While all legislative history materials have only persuasive legal authority, certain types of legislative history documents are considered by the courts to be more persuasive than others. Although documents of each type have been cited in court opinions, and relied upon as evidence of legislative intent, normally the highest persuasive value is assigned to the reports of the congressional committees that considered the proposed legislation and recommended its enactment. Other documents generated prior to enactment include statements made on the floor of Congress in legislative debate, statements or testimony at committee hearings, and earlier or alternative versions of the bill. Statements made and reports written after enactment are usually found to be less persuasive.
On the federal level, therefore, if one has a limited amount of time, reviewing the committee reports selected for publication in U.S.C.C.A.N. can be a reasonable strategy. If a more in-depth search is necessary, other sources that will be covered below should be consulted to locate other types of documents.
ProQuest Congressional and ProQuest Legislative Insight are both subscription databases available to the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law community and are incredibly useful for legislative history research. They are referenced a number of times in the following pages as a source for many types of Congressional information.
While the issue is not always clear-cut, most commentators agree that Committee Reports, (see Reports section below) are the most persuasive documents in legislative history. An easy way to find committee reports for federal bills that have become law is to use the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (U.S.C.C.A.N.). In addition to an unofficial version of the federal session laws, U.S.C.C.A.N. contains reprints of selected committee reports and other information. It has been published since 1941; legislative history coverage began in 1948. Access is by public law number. An online version is available on Westlaw. Contents include: text of session law; United States Statutes at Large citation; bill number; names of committees and committee report numbers; and dates of consideration and passage in the House and Senate. Be sure to use the “Legislative History” volumes rather than the “Laws” volumes.
Published since 1970, this index contains the most complete summary of federal legislative history information. The main index is by subject, although you can also search by bill number, public law number, or title. The set is supplemented monthly. From 1970 to 1983, two bound volumes were issued for each year - an Index volume and an Abstracts volume. The Abstracts volume contained a section with legislative histories of enacted laws. Since 1984, this information has appeared in a separate annual "Legislative Histories" volume. CIS also publishes a companion set of microfiche containing the text of the documents that are indexed. Our library does not subscribe to the microfiche set; therefore it is necessary to record the report number or Superintendent of Documents number (for hearings) also given in CIS to locate the actual documents. Contents include: bill numbers; references to hearings (including hearings on related bills from prior sessions); references to committee reports; dates of consideration in the Congressional Record; and references to presidential documents.
CIS Index and Abstracts are also available online through ProQuest Legislative Insight, which organizes all of the documents associated with the law by type and links to the full text when available.
Access is by Statutes at Large citation. Since 1975, a legislative history summary has been included at the end of the text of each public law; from 1963-1974, this information appears in a table called "Guide to Legislative History" at the end of each volume. Contents include: text of session law; bill number; cites to House and Senate Reports; dates of consideration in the Congressional Record; and dates of presidential statements in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents.
Frequently, before the final version of a bill is reported to the floor, a committee will consider alternative versions or proposed amendments. Comparisons of enacted language with that found in earlier versions of the bill or in amendments that were not accepted can sometimes be used to infer the intent of the final version.
Bills introduced in each Congress are numbered consecutively in separate series for the House and Senate and are cited as:
S. 21, 98th Cong. (1983).
H.R. 1471, 94th Cong. (1976).
Bill number sequences continue through both sessions of a two-year Congress. Bills that do not pass “die” at the end of a Congress. They can be re-introduced, but will be given a new number. H.R. or S. is the prefix of a bill depending on whether it originates in the House of Representatives or Senate.
Statements made in testimony before the committee considering the proposed legislation or by committee members have also been accepted by the courts as evidence of legislative intent. Their usefulness is limited by the large amount of testimony pro and con on many bills and the difficulty in establishing a connection between particular remarks made at the hearing and the final language of the bill. Hearings are not held on all pieces of federal legislation, and even if held may not be published. Those which are published are cited as follows (Note that the Bluebook form does not include the Superintendent of Documents (SuDocs) classification number necessary to locate published hearings in most government documents collections.):
Guns versus Butter: How the Military Budget Affects Aging Americans: Hearings Before the Subcomm. on Retirement Income & Employment of the House Select Comm. on Aging, 97th Cong., 1st Sess. (1981).
Hearings may be held in Congress prior to introduction of a bill, either during the session in which the bill is introduced or in an earlier session. Each committee decides which of its hearings are to be published. The National Archives has the transcripts of unpublished hearings. Senate hearings generally remain closed for 20 years, and House hearings remain closed for 30 years. Hearings that contain classified or sensitive material generally remain closed for 50 years.
Each bill is assigned to a committee and bills that are reported out of committee are accompanied by a committee report. These reports are published in separate numerical sequence for each Congressional session. If a conference committee is convened to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions, a conference committee report is issued.
Usually the most useful sources of legislative history are these written reports that accompany a bill from committee to consideration on the floor of the House or Senate. Their importance stems from being written for purposes of explaining the proposal and its likely effects by the legislators who looked at the bill most closely.
Normally, there are separate House and Senate reports available for each enacted law, as well as a conference report if the final language was developed by a conference committee. There are separate numbered series of House and Senate reports for each two-year congressional term. Conference reports are numbered within either the House or Senate series. The documents are commonly referred to by a number including that of Congress, e.g., "H. Rep. 97-857." Bluebook citation form is as follows:
S. Rep. 84-2 (1955).
H.R. Rep. 97-857 (1982).
Many committee studies and reports are published under the general classification “committee prints” and often contain statistics and other background information. Although not widely distributed in hard copy, access to the post-1970 prints is through the general CIS indexes.
Like committee reports, these are assigned consecutive numbers in a series for either a House or Senate session.
Floor debate usually occurs after a bill has been reported out of committee and includes comments made about the bill by sponsors and other legislators during consideration or a bill on the floor. The Congressional Record has been the official source for Congressional floor debates since 1873. Members have always had the ability to correct or revise remarks prior to publication. Differing systems (bullet symbols or variations in typeface) have been in use since 1978 to indicate material inserted or substituted after the fact. The Congressional Record has, since the beginning, been published in a separate daily pamphlet edition. Until 1984, bound volumes (with different pagination from the daily version) were published at the end of each Congress. With the lapse in publication of the bound volumes, the daily edition is the only version currently available in print format.
Predecessors to the Congressional Record are the Annals of Congress (1789 - 1824), Register of debates (1824 - 1837), and the Congressional Globe (1833 – 1873). These are all available in the Library of Congress’ web collection, A Century of Lawmaking, ProQuest Congressional and in HeinOnline.
Presidential statements can sometimes be used in legislative history to indicate the President’s opinion about the purpose of a law. The Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents has been published since 1965 and is the most complete source for current speeches, orders, proclamations and other documents. Public Papers of the President is an annual volume that cumulates material from the Weekly Compilation into bound format. Prior to the Carter presidency, materials were included in the bound volumes only on a selective basis.