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Legislative History Research

Federal, California & other states

"Legislative history compilation is a craft, not a science, but a craft that can be learned."*

A legislative history tells the story of how a bill became law, tracing its steps from introduction to passage, and to any amendments.

The actions necessary for a bill to become law are called the "legislative process." Some of the steps are legally mandated, others may be customary. 

Three keys to compiling a legislative history are

  • understanding the legislative process, 
  • understanding legislative terms and abbreviations, and
  • following customary formats for compiling the actions and references.

For popular acts, a legislative history may already be compiled. Check the resources for compiled legislative histories before starting anew.

Legislative Process

A bill is introduced by one or more Sponsors, who are legislators, in their respective legislative chambers. Bills are assigned to committees, usually one with expertise in the subject, and another that considers the bill's procedural and substantive legality. If the bill proceeds to law, there may be:

  • hearings,
  • debates,
  • reports,
  • analysis,
  • testimony,
  • motions, and
  • votes,

all of which make up the legislative process. At the state level, bills may also be proposed through ballot initiative.



Terms & Abbreviations


Reviewing a compiled legislative history on any topic, will help considerably in developing a template for your results. Compilations vary in their depth and comprehensiveness. The Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C. (LLSDC) says:

Legislative history compilation is a craft, not a science, but a craft that can be learned. However, a good deal of discretion may be left to the compiler as to the format of the history and what indeed are the “related documents” that go into it. The core material will generally be the same for different compilers, but many compilers, may [wish] to leave no stone unturned and no related document un-presented.

Federal Legislative History 101 at 6.  LLSDC recognizes these formats:

  1. Chronological (Truth in Lending Act example)
  2. Reverse chronological (USA Patriot Act example)
  3. By document type or size (Electronic Communications Privacy Act example)
  4. Other arrangements or combinations (Dodd-Frank Act example)


Watch This Video

Bill on Capitol Hill Video

Watch this video for a clear, though over-simplified, summary of how the legislative branch makes laws.

It's silly, but it identifies many points when documents get created that can later be found when researching legislative history. It gives context beautifully, and it's only 3 minutes long.


This guide was modified by Cindy Hirsch from a guide created by Brandon Baker, Cindy Hirsch, Robert O'Leary, and Bobbi Weaver in January 2022.