Skip to Main Content
site header image

Research Assistant Resources

This research guide is a survival guide for NYU Law research assistants (RAs), providing resources for all stages of their RA work.


This section of the guide is a short introduction to federal legislative history research. A more thorough how-to guide on federal legislative history research is available here, as is a how-to guide on New York state legislative history research.

Should you run into questions or concerns with your research, feel free to reach out to the librarian assigned to your faculty member for specialized advice. Please check this list to determine which librarian you should contact. 

Legislative History Overview

"Legislative history" refers to a variety of documents created during the legislative process like bills, hearings, debates, and more. Legislative history is sometimes considered by courts to help determine the intent of the legislature in passing a particular law. Each stage of the legislative process produces particular documents, so it is important to understand the process of enacting a law before diving into the research. See below for an abbreviated discussion on how a bill becomes a law in the federal government and in New York.

Federal Legislative History Overview

The legislative process is complicated and not always this linear, but below is a simplified explanation of how a bill becomes a law:

1. A bill is introduced to either the House of Representatives or the Senate. The bill is given a bill number. Bills from the Senate are designated with an S., and bills from the House are designated with an H.R (for example, 96 H.R. 3343). 

2. The bill is referred to committee, and typically referred again to a subcommittee. If the committee or subcommittee does not favor its passage, it can take no action. 

3. The subcommittee holds hearings and, if it recommends passage, writes a committee report to tell the full chamber of its findings.

4. The bill goes to the full chamber and can be debated and amended before being voted on; floor debates are recorded.

5. If the bill is passed, it goes to the other chamber to be voted on. Often, the two chambers will pass slightly different versions of the same bill. The two versions will then go to a conference committee, which makes compromises to reconcile the differences between the two bills, which will be discussed in a conference committee report. 

6. The passed bill goes to the President to be signed into law. If the President signs the bill (or if the President vetoes the bill and two-thirds of Congress again passes the bill), the bill is now a law and is assigned a public law number (for example, P.L. 96-170). You can find the public law number in the Credits line underneath the text of a statute on Westlaw or the History line underneath the text of a statute on Lexis. 

Locating Federal Legislative History Materials

There are four main sources of federal legislative history materials, listed below in order of least to most authoritative:

1. The bill as introduced in Congress. Comparing the original language in the bill as proposed against the bill as signed into law can be helpful for determining the goals and priorities of the legislature. However, this requires some level of speculation and is therefore not the most authoritative source of legislative intent. 

        To locate a bill:

  • That was enacted:
    • The best resource for locating a bill that was later signed into law is the ProQuest Legislative Insight database. You can search for the bill either by its U.S.C. citation, the Statutes at Large citation, or the bill number citation.  
    • You can also use, a free government resource which holds all versions of a public law - included the law as it was introduced in Congress - starting with the 93rd Congress (1973-1974).
  • That was not enacted:
    • The best resource for locating a bill that was introduced but not signed into law is the ProQuest Congressional database. You can search for the bill by its bill number, or try to search using keywords and other information like the year and bill sponsor.
    • You can also use, a free government resource, to find bills introduced and not signed (or not yet signed) into law. Use the filters on the left-hand side to select your years (starting in 1973) and the status of legislation.

2. Hearings before a committee. Hearing documents contain transcripts of testimony from interested parties and experts, studies, reports, and any other information brought before the committee. These documents will have an obvious intent that may not necessarily reflect those of the legislature, but can be useful in determining if any particular expert or interested party was able to convince the legislature to consider their position. 

        To locate hearing documents:

  • ProQuest Congressional contains hearings from 1824 through today. You can search by keyword or phrase, or by the witness/panelist. 

3. Floor debates. Floor debates include the statements of individual legislators in Congress. These statements will provide insight into the views of an individual representative and could provide some insight into why, for example, language was later added to a bill after a committee report was released. When researching floor debates, keep in mind that statements of individual legislators do not necessarily mirror the views of the legislature overall. 

        To locate floor debates:

  • Floor debates are published in the Congressional Record, a daily publication of the happenings in Congress. You can find the Congressional Record in a number of places, depending on the year:
  • If you use ProQuest Legislative Insight to find legislative materials for an enacted law, associated pages from the Congressional Record will be available. 

4. Committee reports. Committee reports and conference committee reports contain the reasoning of the committee who held hearings and heard testimony from interested parties, and provide a recommendation to the full chamber on passing the bill. They are, therefore, considered the most useful and authoritative source of legislative intent. These reports typically contain a section-by-section analysis of the bill and the views of any dissenting members of the committee. 

        To locate committee reports:

  • Again, ProQuest Legislative Insight will be your best database to turn to when looking for committee reports. Search for the enacted law either by Bill Number, Statutes at Large citation, or Public Law number. After you input your search, you will see a page containing the legislative history materials for that particular statute. This will typically include a PDF of the public law, all versions of the bill as introduced, PDFs of any hearings, and PDFs of committee reports. ProQuest will designate the most recent committee report with a gold star icon; this is often a great place to start your research.