This guide is designed to assist users in locating the government publications produced in the federal legislative process of the United States, from the proposal of a bill to the enactment of a public law. The documents generated in this process include bills, hearings, prints, reports, Congressional proceedings, and public laws.
Major Sources for Finding the Components of a Legislative History
THOMAS contains the full text of the Congressional Record and legislation from the 101st Congress (1989-1990) to the present, as well as summaries (not full text) of legislation from 1973 (93rd Congress). By default, it limits searches to a single specified Congress. You may wish to choose the option to search multiple Congresses.
ProQuest Legislative Insight includes legislative histories from 1970-present, as well as approximately 9,000 legislative histories from 1929-1969. It includes links to pdfs for all available documents created along the legislative path - bill, reports, prints, documents, hearings, and presidential signing statements. Search by bill number, PL number, Statute at Large citation, as well as keyword (Guided Search).
Life-Cycle of Federal Legislation
Most pieces of Federal legislation follow the same life cycle:
- First, a "bill" is introduced in the House of Representatives or the Senate and given a number (H.R.#### or S.####).
- The bill is referred to a committee for consideration. The committee may hold hearings and mark up the bill (debate, amend, and/or rewrite it) or allow it to die.
- The committee votes to send the bill to its originating chamber and reports its recommendation.
- The bill comes to the floor of the House or Senate for debate and voting.
- A bill that has been passed in its originating chamber is called an "engrossed bill." It is goes to the other chamber and the process begins again. Once it has been sent from one chamber to the other, it is called an "act."
- If the two chambers differ on the bill, they may hold a conference, later drafting a report of their conclusions.
- A act that has passed both houses of Congress is called an "enrolled act."
- The enrolled act is sent to the President, who will either sign or veto it, possibly issuing a statement in the process.
More information on "How Our Laws Are Made" is available at THOMAS, a website from the Library of Congress.
Compiling a Legislative History
A complete "Legislative History" will comprise several types of documents related to the bill at various stages of its development:
- The text of the Bill in various versions, e.g. as introduced, as reported out of committee, as an act sent to the President, etc.
- Committee Prints are reports requested by committee members from staff, the Library of Congress, and other sources. These provide background material but do not necessarily embody the purpose of a bill.
- Hearings include the testimony of called witnesses, questions from the committee, and statements by other interested parties.
- Committee Reports include the formal description & analysis of the bill, any discussion of concerns, the committee's recommendations, minority views, the recommended text for the bill, estimates of costs involved, and more. Committee Reports are considered a principle source for the bill's purpose and the legislators' intent.
- Floor Debates & Proceedings of Congress pertaining to the bill after it leaves committee. These reflect a variety of sometimes contradictory perspectives on a bill.
- Presidential Messages: signing statements or veto messages released by the President in response to the bill.
For Assistance with U.S. Government Documents
Research and Instructional Services
Van Pelt Library
University of Pennsylvania