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Northern Illinois University
College of Law
David C. Shapiro Memorial Law Library

Basic Legal Research

Researching Federal Legislative History

At the federal level, written committee reports and conference reports are the best evidence of legislative intent. Note that Federal Committee Reports are often very long and cover many different statutory issues.

Step 1: Determine which Public Law added the language in which you are interested.

Check the historical and statutory notes of the annotated codes. Of the online services, Westlaw or Lexis Advance will have the most complete information. Bloomberg Law currently only has a limited amount of annotation.

Step 2: Locate Committee Reports (and other documents) related to the Public Law

  • Check the United States Code Congressional and Administrative News (U.S.C.C.A.N.) U.S.C.C.A.N. contains selected, edited Committee Reports. Committee Reports provide a detailed analysis of the bill and are considered to be the best evidence of legislative intent at the federal level.
    • Available on Westlaw as the USCCAN database
    • Available in print in the law library at call number KF 48 W47. To find Committee Reports related to your public law, go to the appropriate year and check the Legislative History volume for your public law (entries are arranged by public law number).
  • If the Committee Reports in U.S.C.C.A.N. do not provide enough information, look for the following types of documents in the sources described in Step 3:
    • Committee Documents - used in writing the Committee Report, these documents can provide background information related to the bill.
    • Committee Prints - provide the same kind of background as Committee Documents
    • Committee Hearings - testimony of experts before the committee considering the bill. Viewed as the least persuasive evidence of legislative intent among the documents produced during the legislative process.

Step 3: If needed, use the following sources to obtain more information

  • ProQuest Congressional can be used to locate references to all available materials for a given public law. The full text of many documents is included and references to microfiche are provided for older materials not available online.
  • The website is an excellent resource for federal legislative materials. Committee reports can generally be found back to the 104th Congress (1995). Some materials go back further; see the Coverage Dates for Legislative Information page.
  • The Government Printing Office's "govinfo" site provides the full text of the Congressional Record back to 1994 and various other legislative history materials back to the 104th Congress (1995).
  • Lexis Advance, Westlaw, and Bloomberg Law contain a decent amount of federal legislative history. However, due to the varied nature of legislative history documents, it is often easier to locate the material via the federal websites or (for older materials) the print CIS set (see below).
  • Congressional Information Service (CIS) - The print set consists of three volumes: Abstracts of congressional publications; Legislative histories of US public laws, and Index to Congressional publications and legislative histories.
    • The separate Legislative Histories volumes are the most useful to the legislative history researcher and are available  for years 1984 - 2000 at KF 49 .C62 and 2001 - 2015 at KF 49 .C621, at the north end of the South Wing Microfiche Area (above the blue file cabinets). 
    • Materials referenced include reports, hearings, Congressional Record entries, and other related materials. Information is provided to locate the full text of the materials in either microfiche (through 2008 at the law library) or online where available.

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