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Legislative History Research (Federal and South Dakota)  

Last Updated: Aug 17, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

Review of the Federal Legislative Process and Documents Print Page

Learn More About the Legislative Process


The Federal Legislative Process and Related Documents


Legislation (a "bill" or "joint resolution") is drafted and introduced into either the House of Representatives or the Senate.  Bills are labeled first by the chamber (H.R. or H.J. Res. for House of Representatives and S. or S.J. Res. for Senate) and then numbered consecutively.  A comparison of a bill as introduced and any later versions of the bill may assist in understanding what Congress wanted to accomplish because of the addition or deletion of language.

Committee Hearings

After a bill is introduced in either the House or the Senate, it is referred to a committee. The committee will consider the bill and decide whether or not to recommend passage. The committee may hold hearings or refer the bill on to a subcommittee.  A committee or subcommittee hearing gives the members information about a bill through the testimony of experts and other interested parties, documents, reports, studies or other information. This information includes the views of people both for and against the bill, not the view of the committee members, but it may provide background and an understanding of how Congress came to adopt specific language in a statute.

Committee Reports (known as House Reports or Senate Reports)

If a committee recommends passage of a bill, it will present a report containing the text of the bill, a description of the legislation and an explanation of the committee's action.  The report may also include an analysis of each section of the bill.  Committee reports are considered the most persuative of legislative history documents because they are written by the members of Congress who worked most closely on the bill.  The report often contains the purpose of the bill, its prior history and the reasons why the statutory language was written in a particular way.  A report will be named as follows:

(H.R. [House of Representatives] Report No. 105 [congress number] - 538 [report number] (1998)

H.R. Report No. 105-538 (1998)

When the house in which a bill is first introduced approves the bill, it is sent to the other house and again referred to a committee.  Researchers should obtain hearings held and reports made by the committees to which the bill was referred, as well as hearings from previous congressional sessions on the subject matter of the bill. 

Congressional Debates

When the bill goes before the full House or Senate, the legislators may engage in debate about the bill, including proposed amendments arguing for and against the bill, and discussing and explaining the bill's provisions. Some authorities claim that floor statements should not be considered for legislative intent, but the courts do give some weight to the statements when they are made by the bill's sponsors.  These statements, however, remain the views of individual legislators and are not the view of Congress.

The members of the House or Senate then vote on a bill.  When the house in which a bill is first introduced approves the bill, it then is sent to the other house and again referred to a committee.  If both chambers pass the bill, it goes to the President for his or her signature. 

Conference Reports

If the House and Senate pass different versions of a bill, the bill is sent to a conference committee.  This committee, composed of members of both houses, reconciles the two versions of the bill.  When the committee members agree on the amended bill, they prepare a conference report with an explanation of the compromise. Conference reports almost always have a House of Representatives number.  The "compromise version" of the bill is sent back to both houses for approval, and if approved, it then goes to the President for signing.

Public Law Number and Statutes at Large citation:

After a bill is signed into law by the President, it is sent to the Office of the Federal Register to be assigned a Public law Number and a Statutes at Large citation:  

Pub. L. No. 101-580: 101 is the Session of Congress and 580 means the 580th law passed during the Session.

Public laws for a session are compiled chronologically by volume in United States Statutes at Large. 104 Stat. 2863.

Other Documents:

Committee Prints are studies prepared by Congressional staff, agency specialists or private consultants for use by the committee members as background or reference information.

Signing Statements are not part of the legislative process, but rather are comments made by the President when signing or vetoing the bill.  These comments may include the President's interpretation of the language of the bill or intent on how the law will be carried out.  For more information on Presidential Signing Statements, visit this Library of Congress webpage.


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