Understanding Federal Legislative History

Legislative history involves the proceedings in Congress that relate to a law before it was actually enacted. This can include official reports prepared by congressional committees as well as official statements that are issued by members of Congress.

Legislative history may also include testimony given at legislative hearings, and different versions of the text of a bill as it was shaped through the legislative process.

While legislative history can provide a wealth of information, it can also be problematic when it is used as evidence of legislative intent. One of the reasons for this is that a committee report only provides the view of a few legislators that belong to one chamber. Furthermore, an individual statement only offers the view of that single member.

Due to the number of problems that can arise from legislative history, a court typically only uses legislative history as a guide to intent when it must make a decision between multiple possible plausible meanings.

Courts sometimes look to legislative history even if there is only one possible meaning. This can sometimes occur for the purpose of confirming the plain meaning. The Supreme Court has been consistent in saying that legislative history can be used as evidence for legislative intent, provided that it is not used for the purpose of overturning a plain meaning.

What is the meaning of “plain meaning”? The plain meaning of a statute refers to the “ordinary or natural Legislative Drafters Deskbook by Tobias Dorseymeaning.” Natural meaning refers to a meaning that is not literal but is instead the common sense meaning. The ordinary meaning of a statute refers to the meaning in terms of an idiomatic sense or the same way that an ordinary person might commonly speak.

When the Court uses legislative history as evidence of legislative intent, it is usually for the purpose of reinforcing or confirming plain meaning. The Court typically understands that the views that are expressed by certain members of Congress are not the views of Congress as a whole. With that said, the views of some members of Congress can help to shape the views of others and even influence votes. As a result, legislative history can be important not because of what was previously written or said by lawmakers, but because it was read or heard by other lawmakers.

To learn more about legislative history, consider our course, How to Research and Compile Legislative Histories; Searching for Legislative Intent, and our publication Statutory Construction and Interpretation.

Reference: Section 3.72 Legislative History: Why It is Problematic, in Legislative Drafter’s Deskbook, by Tobias Dorsey.





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