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Legislative Histories: 01 - Public Law number

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

Do you already know the number of the Public Law you are researching?

Do you already know the number of the Public Law you are researching, e.g., P.L. 79-396?

Yes -- Proceed to step 2

No -- Identify the Public Law number and the bill number

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:

Identify the Public Law number and the bill number

To determine the number of the Public Law, use one of the following:

  • Shepard's Acts and Cases By Popular Names, Federal & State...
    Reference KF 80 .S5
    provides the citation, including Public Law number.
  • The title and synopsis of laws in U.S. Statutes at Large back to 1789 can be searched by keyword or citation at ProQuest Congressional.
  • U.S.C.S. - United States Code Service
    Reference KF 62 1972 .L38
    provides the full text of laws currently in effect, arranged by subject. The Public Law numbers for a specific section appear in a history note following the text of the law.

Two other listings of federal laws by name are

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.