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Pritzker Legal Research Center

Federal Legislative History

Sources and strategies for performing federal legislative history research.

The Legislative Process

Step 1: Introduction of Bill

The legislative process begins with a member of the Senate or the House of Representatives introducing a bill. The bill is assigned a unique identifying number, which it retains through both sessions of  the current Congress. Each session is one year, and each Congress is two years. We are currently in the 114th Congress, 1st Session. A House of Representatives bill is designated "H.R. ___"; a Senate bill is identified as "S. ___". Frequently, before the final version of a bill is reported to the floor of the chamber, a committee will consider alternative versions. If a bill is not enacted into law during the Congress in which it is introduced, it must be reintroduced in the subsequent Congress, and it will be assigned a new bill number, and will start through the process again. Comparing the enacted language with the language of earlier versions of the bill or of amendments which were not accepted, or with other, unadopted, bills on the same subject can sometimes be used to infer the intent of the final version.

It is important to point out that legislative documents are sequentially numbered in the order in which they are created.  Thus, H.R. 1 in the 114th Congress would signify the first House bill introduced in the 144th Congress.  H. Rpt. 114-1 signifies the first House committee report issued in the 114th Congress; it does not mean that it has anything to do with H.R. 1 (it could, but it would be purely by coincidence).

Step 2: Committee Work - Hearings

The bill is then assigned to the appropriate committee(s) of the House of Congress--the House or the Senate--in which it was introduced. Significant bills are generally supported by hearings held by the committee (or one of its subcommittees) to determine the views of experts, lobbyists, agency officials, or other interested parties. The purpose of a hearing is to determine the need for new legislation or to solicit relevant information. A hearing's usefulness (in statutory construction) is limited by the large amount of testimony pro and con and the difficulty of establishing a connection between specific remarks made during the hearing and their effect on the final language of the bill. However, oftentimes when a hearing is held on a particular piece of legislation, the Member of Congress who introduced the bill often testifies as to its purpose before the committee.

Step 3: Committee Work - Markup, Amendments, Report

Committee work might include markup sessions, wherein the committee makes changes to the bill in the form of amendments.  While most bills die in committee (that is, never get reported out to the whole House or Senate), if the bill is acted upon favorably by the committee, a committee report may be issued.

A committee report describes the purpose and scope of the bill, explains the committee amendments, indicates any proposed changes in existing laws, and includes the texts of communications from departmental officials whose views on the legislation may have been solicited. The House and Senate Reports which accompany the bill reported out are first issued in slip form and have a two part numbering scheme, for example 105-62. The first number (105) indicates the Congress during which the report was issued; the second number is a sequential number which identifies a particular report.

A bill is reported out of the committee when the chairman of the committee reintroduces it in the chamber along with the committee recommendations. Committee reports are the most persuasive legislative history sources. It has been common practice for committee reports to give instructions on how government agencies should interpret and enforce the law. Courts have relied on these guidelines in establishing intent. It is usually the best practice to begin a legislative history research project with the committee reports.

Step 4: Floor Debate

If a bill reported out by the committee, it is sent to the floor for debate and a vote. The debates currently appear in the Congressional Record (though there are earlier versions with different names). The Congressional Record is not necessarily a word-for-word transcript of what is spoken on the floor. A member's remarks are presented to him or her for review and possible modification. Some speeches printed in the Congressional Record were never spoken on the floor at all. Since 1978, in the Senate, this type of remark has been indicated by a "bullet," a dark circle at the beginning and end of the speech; in the House, such proceedings are indicated by italicized type. Roman type indicates remarks actually spoken on the floor.

The bill can be amended on the floor. Next in importance to committee reports are the statements in the Congressional Record. For the purpose of legislative history authority, prepared statements tend to be accorded more weight than extemporaneous remarks, and explanations given by sponsors of floor amendments are usually considered of more consequence than statements made by other members. In questions of ambiguity, of particular importance are statements by the "floor manager" which might clarify legislative intent.

Step 5: Passage and Consideration in Second Chamber

If the bill passes a chamber, it is sent to the other chamber, where it proceeds through a similar path (committee consideration followed by a debate and vote). If it passes both chambers, it goes to the President for signing and gets a Public Law number. NOTE: If the first chamber does not accept the amended bill, a conference committee consisting of members of both chambers is appointed, and if they can agree to a compromise bill, they issue a conference report, which is then voted on in both chambers.

Step 6: Conference Committee (if necessary)

If the House and Senate pass different versions of the bill, a conference committee made up of members of both chambers is convened to try to reach a compromise.  If a compromise is reach, the conference committee will usually send a conference report (usually labelled as a House report) to both chambers).  The conference report is a particularly important source of legislative history because it explains all conference committee compromises. Keep in mind it might discuss only those sections of a bill which are in controversy. It often includes a summary of the previous House and Senate provisions and therefore can be a good source of information on the history of a particular provision.

Step 7: Presidential Action

Throughout the legislative process, presidential messages may have been issued, conveying general recommendations or requesting passage of specific measures. The explanations that may accompany presidential proposals on legislation, especially those enacted without significant change, become part of the legislative history.  Once the legislation reaches the president's desk, the president may also issue a signing statement or a veto message, either of which also become part of the legislative history (though the value of presidential signing statements for the purpose of determining legislative intent is hotly debated).