University of Wisconsin–Madison

Federal Legislative History Online

Legislative history is a term that refers to the collection of documents that are produced by Congress as a bill is introduced, studied, and debated.  The end result if passed by both Houses of Congress, and signed by the President is a Public Law.  Some of the primary source documents that are produced as a result are bills, hearings, Congressional debates as recorded in the Congressional Record, committee reports, a.k.a the Serial Set, and publication of the law in the Statutes at Large and U.S. Code.  For a more detailed discussion of the specifics, please see the U.W. Law Library's "Federal Legislative History" research guide.

The U.W. Law Library has two federal legislative history databases you should know about.  The purpose of both databases is to help you easily locate all the documents that are a part of a bill's history in its journey to becoming law.

1) ProQuest's Legislative Insight:

As illustrated in the graphic below, there are a number of ways to find the documents you are looking for: 1) by using the search bar; 2) by the law's citation, i.e. a) Public Law Number, b) Statute at Large cite, c) Enacted Bill number; and 3) by selecting a specific Congress from the list on the left-hand side, which then links to each specific Public Law passed during that Congress.

Almost all the documents retrieved will be full-text, searchable PDFs.  There are a few exceptions such as committee prints and CRS Reports, but the results will indicate whether or not these documents were part of a bill's overall legislative history and provide enough bibliographic information to obtain them elsewhere.  The library's current subscription to ProQuest's compiled legislative histories spans the years from 1929 to 2012.

2) Hein Online's U.S. Federal Legislative History Library:

The next graphic highlights the three "Browse Options" Hein offers: 1) U.S. Federal Legislative History Title Collection; 2) Sources of Compiled Legislative History Database; and 3) Legislative Reference Checklist.  Depending on which of these three collections you are looking at, you may browse them by: Publication Title, Public Law Number, Popular Name, Congress, or volume.  Several advanced search options are also available.

There are two primary sources of content that make up this database.  The first is the U.S. Federal Legislative History Title Collection which contains over 400 full-text compiled legislative histories prepared by such respected authorities as Bernard D. Reams, Jr., and William H. Manz.  Some of those titles are listed below such as the Establishment of the Dept. of Justice: A Legislative History; Public Law 41-97, 16 Stat. 162 (1870) in the first entry.

The second Sources of Compiled Legislative History Database, derived from Nancy P. Johnson's longtime work in the field, is a bibliography of government documents, periodical articles, and books documenting the work of the 1st Congress in 1789 to the 112th Congress in 2012.  The bibliographic entries listed link to full-text, searchable PDFs.  The Legislative Reference Checklist is a conversion table of public acts and resolutions to their bill numbers and Statutes at Large citations for the years 1789-1903.


The value of having a legislative history is to complete the record of a bill's passage into law.  The "working papers" behind the statutory language, as Nancy P. Johnson explains.  From these documents, the legislative intent of a law and the meaning of its provisions may be determined. 

These two products make it easier then ever before to secure the documents you need to better understand the law.

Submitted by Eric Taylor, Evening Reference Librarian on February 27, 2014

This article appears in the categories: Law Library

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