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How to conduct legislative research and write a legislative history
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Knowing the Record: Legislative History

Key Concepts

  • record of legislative action
  • legislative intent

Public policy making requires information about prior government action. This section shows you how to research legislative records and to write a legislative history.

Many kinds of information are needed for policy making. To frame a problem, identify its issues, or propose solutions, you might need to know about influential social history, technological developments, and economic patterns.

You might consult scientific research, public testimony, advice of expert consultants and lobbyists, statistical data, government agency reports, transcripts of legal proceedings, and more. But one kind of information is essential, the history of government action on the problem.

To get that information, you must consult the legislative record. You must be able to conduct legislative research using government documents.

Why is knowledge of the record important?

Three reasons. First, for policy process, precedent matters.  Action builds on prior action. Knowledge of precedent helps you to frame problems and to find solutions. Second, context matters. The record shows deliberation and debate. Third, content matters.  The preamble or statement of purpose of a published bill or law enables you to discern original intent and the intent of amendments. If you are proposing new action, credibility and standards for policy argument demand that you know the history of prior action.

Who conducts legislative research, and for what purposes?

Who conducts legislative research, and for what purposes? Government staff (and sometimes interns) consult the legislative record to help them frame problems and identify issues. Outside govern­ment, professional staff (and sometimes interns) in organizations of many kinds, such as nonprofit groups, trade associations, and policy institutes, consult the record. They do so in order to inform their ad­vocacy or analysis. Similarly, active citizens consult the record as in­dependent researchers. They might pursue a personal interest, or they might volunteer to investigate a record of action that is relevant to an organization’s mission. For legal interpretation, court clerks, law librarians, and legal services professionals regularly consult the leg­islative record to know a law’s intent as part of adjudicating disputes over a law’s meaning.

Who writes legislative history documents?

Often, the people who conduct the research also write the document that reports the results. Government staff or professional researchers on contract to a committee or agency or volunteers for organizations, as well as individuals doing independent research, might produce a legislative history tailored to a particular need to know.

Interns might be assigned these research and writing tasks. To illustrate, a supervisor in a healthcare policy institute asks an undergraduate intern to specify unmet needs in elder health care for a position paper being written by the institute’s director. The supervisor gives no instructions on how to gather the necessary information. The intern considers how to approach the task. She figures that in order to identify unmet needs, she must know what current law provides. As a strategy for getting started, she works from familiar experience. Her elderly grandparents experienced nursing home care, so she decides to start by collecting information on nursing homes.

She goes, first, to the institute’s reports published on its web site. She finds that they are in-depth analyses of individual laws. Because the web site has no index or search engine, she cannot locate laws that refer to nursing homes unless she reads all the reports. She does not have time for that. She then tries searching on the Internet, using an all-purpose search engine and the search term “nursing home care.” That yields advertisements for providers and web sites of advocacy groups, but little legislation or public debate.

Stymied, she asks the institute’s professional staff for help. A policy analyst directs her to government databases and to commercial databases of government information on the Internet. She uses the indexing vocabulary for each database to streamline her searches by emerging topics—first, nursing home care; then hospital care, prescription drugs, and so on. Search results suggest to her that a good time frame to focus on would be the years in office of the previous federal government administration. She searches her favorite government database again in that time frame, and she spends several hours reading summaries of laws and proposed bills. She also checks the final action taken on each.

By the end of the day, she writes a two-page legislative history of elder care. She defines the most pressing current needs to be those that were recognized by the previous administration but left unresolved. She summarizes a list of unmet needs culled from a range of bills or amendments proposed but not passed or adopted. She identifies the most significant failures in elder health care proposals (according to criteria that she provides) and distills the public debate sur­rounding them. In a concluding reference list, she cites these bills or amendments by bibliographic identifiers in the databases so that the institute director can quickly find the acts to read their language. Task accomplished.

Summary and Looking Forward

To persuasively ask for government action, you must know what government has done, has not done, or has intended regarding your concern. Legislative records research informs you.  Legislative history reporting enables you to inform others. This material prepares you to do both and prepares you to use your knowledge of the record to argue your position on the concern.

Next, learn how to conduct legislative research and write a legislative history

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