Cong.,  2nd session, 1992
    Westlaw:  USCA database for current USCA 
    USCAyy (historical versions from 1990, where yy is the year, e.g., USCA93 for 1993 version)
    Internet: U.S. House of Representatives:  (from 1988)
    GPO Access U.S. Code (from 1994)
  2. Look to see if someone else has already compiled and published a legislative history in Sources of Compiled Legislative History, by Nancy Johnson (1979 - , looseleaf, updated periodically).  Arranged by public law number, it has an author-title index and public law indexes. 
    HeinOnline: HeinOnline Legislative History

    In addition, LexisNexis and Westlaw have full legislative histories of some of the major acts like ERISA, CERCLA, FIRREA, etc.  Check their directories for a complete listing.
  3. For legislation enacted since 1970, consult the legislative history published in the CIS Index/Abstracts.  Congressional Information Service compiles a legislative history listing all relevant documents for every public law passed during the year.  These histories are arranged by public law number at the end of each annual abstract volume through 1983 and in a separate volume from 1984.  The index and abstract volumes of the set are updated monthly and provide access (by title, subject, witness, public law and bill number) to the complete working papers of Congress (e.g. reports, hearings, committee prints etc.).  Because of the thoroughness of the indexing, there is a substantial lag time (about one year); therefore, CIS is not the best place to search for documents relating to current legislation.  
    LexisNexis: LexisNexis Congressional (from 1789)
  4. For legislation enacted before 1970 (or as alternative sources for post-1970 legislation): 
    • CIS Index for 1789- 1969.  Documents indexed include the Serial Set, Senate Executive Documents and Reports, Congressional Hearings, and Congressional Committee Prints.
      LexisNexis: LexisNexis Congressional (from 1789)
    • The United States Code Congressional and Administrative news (USCCAN), (West Pub. Co.) 1942- . This service reprints the full text of all laws passed by Congress.  It also selectively publishes Congressional committee reports and includes tables on the legislative history with citation to congressional documents.  Updated monthly. 
      Westlaw:  USCCAN database
    • Check the index to the Congressional Record for your bill to see if any discussion was held which will help you discover intent.  You can check the index by bill number or by subject.
      LexisNexis: LEGIS;RECORD (from 99th Cong., 1985)
      Westlaw:  CR database (from 99th Cong., 1985)
      Internet: THOMAS (from 101st Cong., 1989)
      GPO Access Congressional Record   (Daily Edition from 1994)  
  5. Check for law review articles.  Indexes are available in both print and online versions.  The print versions have Tables of Statutes which might refer you to articles that discuss your code section; the online versions also allow you to search by your code section.  Law review articles may deal with legislative history and may provide citations to legislative history documents.
  6. Do a Westlaw or LexisNexis search of cases using search terms “legislative history” or “legislative intent” in combination with appropriate topical search; you may find cases citing earlier legislative history interpretations.
  7. Search newspaper databases to find articles providing background information.