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How to conduct legislative research and write a legislative history
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Knowing the Record:
Tasks for conducting and writing a legislative history

The Task Outlines provided in this section will help you create communications that effectively meet the expectations described below. If you already know federal legislative procedure well or if you are tracing state law, omit Task #1 and go on to Task #2.

Task 1: Review the legislative process

Use the reviews of the process listing below to learn more about the policy process and researching policy documents. Bookmark your favorite and return to it as often as needed.

As you conduct research in government records, you can feel as if you are drowning in information, classification systems, procedure names, and document types. Also, if you start into records searching without knowing the underlying legislative process, you will quickly become lost.

Use the following reviews of the process to revive your effort (bookmarking your favorite and returning to it as often as needed):

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Task 2: Conduct Research

Do you want to find a history or write one? Decide early whether your purpose is served by using an already published history or by producing one. For single laws, commercial re­search services such as the Congressional Information Service publish legislative histories with varying levels of detail. To look for a published history for a single law, try these sources:

  • Law Librarians Society of Washington, D.C., Legislative Sourcebook
  • CIS/Annual (Year), Legislative Histories of U.S. Public Laws

You are unlikely to find published legislative histories for an issue. They are typically produced by, or for, the people who want the information.

As a general rule, federal records are accessible online and in research libraries. State records are generally less so, but an individual state’s records might be available online or, more likely, in the print archives of the state’s library. Local government records are generally not available unless you go to the municipality to ask about access to records. Few municipalities put their records online.

Major tools for finding federal and state records are pro­vided by government information services, either free or by subscription. Free services can be accessed from any computer with World Wide Web access. Subscription services are accessed via the Web by authorized users of facilities provided by a subscriber such as a university library.
From your computer at home and in many public libraries, you can freely access federal records back to 1970 (and link to online state records) through:

Other free access to numerous federal government web sites that link to records is provided by:

For state legislatures and local government, these are good web sites:

An excellent subscription service used in most university libraries for comprehensive federal legislative information is Lexis-Nexis ™ Congressional, based on the (print) Congressional Information Service (CIS). This database is available to subscribers only. You can access it in subscribing research libraries. Free and subscription services are available in federal depository libraries. Those are research libraries, often at colleges and universities, that make GPO materials publicly available in the library’s region.

Find a depository library near you in the Federal Depository Library Locator at

Libraries offer a valuable resource: librarians! For professional, skilled, and time-saving assistance in legislative research, always ask a librarian.

General Tips for Using Government Information Libraries

Depository libraries have federal government records in all available forms—digital, print, and microfiche. Depending on what you want to know, you might need all three. Online access to digital records is convenient for recent records but print and microfiche are still important, too, for several reasons. Records prior to the l970s are not yet available online, and some will never be. You can miss a lot of legislative history if you search online, only. Also, print compilations are sometimes easier to use, because they are well supplemented by indexes and other locator aids.

When using a tool new to you, check first for finding aids such as an index.
You will save much time this way. (Note: Subscription services have more indexes than do free services.)

You should take detailed notes as you go. Jot down contextual information as well as target information. List names of people, committees, subcommittees, and bill or law citations mentioned in the target record. Why? If your first search method fails, these notes can restart your search; they give you alternative ways to search.

You can use what you know to find what you want.
For example, if a student intern researching elder health care jots down key terms, citations, names, and dates as she works in a database of government records, she is prepared to search by any of these alternatives:

  • By subjects discussed in the record (for example, elder health care)
  • By citation (number and letter “addresses”) of a particular legislative record in a system of citation, (for example, H.R. 1091–106 for a particular House of Representatives bill)
  • By names, dates, committees, or other elements of a legislative process (for example, the name of the senator sponsoring a bill)

For example, the intern researching elder care could find legislation on elder health care by subject (elder health care, nursing home care, Medicare, and so on), or by citation (H.R. 1091–106), or by legislative process information (Senator Ted Kennedy; hearing witness Donna Shalala, Department of Health and Human Services; Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions).


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Task 3: Write the legislative history document

To write your legislative history, begin by using the General Method.

You can reuse the thinking that went into planning your research (see Strategy in Task #). Use it to plan your legislative history document. Let your intended reader’s needs for the information guide your selection of information for the history.

Formulate your message

What is the message of a legislative history? It is your conclusion formed after consulting the record. The history’s scope is set by the purpose (whether you are writing a law history or an issue history) and by the amount of information required to support your message. In any case, you must organize your information to support the message. Organizational options include chronology (to show developments over time), significance (to highlight influential legislation), and trend (to show a pattern).

Choose a Genre

If no form is prescribed for presenting the results of your re­search, you might choose to use the following standard reporting format for professional and technical communication:

  • Overview that concisely summarizes both the message and the key information in the document
  • Subsections that provide summaries of information
  • Subheadings that label each subsection
  • Citations that are provided for each subsection

The Importance of Citations

Citation is very important in a legislative history. The history’s credibility and the practical needs of the information user (as well as the researcher) demand that all sources be easy to locate for confirmation and referral. Citations are the means of doing so. A full citation provides three kinds of information about a source: what type of record it is, how it is classified in a system of documentation, who publishes it (a commercial research service or government). For government records, a full citation includes all the elements that help to identify a source. In legislative research, a full citation, or government style, is preferred over a terse citation, or legal style, that provides only an abbreviated source identifier, number in a system of documentation, and date. If either the government style or legal style is prescribed for you, use that style. If not, choose the appropriate style and use it exclusively. Do not mix styles.

Here is a list of the elements in a full citation, or government style, for citing federal or state legislation:

  • Issuing agency (house, number, session, year)
  • Title (document number and name; long name may be abbreviated)
  • Edition or version
  • Imprint (city, publisher, date of publication)
  • Series (serial list of publications)
  • Notes (in parentheses, add anything not already included in the citation that helps to locate the document)

Following are two illustrations of government style:

1. U.S. House. 101st Congress, 1st Session (1989). H.R. l946, A Bill to Authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to Provide Home, Respite, and Dental Care. Washington: Government Printing Office, l990. (GPO Microfiche no. 393, coordinate C13).

2. U.S. House. 104th Congress, 1st session (l995). "H.R. 3, A Bill to Control Crime." Version: 1; Version Date: 2/9/93. (Full Text of Bills: Congressional Universe Online Service. Bethesda, MD: Congressional Information Service).

In the second illustration, the final element shows that the source is proprietary, or a commercial research service publication available to paying subscribers.

If you need more help on citing, see:

Remember to check your final product against the standard (see checklists in Communicating in the Policy Process).

Review and Revise

Remember to check your final product against the standard Communication Checklists.

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