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Federal Legislative History  

Last Updated: Oct 9, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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About This Guide

About This Guide

This guide was created by Research Assistant Heather DeLaurie, SU COL 2016 and members of the Library Reference Staff. It came about as a result of a research project Heather did for the Library's Reference Department, through input and assistance by law library reference librarians.


Federal Legislative History Research Guide

Welcome to the Federal Legislative History Research Guide

This guide provides guidance on how to research a law's legislative history. Legislative History is a collection of documents created by the legislative process which, when viewed together, reveal the history and intent of a statute/law. These documents are produced during the course of a bill's path from introduction to deliberation to enactment as a law. The major documents which comprise a federal legislative history are bills and their amendments, committee reports, and debates and records of hearings.




 Legislative Process and Accompanying Documents

In order to compile a federal legislative history, you must understand the federal legislative process and the kinds of documents generated during each stage of this process.

The following segment briefly reviews the path of a federal bill from introduction to enactment as a law, and describes the various documents which are (or can be) produced during each phase of consideration.  

1)    The Bill is Introduced
A bill is introduced in one chamber of Congress (House or Senate), then passed, with or without amendments, to the other chamber. Sometimes companion bills are considered simultaneously. Bills are identified by the chamber (H. for House and S. for Senate) and a number. For example, S.123 is the 123rd bill introduced into the Senate for a given congressional session.

To understand the complete history of a bill:
2.    Track the bill that passed and its companion
3.    Track the amendments

2)    The Bill is Sent to the Appropriate Committee
Committees give a bill its most intensive consideration. A public hearing takes place if the proposed legislation is significant or controversial. After the hearing, if any, the subcommittee deliberates and reports on the bill, in writing, to the full committee. The full committee votes for the bill or tables it.

3)    If the Bill is Reported Favorably, it is Accompanied by a Commit tee Report or Print
The Committee Report is the most important element of a legislative history. It describes the bill's purpose and impact of the bill on Public Law. A Committee Print expresses the views of one or more members of the committee. It may include material prepared by the committee staff.

4)    The Full Chamber Debates the Bill
The usefulness of records and floor debates depends on the seriousness of the discussion.

5)    If the Bill is Passed in One Chamber, it is Sent to the Other Chamber
In the other chamber, a similar procedure is followed (i.e., floor debates, committees, etc.).

6)    If the Bill Passes the Other Chamber it is Sent Back to the Originating Chamber With or Without Amendments
Conference Committee Reports are generated when members of both chambers meet to discuss discrepancies and make recommendations. Sometimes they convey the committees inability to reach an agreement.

7)    The Originating Chamber Votes on the Bill Again

8)    When the Bill is Passed, it is Sent Back to the Other Chamber, Which Votes on the Final Versio n of the Bill
A Bill becomes a Public Law after identical versions have been passed by both the House and Senate and, either (a) the President signs it, or (b) ten days pass without getting the President’s signature. A Bill may also become Public Law if the President vetoes and his veto is overruled by two-thirds of Congress.

Public Laws (P.L.) are assigned numbers to show which laws Congress enacted during a given session. For example, P.L.89-123 means that this is the 123rd public law enacted by the 89th Congress.



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