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Legislative Histories: Step-by-Step Research

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.