How to Research Legislative History

Publication date 
October 12, 2020

On Friday October 9, ISPS and the Policy Lab hosted a policy-related skills training workshop on “how to research legislative history.” The session was led by John Dearborn, a Postdoctoral Associate in the Policy Lab and the Center for the Study of Representative Institutions. Participants in the workshop included thirteen undergraduate and graduate students from across the university, including from political science, history, environmental science, and global affairs.

Compiling a legislative history essentially involves trying to understand how and why a particular policy made its way into law, a research skill applicable to a wide range of scholarly fields. The training session addressed several aspects of conducting this kind of research, and it guided participants through a demonstration of legislative history.

First, the session offered an overview of what kinds of questions students should ask in compiling a legislative history. These include addressing what legislators believed a particular law was going to do, why a particular policy was chosen over other alternatives, what compromises were made in enacting a law, and which legislators were proponents or opponents of the legislation.

The bulk of the session focused on what sources students can use to effectively compile a legislative history and how they can they find those sources at Yale and elsewhere. These primary sources include the Congressional Record of legislative debates, congressional hearings, government reports, newspapers, presidential statements, and the private papers of legislators or other reformers. Dearborn offered examples from his own research of each type of documentary source, using the enactment of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 as an illustrative case.

Finally, the session also focused on how students could effectively organize their research and present findings, focusing on (1) the ideas and proposals for reform, (2) the consideration of legislation in Congress itself, and (3) the implementation of a new law by the executive branch.

Questions from the audience focused on common challenges in conducting legislative history research, how to determine which interest groups were involved in consideration of a policy, how to take lessons and apply them to research of state legislatures, and how to keep track of different compromises that affected a law.

The next in the policy-skills series will be led by James Breiding (S8Nations) with “Big Lessons from Small Nations: How to Do Comparative Policy Analysis.” 

For more information about upcoming ISPS policy-related skills trainings, please visit our Policy-Related Skills Development

Area of study 
Methodology