How to Compile a Legislative History


This is a selective guide to resources at Columbia University Libraries and on the Internet, for compiling a legislative history. Most of the items included are available in Lehman Library, either in the Lehman Reference collection or the Lehman stacks. For other locations and titles, check CLIO or Pegasus.

Resources marked with this symbol are restricted to Columbia affiliates.

Additional Research Guides


What & Why

What is a legislative history ...

A legislative history is a compilation of all the related legislative documents that precede the enactment of a U.S. Public Law (P.L.). It can include related bills and amendments, committee reports, hearings, prints, congressional debates, presidential messages, and other documents. It can include material from both the Congress which passed the bill into law and from previous Congresses which considered that or similar bills.

... and why would I want to compile one?

A legislative history is used to understand the intent and purpose of the law. Often the purpose of the law is not mentioned in the text itself, but will be referred to in some of the other documents which precede it. So a legislative history can be one tool used to determine whether a law is actually serving its purpose. It can also be used in determining the impact that the law has had.

Where to Start

In order to compile a legislative history, you need to know the steps in the legislative process and the documents which are produced as a result of that process -- they form the main components of your history. For a detailed description, consult the guide The Legislative Process.

To begin, you need to know three things: the Public Law (P.L.) number, the bill number, and the date it was introduced in Congress. The following sources can help you identify a P.L. to trace. They also can provide you with valuable background information about the intent of the law, its sponsors, and some of the issues surrounding the bill's passage into law. Each of these sources enables you to select a P.L. by topic, and determine if it was a major piece of legislation.

  • CQ Weekly.
    Washington, D.C. Congressional Quarterly, 1948-
    Call Number: JK 1 .C15
    Updates CQ Almanac, below. All the important activity in Congress.
  • CQ Almanac. Annual.
    Washington, D.C. : CQ Press, 1953-
    Call Number: JK 1 .C15
    CQ covers everything that goes on in Congress and is well indexed. It's useful to determine dates, chronologies, bill titles and numbers. Also a good source for a succinct analysis of the issues related to a particular piece of legislation. Use CQ Weekly, above, for current legislation, the annual almanac for prior years. Congressional Quarterly is the best source to use for initial identification of legislation to research
    Note: Only bills which were passed into law will have legislative histories.
  • Congress and the Nation. Quadrennial.
    Washington, D.C. : CQ Press, 1945-
    Call Number: KF 49 .C65
    Each volume covers governmental action during a four-year presidential term, divided into broad themes like Economic Policy, Foreign Policy, or Housing and Urban Aid, with chronologies and further references. Useful for determining intent of both the congressional and executive branches.
  • National Journal. Biweekly.
    Washington: Government Research Corp., 1981-
    Call Number: JK 1 .N28
    National Journal is more policy-oriented than CQ; useful for identifying the major players and issues surrounding legislation.
    National Journal Group's Policy Central is a collection of online resources for politics and policy. It includes the full text of the National Journal, 1977 to the present.

Once you have selected a Public Law, then you have to identify all of the documents associated with it.
Use the following sources:

  • ProQuest Legislative Insight
    Proquest Legislative Insight is a federal legislative history service that makes available thoroughly researched compilations of digital full-text publications relevant to enacted U.S. public laws. These include the full text of the public law itself, all versions of related bills, law-specific Congressional Record excerpts, committee hearings, reports, and prints. Also included are presidential signing statements, CRS reports and miscellaneous congressional publications that provide background material to aid in the understanding of issues related to the making of the law.
    Eventually, ProQuest Legislative Insight will provide legislative histories for all public laws from the 71st Congress (1929) to the present.
  • ProQuest Congressional
    Proquest Congressional is the most comprehensive online resource available for congressional publications and legislative research. Included are: Committee Hearings, Committee Prints, Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports, House and Senate Documents, House and Senate Reports, Senate Executive Reports, Senate Executive Treaty Documents, Legislative Histories (1970-present), Statutes at Large, the Serial Set and Serial Set Maps. Most of the content is full text. The most efficient way to search is by P.L. or bill number, then retrieve bill tracking information. ProQuest Congressional also can be used to compile legislative histories for older laws, pre-1970. The full text of all public laws, hearings and committee prints is available (through 2003), and the associated documents for the older laws can be located by searching the section "Congressional Indexes, 1789-1969."
  • Thomas
    Source for current bills and other legislative activities. Click on "Bill Summary & Status" or "Public Laws" to retrieve the text of bills and laws, and other legislative history documents.

Additional Governmental Sources

Once you have identified the basic documents, there are sources for additional information from government agencies, from both the executive and legislative branches:

  • Congressional Budget Office (CBO)
    CBO's mission is to provide the Congress with objective, timely, nonpartisan analyses needed for economic and budget decisions and with the information and estimates required for the Congressional budget process. Since all bills have budget implications, CBO frequently issues documents related to particular bills or to a general area of legislative interest.Types of documents to be found here are: studies & reports, cost estimates, and testimony. CBO prepares cost estimates and mandates statements for all bills ordered reported by a full committee of the Congress.
  • Government Accountability Office (GAO)
    GAO is the investigative arm of Congress. Charged with examining matters relating to the receipt and disbursement of public funds, GAO performs audits and evaluations of Government programs and activities.Go to GAO Reports and Testimony. There are options to look at Reports and Testimony by title or by subject, and all GAO Reports are available full text.
  • Office of Management & Budget (OMB)
    OMB's predominant mission is to assist the President in overseeing the preparation of the Federal budget and to supervise its administration in Executive Branch agencies. In helping to formulate the President's spending plans, OMB evaluates the effectiveness of agency programs, policies, and procedures, assesses competing funding demands among agencies, and sets funding priorities. OMB ensures that agency reports, rules, testimony, and proposed legislation are consistent with the President's budget and with Administration policies. Under "Legislative Information," there are two useful sections:

Other useful information may be found on the web sites of government agencies which are responsible for the subject matter of the law in question. For examples in one subject area, see the Social Work Library guide, Researching Health Policy Legislation

For a list of links to U.S. government agencies, see the A-Z Index of U.S. Government Departments and Agencies, from USA.gov.

Sources Outside of Government

While not part of an official legislative history, sources outside of government can be very useful for determining the political climate in which the bill was proposed, the arguments for and against the bill, proponents and opponents, analysis, and outcome. You can search a variety of general news resources, topical indexes, and web sites of research centers, NGOs, and think tanks.

General News Resources 

  • Lexis-Nexis Academic
    A source of full text newspapers and news magazines; useful for reportage and public debate of issues.
  • ProQuest
    You can search both newspapers and research periodicals, with links to the full text of articles.

Topical Indexes

Research Centers, Think Tanks, NGOs

  • Associations Unlimited
    Search by subject and/or keyword. The entry for each organization will include a web address, if available.
  • Think Tanks & Policy Centers
    This web page has links to some of the most prominent U.S. think tanks, as well as to an online directory.

Legislative Histories Already Compiled

Of course the quickest and easiest way to examine the legislative history of a particular law is if someone else has already compiled it. Some of the published legislative histories which are held by the libraries can be located via a title search on CLIO: Legislative History.

The following are some resources which contain legislative histories.

  • ProQuest Congressional
    ProQuest Congressional is the most comprehensive online resource available for congressional publications and legislative research. Included are: Committee Hearings, Committee Prints, Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports, House and Senate Documents, House and Senate Reports, Senate Executive Reports, Senate Executive Treaty Documents, Legislative Histories, Statutes at Large, the Serial Set and Serial Set Maps. Most of the content is full text. The most efficient way to search is by P.L. or bill number, then retrieve bill tracking information. ProQuest Congressional also can be used to compile legislative histories for older laws, pre-1970. The full text of all public laws, hearings and committee prints is available (through 2003), and the associated documents for the older laws can be located by searching the section "Congressional Indexes, 1789-1969."
  • American Landmark Legislation.
    Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. : Oceana Publications, 1976-1979.
    KF 68 .S5 1976 - Law
  • American Landmark Legislation, Second Series.
    Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. : Oceana Publications, 1984.
    KF 68 .S5 1984 - Law
    Both of these volumes provide complete legislative histories for selected statutes of continuing significance. Expect to find the major laws up until 1984.
  • Federal Legislative Histories: an Annotated Bibliography and Index to Officially Published Sources.
    Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1994.
    Call Number: KF 42.2 1994
    Call Number: R328.73 F317
    Citations to 255 legislative histories, 1862-1990, compiled by the staff of Congressional committees, the Congressional Research Service, or executive agencies of the federal government. Most of these histories are in the Columbia University Libraries -- check CLIO, Pegasus, or the Butler card catalog.
  • Johnson, Nancy P.
    Sources of Compiled Legislative Histories.
    Littleton, Colo. : Fred B. Rothman, 1979-
    KF 42.2 1979 - Law Reference
    A looseleaf service, updated annually, which includes references to legislative histories included in law journal articles.
  • Legislative Histories, from the U.S. Department of Justice
    The 28 legislative histories are composed of the most important components for the law documented in each legislative history which may include some, or all, of the following: the U.S. Public Law; House and Senate Documents; House, Senate, and Conference Reports; House and Senate Committee Hearings; Congressional Debates (Congressional Record); related Bills; and Presidential Signing Statements. All documents have been digitized.
  • Legislative Histories of Selected U.S. Laws on the Internet, from the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.
  • Union List of Legislative Histories. 7th ed.
    Alexandria, Va. : Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C., 2000.
    Call Number: KF 4 .U644 2000g KF 4 .U644 2000g - Lehman Reference
    Includes histories of laws from the 1st Congress (1789-1791) through the 105th (1998), in chronological order. For each history: P.L. number, Statutes at Large citation, Bill number, and short title or subject of law.