Law: Legislative History

Public Law Number

To find the legislative history of a law, you must first determine its public law number. For example, the Patriot Act was the 56th law enacted in the 107th Congress, and is also known as Public Law 107-56

For ease of use, laws are grouped together by subject in a "code". If you know the name of a federal law, you can find its public law number by checking the Popular Name Table of the United States Code Annotated (Reference 2nd Floor KF 62 .W4).

From Bill to Law....

A Congressional session lasts two years; each year is a session.  If a bill does not become law by the end of the Congress in which it is introduced, it "dies".  What Congress and session are we in now?

What is a Legislative History?

Scene in Uncle Sam's Senate

A legislative history* is the record of a law's passage through Congress, from its introduction as a bill to its final version as an act.  It can shed light on a law's meaning and purpose, and on the reasons for its enactment. A legislative history usually contains the following primary source documents: 

  • House and Senate bills (multiple versions)
  • Congressional debates 
  • Commitee reports 
  • Public law

    Useful, but not necessarily included, are:

  • Committee prints
  • Hearings
  • Presidential signing statement

For a detailed explanation of legislative history and how it is used, please see: Federal Legislative History Research:  A Practitioner's Guide to Compiling the Documents and Sifting for Legislative Intent (Law Librarians' Society of Washington, DC)

*Note:  this guide focuses on federal legislative history, but some state information is included on the next page, "Find a history."