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Legislative Histories: Research Tips

Step-by-Step Research about a Federal Law

Begin Step-by-Step Research -- Research Tips

  1. Identify the Public Law number
  2. Locate and read overviews of the bill's history
    - Congressional Quarterly Almanac
    - U.S. Code Congressional & Administrative News
  3. Retrieve a compiled legislative history list of bills, hearings, reports, debate, etc.
    - CIS Index: Legislative Histories
  4. Retrieve the Bill Tracking Report
    - ProQuest Congressional
  5. Retrieve the brief "Guide to Legislative History" list of bills, reports and debate
    - U.S. Statutes at Large
  6. Retrieve the list of reports and documents by bill number(s)
    - CIS U.S. Serial Set Index, Part XIII, Index by Reported Bill Numbers, 1817-1969
  7. Retrieve the list of reports, documents, and hearings by subject
    - ProQuest Congressional, Historical Indexes, 1789-1969
    - CIS U.S. Congressional Committee Hearings Index, 1833-1969
  8. Retrieve articles from journals & newspapers
  9. Search for information from organizations concerned with the issue
    - Gale Directory Library
  10. Check other resources for information
    - Thomas
    - GPO Access
    - Other sites

TIP #1: Understand the Legislative Process

See the section "Understand the Legislative Process" for links to resources describing the process. Don't try to locate the detailed documentation of the stages of a bill becoming a law until you clearly understand what those stages are.

TIP #2: Keep the Public Law (P.L.) and bill numbers handy

At various points in your research, you'll almost certainly need the Public Law (P.L.) number and the Congressional bill number (e.g., S. 134 or H.R. 3370), so keep them handy. Record all the numbers, dates and citations you view, even if you're not sure what each citation means at first; e.g.

79 P.L. 396; 79 Cong. Ch. 281; 60 Stat. 230, H.R. 3370, PUBLIC LAW, NATIONAL SCHOOL LUNCH ACT,

refers to Public Law 79-396, also identified as Chapter 281 of the laws from the 79th Congress, published in volume 60 of the Statutes at Large on page 230. The legislation originated in the House of Representatives as House bill number 3370 and became a law on June 4, 1946.

TIP #3: Don't skip steps

Read and follow the steps carefully. There are at least a thousand pages of documentation to wade through for most major laws, and some laws have tens of thousands of pages. These steps are designed to help the researcher locate clues about which documentation might be most helpful, thereby allowing the researcher to focus where time is spent. Some steps can be skipped because they only apply to laws passed during a specific time period (e.g., steps 5 through 7 only apply to laws passed prior to 1969), but otherwise it is best to work through each step in order.

TIP #4: Pick a law with documentation that is not overwhelming, but that also has enough substance

Obviously this tip doesn't apply if you actually need to research the history of a specific law. But if you are trying to pick a law to research for a class assignment about legislative histories, you can search the Legislative Histories file at ProQuest Congressional by keyword.

To keep the research assignment manageable, generally avoid selecting anything that is part of an omnibus or appropriations law because it will usually be much more difficult to wade through the various issues.

It is generally easy to find out who favored the law (and why) because it received a majority of the votes to become law. What may be more difficult is determining who opposed it and why. To improve the likelihood that sufficient documentation exists for discussing the pros and cons of the law, select a law with at least one committee report and at least one committee hearing. More reports and hearings are preferred. What you're particularly looking for are minority/dissenting views listed at the ends of the reports and testimony in the hearings that opposes or questions some aspect of the proposed bill.

Although you can compile a legislative history about any law, the research will probably be easier if the law was enacted between 1989 and 2008 because of online tools such as the bill tracking report in step 4.

See the potential research problems about selecting a law that is "not actually a Public Law."

After you've picked a Public Law, hold off on exploring the details of the various LexisNexis files until after you've completed steps 2 through 3.

TIP #5: Consider reviewing topics in specialized encyclopedias to identify specific pieces of legislation

Some useful encyclopedias include:

TIP #6: Complete your preliminary research early in the semester

As a bare minimum, complete steps 1 through 3 and verify whether or not the law you've selected to research meets your instructor's guidelines. Some students switch laws several times before identifying a law with sufficient documentation to answer all of the assignment questions, but not one that has an overwhelming amount of documentation to review.

TIP #7: Read carefully through the descriptive notes in the Legislative History from CIS/ProQuest for your Public Law

The bill became a law, so support for it obviously existed. It is sometimes more difficult to determine what, if any, opposition existed.

  • In the text describing committee reports, look for clues near the end of the report description listing "dissenting" or "minority" views.
  • In the text describing committee hearings, the "Statements and Discussion" section following each group of witnesses might help identify "concerns", "opposition", "implementation issues", etc.
  • If it is not clear whether or not a witness fully supported all aspects of the proposed legislation, the organizational affiliation of the witness might help you guess whether the individual was likely to support particular issues.

TIP #8: See the information about Potential Research Problems regarding incomplete citations

See the information about Potential Research Problems regarding incomplete citations.