How to find the real dirt on how a bill actually becomes a law
November 8, 2008 6:56 PM   Subscribe

How can I research how a particular act of the U.S. Congress came into existence - with as much detail as is possible about how it changed from proposal to final act and how it was influenced along the way?

I don't just want the language of the law, the bill's House and Senate sponsors and the breakdown of how everyone voted. I'd like to know what committees it went through, any available minutes/transcripts from those committees, how it was amended as it worked its way through consideration, and who is responsible making the amendments to the bill.

And beyond the specific act that I'm interested in (from 2003), I'd like to know how to research this stuff in general. It need not all exist on the public Internet. I'm not averse to subscribing to databases (within financial limits) or heading to the library.
posted by croutonsupafreak to Law & Government (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
try the library of congress
posted by patnok at 7:43 PM on November 8, 2008

Response by poster: Um, OK, I can't fly to the east coast for this research.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:27 PM on November 8, 2008

Best answer: Are you looking for particular information that you can't find on -- a legislative research service of the Library of Congress? There's some information available at the Government Printing Office. Perhaps you could also ask at the government documents department of your local university library. They'll be able to point you to some good sources, along these lines.
posted by tew at 8:45 PM on November 8, 2008

You'll probably want to find a place that subscribes to the LexisNexis Congressional service.
posted by Knappster at 8:51 PM on November 8, 2008

Best answer: Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw have complete-ish legislative histories for major legislation. The assigned committees in the House and the Senate may have their own reports on line. The sponsors of the legislation may link to such reports on their own sites. Depending upon the topic, such histories may be on topic websites or law school websites. There's also the testimony of witnesses, which may or may not be put in the official record, but which you can usually track down. You might want to look at Thomas, although you'll need some basic information. I haven't used this site GovTrack, but it may be of use.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:53 PM on November 8, 2008

Also -- if you want to post more information about the specific legislation, or MeFi me, I can try to help with specific suggestions.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:55 PM on November 8, 2008

who is responsible making the amendments to the bill

The backstory to amendments may not be clear in the formal legislative history. In some particular battle, the business interests may have pitched a fit, or the fill-in-the-blank community threatened to walk. Some amendment may be the result, but the whole story may be behind the scenes. But once you get the basic committee reports, and figure out the various interest groups, you can go to the interest group websites and see what they were saying right before the amendment.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:00 PM on November 8, 2008

I'm a novice law librarian in the UK. I'm no expert on US law, but you could try sites like the Law Library of Congress; the Legal Information Institute at Cornell, and Globalex at New York University (link goes to 'researching US law from publicly accessible databases'). Those are generally my first port of call when I'm trying to research a jurisdiction I'm unfamiliar with.

Seconding Westlaw or Lexis; I'd suggest trying to access via your local university library if possible; I doubt you could afford to subscribe and I suspect they don't have a Pay as You Go option.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:56 AM on November 9, 2008

Best answer: What you need is THOMAS. It's the Library of Congress's system for tracking every bill that gets proposed. It will include the text of every draft of the bill (i.e. amendments), all co-sponsors, a listing of the dates and types of all official actions taken, and links to all related bills.

The one thing it won't show you is the backroom negotiations that went on in getting a particular bill where it is. For those kinds of things you're probably limited to searching news websites, because Congress doesn't actually publish details about that stuff.

Acts of Congress are like sausage. They're occasionally tasty, but you usually don't want to think too much about what goes in there. A certain amount of transparency is required in both cases--we don't want people winding up in our sausage, but as long as it comes from a cow or pig, we don't ask too many questions. So it is here. As long as the legislative forms are obeyed, congresscritters are free to wheel and deal and have their staff and lobbyists write laws for them.
posted by valkyryn at 4:19 AM on November 9, 2008

Yeah, 2nding THOMAS. This sort of research is actually really easy to do, it's purposefully been made so.

Most parts of the United States government are under rather forceful mandates to not only formally disclose to the public as much information as they possibly can but also make it available for re-use by other sectors of government. And remember, they don't have any sort of licensing restrictions - everything created by the federal govt is public domain here. So they just love to set up web sites that broadcast any and every bit of information they have, it earns them Fed karma.

Another good example of that sort of thing is the Defense Technical Information Center, where you can get any and all manner of unclassified materials produced by the military - historical photos going back to the 19th century, modern publicity photos, research reports on how pilots respond to g-forces or sleep deprivation, ecological studies by the Army Corps of Engineers on the efficacy of reconstruction efforts on coastal habitats...
posted by XMLicious at 4:35 AM on November 9, 2008

Best answer: What you're describing is an act of not-inconsiderable journalism.

Thomas + congressional-universe can get you a long way. But they can only show you what happened.

Looking at committee hearings, for example, is unlikely to show you how anyone's thinking evolved or a decision got made. That's not, usually, what hearings are for. Hearings are, usually, political theater, but important theater. The committee members generally already know what they're being told, and invited/subpoenaed people to give testimony in order to have that testimony entered into the record. It's still worthwhile in that it's a demonstration that the committee learned something, in the same way that passing a class on C++ even if you already know it is a useful demonstration of mastery.

Likewise, watching how a bill passed in the 108th Congress isn't necessarily going to tell you much about how the bill actually passed. Instead, you might want to look at how a cognate bill was introduced in the 106th, and failed through inaction, and introduced in the 107th, and failed through inaction but received a hearing, and so on. Much of the sort of backstory that you're interested in might well be, for a bill that's nontrivial but also not earth-shattering, in the sessions before when nothing seemed to happen -- that's the time when the sponsors are working to build interest in the bill, having discussions about it in Hill restaurants over greasy lunches, and so on.

The way to actually get an answer to your question, I'm afraid, is to do original research heavily biased towards interviews. Talk to the bill's primary sponsors. Talk to the subcommittee and committee chairs. They might tell you something about which groups were applying pressure in which ways, go and talk to them. Talk to anyone you can from the Rules Committee at the time about the bill's rule; that's a quick and dirty way to understand how the Republican leadership was driving the bill. Talk to the people offering (serious) amendments, including ones that failed. If the bill was ordinary legislation or something close to it, it likely originated not in Congress but somewhere in the federal bureaucracy, so you'd also want to interview the relevant civil servants about the path it took through their world and through OMB before they formally brought it to Congress.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:13 AM on November 9, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody. ClaudiaCenter, as I proceed in my research I may take you up on your offer. It's much appreciated.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:45 PM on November 9, 2008

« Older I have some letters; will you trade me for words?   |   friendly exchange of ideas with evangelist door... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.