Legislative Histories

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What is a Legislative History?

A legislative history refers to a collection of documents that track a bill from its conception to its final outcome. Legislative Histories can be very long, going through many revisions and amendments, or short with little action.  The History includes the text of the bill, the committee hearings and testimony, floor action, votes, supporting members, and the final outcome.  The overall objective of a Legislative History is to gather all of the information on a particular bill or law.   

This research guide outlines sources where you can locate the information included in a Legislative History. Some sources, such as the CIS Index, Proquest, and Thomas, have organized information about bills that provides an outline of a Legislative History.  (It will list floor action, supporters, amendments, and committee hearings and reports.) Locating this outline is the first step in locating the actual documents and serves as a guide to understanding what is available. Finding each of these sources creates the full Legislative History.

One of the most important factors to starting you Legislative History it to determine the Bill Number or Public Law Number, and the Year and/or Congress.  This will determine where you find your information at.  Below is a guide to understanding the legislative numbering system.

A very detailed account of Legislative Histories is available from Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.

What are you looking for?  These are key pieces of legislation that may be found for FEDERAL legislation:

a.       Bill Text

b.      Amendments

c.       Reports

d.      Hearings/testimony

e.      Congressional Record entries

Once you have a legislative history, it is suggested that you print it out and use it as your 'guide.'  Go through each item and keep track of what you have looked at, what you need to find, and what you need to go back to.

Where To Start?

First, decide if you are searching/looking for California (state) or Federal policy.  

Information you need to find first:

  1. Bill number
  2. If it is current or past legislation, and which congress it was passed in.

Go to either the California Legislative Resoures Tab or the Federal Legislative Resources Tab to continue your research.

How to find a published legislative history


  • - Note the bill number and name, Public Law number, committees, and names of senators or representatives.
Year of bill or Public Law Source

CIS Index: Abstracts of congressional publications and legislative histories  print resource; Index- not full text.

1989- present Proquest Congressional Full text starting with 1989 (101th Congress)
1989- present Thomas (Library of Congress) Provides a simplified legislative history as a summary of actions on bills . Varied full text of some documents from 1989-1995. Does not include hearings.

Legislative Citations

Legislation is referenced by number, particularly the Public Law Number (P.L.) or the Bill number (often H.R. or S.). 


  • Public Laws have two citations, used interchangeably:
    PL 105-178  (this citation shows the number of the Congress and the number of the law.)
    112 Stat. 107  (this citation shows the volume and page in the Statutes at Large.)

    United States Code citations appear:
    23 USC ss101 (this citation shows the title and the paragraph number.)

    Searching this citation in the United States Code also retrieves the Public Law citations.

    This act is also known by it's popular name: Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century

  • These numbers can be found by searching Cornell Law Schools LII.
  • The Public Law Number corresponds to the congress and in sequential order for the year.  For example: P.L. 105-178 was passed in the 105th congress (1997-1998) and was the 178th law signed for that year. (find years and corresponding congresses)
  • Before it became a law, legislation will have a bill number associated with it.  The previous example, while it was being discussed in congress it was known as H.R.2400.  Therefore, all information regarding P.L. 105-178 will be referred to as H.R. 2400 in congressional documents.
  • Key to Legislative Citations


Slip Laws: traditionally, a printed public law has been known as a slip law from the time it first appeared to the time it was incorporated in the United States Statutes at Large.  Due to electronic access, this terminology is somewhat archaic.

United States Statutes at Large: Beginning with 1789 and continuing today, this publication provides access to texts of all laws as of the initial enactment.

United States Code: this publication includes all laws still in force.  It is arranged into fifty subjects, known officially as "titles."  Different portions of a Public Law can appear in different titles.

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