Understanding Report Language and Legislative History

Learning to research and understand legislative history is an important part of any legislator’s job. Legislative history includes the official reports that are generated in Congress throughout the course of the legislative process, such as committee reports and joint statements.

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When researching case law, be aware that court decisions can frequently include the use of the term “conference report” in order to refer to joint statements of managers. Reports and joint statements should be used with caution.

Joint statements are actually more authoritative than reports. This is because a joint statement is prepared by both chambers, but it must also be voted on and adopted by both chambers. As a result, the joint statement is the only form of legislative history that is produced by and considered by both chambers of Congress.

A committee report is considered to be inferior to a joint statement in two significant ways. First, the committee report is the product of only one chamber. Second, the committee report is produced and considered earlier in the process.

The legislative history also includes statements that Legislative Drafters Deskbook by Tobias Dorseyare made by members within the course of official proceedings, such as floor debate. Individual statements only reflect the views and motives of that individual member. Consequently, individual statements are less authoritative than committee reports, and they will be disregarded if they conflict with a committee report or joint statement. Individual statements will also be disregarded if they conflict with history and context. Due to this, individual statements typically only carry weight when there is no other legislative history available. Whenever two or more individual statements are in conflict, the Court gives slightly more weight to a statement that is made by a member who is in charge of the bill. This would include a committee chairman or the sponsor of a bill.

The Court gives very little weight to a statement that is made by any opponent of a bill. Whenever individual statements on the House side conflict with individual statements of the Senate side, the Court will give greater weight to those from the chamber that actually originated the provision.

To learn more about researching legislative history, consider TheCapitol.Net’s 1-day course How to Research and Compile Legislative Histories, and the 1/2-day course How to Find, Track, and Monitor Congressional Documents.

Reference: Legislative Drafter’s Deskbook, by Tobias Dorsey, Section 3.75 Report Language, and Section 3.76 Individual Statements.

For more information about drafting legislation and statutory construction, see these resources from TheCapitol.Net:

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