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Externships & Summer Jobs: Guide to Legal Research

This guide is intended to direct externs to relevant sources for completing research assignments.

Why Research Legislative History?

Determine Legislative Intent; Clarify Questions About a Statute; To Determine the Meaning of a Statute; Application to an Unforeseen Situation

Legislative Process

A review of the legislative process in relations to the documents that are produced can help when compiling a legislative history.

Legislative Process: Overview of the Legislative Process, Introduction & Referral of Bills, Committee Consideration, Calendars & Scheduling, House Floor, Senate Floor, Executive Business in the Senate, Bicameral Resolution, Presidential Actions, Public Law


Components of a Federal Legislative History

When statutory language is vague or ambiguous, the rules of statutory construction indicate that the legislative history of a statute can be used to determine the legislative intent expressed in the statute. This legislative history is found within the documents generated as a bill moves from introduction to final passage. 

For federal legislative history, the public law number and the bill number will be key to finding the documents associated with the legislation. Below are the four basic types of legislative history documents:

Bill Text & Amendments:

The first step in the legislative process is the introduction of a bill into Congress. A bill will change as it makes its way through the legislative process. The initial version is referred to as the introduced bill, after amendments have been added it is referred to as an engrossed bill and the final version of the bill that is sent to the President for signature is the enrolled bill.

Committee Reports:

Committee reports are the most important source of legislative history. Before a bill becomes a law, each of the House and Senate will assign the bill to a committee for review. The committee reports often include the history of the bill, the purpose of the bill, and the committee's reasoning for its recommendations. Please note that there may be multiple committee reports for a single bill. The House and/or Senate committees may issue a report or there may be a conference report crafted by members of both chambers.

Take special note of conference reports because they are issued at the end of the legislative process if a conference committee was assigned to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill.

Congressional Record (Debate):

The Congressional Record contains transcripts of Congressional debates. Debates include discussions for or against proposed bills and amendments and explanations of unclear provisions. The authoritativeness of congressional debate varies.  Any legislator can  say whatever he or she wants—and this will appear as debate in the Congressional Record. Perhaps more importantly, comments can be inserted into the Congressional Record at later dates, so it cannot be reliably inferred that the comments in the Congressional Record were actually made prior to the passage of the law. 

The Congressional Record is published in two editions: the daily edition and the bound edition.

Daily edition - After each day that Congress is in session, the proceedings are printed in the Congressional Record and available the following morning. Each page of the daily version is preceded with S for Senate, H for House, E for Extensions of Remarks, or D for Daily Digest.

Bound edition - After the end of each year, a permanent final version, referred to as the Congressional Record 'bound edition', is prepared by the Government Publishing Office. In the bound edition, the pagination is continuous, and there is some editing and rearrangement of texts.


Congressional committees hear testimony on proposed legislation from interested persons or parties. Hearings tend to be more exploratory and fact finding, as witnesses, experts and citizens give opinions on the pending legislation. Because the hearings are held to inform the debate for the committee, some researchers consider them a less authoritative resource. However, hearings are frequently cited by courts and do provide valuable insight into the intentions of the legislature. 

Research Guides

There are some useful legislative history research guides available online. Each of the University of Washington and the Law Librarians's Society of Washington, D.C. has a particularly helpful research guide.

Others are available by using a search engine and searching "research guide" "federal legislative history."


In some instances, the legislative history of a particular law or area of law is often already compiled and published as compiled sources of legislative history, scholarly articles, books, treatises, or other publications.

Below are sources to check:

Library Catalog:

Search the library's catalog for materials available at Seattle University and other universities participating in the Summit consortium.  Search by keyword for the popular name of the statute and "legislative history", e.g., "Social Security Act" AND "legislative history."

Screenshot of Library Catalog

Google Web Search

Search the "Name of the Act" "legislative history." Carefully evaluate the sources you discover.

Compile Your Own Legislative History Step 1 - Identify the Public Law Number

Identifying the public law number is critical. How do you find the public law number?

If starting with a statute: use the Credits which appear at the end of the substantive text of the statute. The credits will reference when the statute was first enacted and each subsequent amendment.

If starting with the title of an act: use a popular name table to identify the statute and use the credits OR Google the name fo the act and put "P.L." or "Pub. L." in your search. You can access popular name tables through subscription databases, or for free.

Step 2: Search for Committee Reports, Debate, Hearings, Bill History

Electronic sources for finding committee reports, Congressional Record (debate), hearings, and bill texts and amendments:

Finding Older Committee Reports:

UW Suzzallo Library/Government Publications Department: reports back to 1789

Free Electronic Resources for Federal Legislative Histories

Other Helpful Resources

Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports:

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a non-partisan arm of the Library of Congress. CRS conducts in-depth research on issues of public interest including proposed and enacted legislation. The UW Gallagher Law Library provides a comprehensive research guide for finding CRS reports.