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Legal Research Guides: Congressional Record and Locating Congressional Debates

A set of guides to aid in working through the various sources used in legal research.

Gude to Using the Congressional Record and Locating Congressional Debates

I. Congressional Floor Debates

   Congressional "floor debates" are the consideration of a bill or resolution by Senators or representatives before the full Senate or House of Representatives. Sometimes explanations of controversial sections of a bill are included in debates. Floor debates can occur at almost any stage of a bill's progress but they usually take place after a bill has been reported out of committee.

   Congressional debates are sometimes questioned as a source of legislative intent because they can be legally altered before they are published in the Congressional Record. Participants in debates are given transcripts of their remarks in floor debates at day's end and are then allowed to edit them. Editing includes changing, omitting, and adding statements. A Member can appear to be speaking when there was actually no speech made. To reduce abuse of this privilege, undelivered speeches must (since 1978) be identified with black bullets in the Congressional Record. Yet, a Member of Congress may "dodge the black bullet" if only as little as one sentence of a speech is delivered on the floor. Even after this "reform", it is estimated that about half of the words printed in the Record which are reputed to have been spoken on the floor, are not.

   Transcripts of debates are included in the Congressional Record (First Floor, West Wing KF35.U58). The Congressional Record includes the introduction of all bills; resolutions; amendment; debates ;  texts of many bills, joint/simple/concurrent resolutions that pass; Presidential messages; and treaties when debated.

II. Recording of Congressional Debates: Past and present

   The record of Congressional debates is recorded in the following publications which cover all Congresses from their inception in 1789.  Congressional Record, published from 1873-current (KF35.U58; First Floor, West Wing; also on microfiche and microfilm, see "Microform List" in binder at Reference Desk).  See also the Thomas website: full text of the Congressional Record for the 103rd and 104th Congresses, searchable by keyword(s), speaker, and date range; issues browsable by date/section (House, Senate, Extensions of Remarks, Daily Digest). Links from the page number in the Daily Digest to the full text of that page in the Record.

The Record is published daily during sessions of Congress, Monday through Friday, except on days following a Congressional recess. Some issues include two days.

Congressional Globe, published from 1833-1873, (LIC microfiche, see "Microform List").

Register of Debates, published from 1824-1837, (LIC microfiche, see "Microform List").

Annals of Congress, published from 1789-1824, (LIC Federal J11.A5).

Also, check LEXIS and WESTLAW for coverage in addition to the Documents department of the Smathers library.

III. Using the Congressional Record

There are four sections in the Record.

1. Record of proceedings of the House; page numbers are preceded by "H".

2. Record of proceedings of the Senate; page numbers are preceded by "S".

3. "Extension of remarks" section follows the House and Senate proceedings; page numbers are preceded by "E".

4. "Daily Digest" follows the House and Senate proceedings and page numbers are preceded by "D".

    Pages of House and Senate proceedings are continuously numbered from issue to issue. If the first page of a Senate proceeding in the May 31st issue is S5758, then the last page of the May 30th would be S5757.

    The "Extension of remarks" section contains texts not delivered on the floor which Members want added to the record. These include speeches, book excerpts, poems, recipes, and songs, among other things.

    The "Daily Digest" summarizes one day's activities. It includes a record of committee and floor action on bills, vote totals, meetings, bill status, and at the week's end, a program for the upcoming week. At the start of each month, the Digest provides statistics on the number of days Congress is in session, the number of pages in the Record, bill reports, votes taken, vetoed bills, and executive nominations. At each session's end, the Daily Digest is issued as a separate bound part of the Record with a subject index and a table of enacted bills. (The Government Printing Office is very slow at publishing bound editions of any of the Congressional Record sections, and they run years behind.)

    The Congressional Record Index is issued in a separate pamphlet every ten days. These Index issues are interfiled with the daily issues by date and include the word "Index" on the spine. Included is a combined "Index to the Proceedings" and a "History of Bills and Resolutions" located at the back. Access is by subject of legislation and by Member of Congress. Index issues are also cumulated annually on a yearly basis, one for each annual Congressional session. The Congressional Record Index is also available through the Thomas website: with links from bill numbers to the text of the bills, and links from a Congressional Record page number to the full text of that page.

    The "History of Bills and Resolutions" is a finding guide to the text of simple and concurrent resolutions passed. It is located at the back of the index sections and index volumes. All bills and resolutions are listed by bill number with every action concerning them noted with cites to the appropriate Congressional Record pages. If action takes place during the second session of Congress on a bill that was introduced in the first session, the table for the first session will offer the complete history.

    One problem is that it is difficult to follow debate on a bill with this table because it usually only notes the page where a bill is first considered on the floor but ignores further action taken on the bill (intervening motions, amendments, etc.)  Unfortunately, this table is not cumulative until the bound issues are available at the session's end.

    The daily issues of the Record are eventually published in bound volumes as are the biweekly index issues. However, pages are renumbered in the bound volumes. Note that a Member of Congress' remarks may differ in the daily issue as compared to the final bound edition since remarks can even be revised up until the printing of the final issue. Also, "Extension of Remarks" are inserted in the text of the bound edition whereas they appear separately in the daily issues. Cite to the bound edition, if available, because it can be different from the daily issue, due to the editing of remarks.

IV. Three ways of locating texts of debates in the Congressional Record

A. Go to the biweekly index of the Congressional Record for the time period needed or to the annual bound index, if available.

1. Search by sponsor or by topic.

2. From topic or sponsor, select the issue indicated and turn to the Senate or House page number (S1466[9FE] is Senate page #1466 in the February 9th daily issue).

3. Debates are not indicated as such in the index.  Instead, look for headings under a topic or sponsor such as "Remarks in Senate", "Summaries", "Remarks by, on, Testimonies", "Analyses," etc.

4. Often the bill or resolution number that a particular action is connected with is indicated in the index.

B. Go to the "History of Bills and Resolutions" table at the back of an index.

1. Look up a bill number.

2. Congressional Record page numbers referring to a bill's introduction/action are provided. To find out in which issue of Congressional Record the page number is located, turn to the front page of the index being used. There, a table is provided which shows the dates for page number ranges.

C. If you know the exact date that some Congressional action occurred, go to the daily issue for that day.

1. Turn to the back where there is a "Daily Digest" for Senate and House actions.

2. Action is broken down into measures introduced, reported or passed. Page numbers are given.

Online: (101st Cong. 1st Sess. – present)

The Congressional Record is also available on Westlaw and Lexis. On Westlaw, the database ID for the Congressional Record is CR. On Lexis online, the file Federal Legal-US, then Legislative Histories & Materials, then Congressional Record, All Congresses Combined.

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