Do you have a legislative research topic? Great! We’d love to help you.
The Center for Legislative Archives is a small unit within the National Archives and Records Administration based in Washington, DC. We hold the official records of the U.S. Congress, which means we have the working papers of congressional committees starting from 1789.
The best overview of our holdings is found in the Guide to the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives at the National Archives 1789-1989 and the Guide to the Records of the U.S. Senate at the National Archives 1789-1989. Both of these volumes are available on our website and discuss committee jurisdiction, history, and records. The first chapter of each Guide provides an excellent introduction to research in the records of Congress.
Not all series are arranged the same way or require the same information to locate pertinent files, however generally the more information you can provide when submitting your request, the more clues we have to help us track down the most relevant records.
What do you need to know?
Date — Our records are arranged first by chamber (House or Senate) and then by Congress. You need to know at least which Congress took action on the bill, held the hearing, etc. If you are looking for congressional testimony, the more specific a date you can provide, the better. You can find a list of dates and their corresponding Congresses on the Senate website.
Committee — After chamber and Congress, our records are then arranged by congressional committee. Which committee took up action on your subject? And which form did that action take? Was a hearing held, a bill taken up, a report produced, etc.
Bill Number — Legislative files are arranged by bill number rather than title, so you need to know the bill number to locate a specific bill. The most reliable way to locate a bill number is through the Congressional Record, but you can also start with Congress.gov, which lists popular and short titles with bill numbers back to the 93rd Congress. Another easy way to find bill numbers, especially for major legislation, is to start with Wikipedia — there’s frequently a box with a brief legislative history (see, for example, the entry for the Voting Rights Act of 1965).
Names — If you are looking for testimony, a nomination file, or an investigative file on a particular person, you still need the three bits of data noted above so we know where to look for that name. There is not a comprehensive index to all congressional records arranged by name. If you're looking for a petition, please note that petitions may have dozens — or even thousands — of signatures. Petitions with many names are usually indexed under the name of the first signatory or by a designation for the group.
How do you find this information?
There are several sources, a mix of both freely available and subscription databases, that we regularly use to track down legislative information. To access the subscription databases, you can either visit a National Archives research facility or check with a local academic library.
Some of our favorite sources include:
- Congressional Record — the record of proceedings and debates on the floor of the House and the Senate. Daily editions are published each day Congress is in session. At the end of each session of Congress a permanent, bound edition is produced. Both the Index to the Proceedings and the History of Bills and Resolutions sections in the Bound Edition are useful starting points for legislative research.
- ProQuest Congressional — this subscription database contains the full text of the Serial Set, which includes both published reports from congressional committees and documents ordered printed by the House or the Senate.
- HeinOnline — this subscription database has the full text of the Congressional Record and its predecessor publications, as well as the Federal Register, Code of Federal Regulations, Statutes at Large, and compiled legislative histories.
- Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation — this Library of Congress website, part of the American Memory project, has digitized selected records of Congress from the Continental Congress through the 43rd Congress. The site includes the full text of the House Journal and the Senate Journal, the American State Papers, select bills, and the Congressional Record’s predecessors: the Annals of Congress, the Register of Debates, the Congressional Globe.
- GovInfo — a service of the Government Publishing Office, GovInfo provides free public access to official publications from all three branches of the Federal Government. GovInfo has the Congressional Record (Bound Edition) from 1873 to 2016, and a variety of other legislative records, including published versions of bills from 1993 on, and a number of congressional committee prints, congressional reports, congressional documents, and congressional hearings.
- Congress.gov — the official website for U.S. federal legislative information. It’s presented by the Library of Congress using data from a variety of official sources. Congress.gov has information on legislation back to the 93rd Congress, and also has information on congressional committees and Members.
Do you know which committee and in which Congress took up your topic? Awesome! We’d love to hear from you. You can reach archivists at the Center for Legislative Archives via email at email@example.com.