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Federal Legislative History  

A guide to finding documents related to the passage of federal laws.
Last Updated: Oct 13, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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The Library of Congress has developed  It contains the documents related to legislation plus live video of the House and Senate and video introductions to the legislative process.  It has incorporated almost all of the information formerly found in Thomas. Thomas is scheduled to be phased out toward the end of 2014.



This guide is a revised version of guides written by Sarah Shik Lamdan and Cesar Vargas.




A federal legislative history is the documentary record of a legislature’s formulation, consideration and passage or rejection of a proposed law.  State laws also have histories, but due to the non-uniform structure of state legislatures, each state’s legislative history varies from those of other states. 


A legislative history is usually created or researched in order to help interpret the statute and discover legislative intent, especially where a statute is vague, ambiguous, or inconsistent in some way.  Courts will not ordinarily consider legislative histories when statutes are clear. However, when a clear reading of a statute leads to a result that legislature could not have intended (an “absurd” result), courts will look to legislative history.


Legislative histories are compilations of documents including items like texts of bills and amendments, transcripts of committee hearings, committee reports, and floor debates. 


This basic guide includes a review of the legislative process, sources for locating the various documents that compose a legislative history, and compiled legislative histories in print and electronic formats. 


Legislative Process


Step 1: Bill Creation

Anyone may draft a bill; however, only members of Congress can introduce legislation. 


Step 2: Committee Action

After a bill is introduced, it is referred to a committee where the committee either acts on the bill or chooses not to act on the bill, rendering it “dead”.


Step 3: Subcommittee Review

Often, bills are referred to a subcommittee for study and hearings.


Step 4: Mark up

When the hearings are completed, the subcommittee may meet to “mark up” the bill, making changes prior to recommending the bill to the full committee. If a subcommittee votes not to report legislation to the full committee, the bill dies.


Step 5: Committee Action to Report a Bill

After receiving a subcommittee's report, the full committee votes on the bill’s recommendation to the House or Senate. This procedure is called "ordering a bill reported."


Step 6: Voting

After the debate and the approval of any amendments, the bill is passed or defeated by the members of the House or Senate voting.


Step 7: Referral to Other Chamber

When the House or Senate passes a bill, it is referred to the other chamber, where it usually follows the same route through committee and floor action. This chamber may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it, or change it.


Step 8: Conference Committee Action

When the actions of the other chamber significantly alter the bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions. If the conferees are unable to reach agreement, the legislation dies.


Step 9: Final Action

After both the House and Senate approve a bill in identical form, it is sent to the president. If the president approves legislation, he signs it and it becomes law. If the president takes no action for ten days while Congress is in session, it automatically becomes law. If the president opposes the bill he can veto it; or if he takes no action after the Congress has adjourned its second session, it is a "pocket veto" and the legislation dies.


Step 10: Overriding a Veto

If the president vetoes a bill, Congress may attempt to "override the veto." If both the Senate and the House pass the bill by a two-thirds majority, the president's veto is overruled and the bill becomes a law.


Step 11: After a Bill Becomes Law

Bills that are eventually enacted into law during a legislative session are referred to as "session laws" or Public Laws. Public Laws are then published officially in the Statutes at Large and subsequently Codified in the United States Code.

For a detailed analysis of the legislative process see How Our Laws Are Made.


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