For the next installment of the Beginner’s Guide series, I turn to a subject that is of recurring interest to our patrons—how to find congressional voting records (also called roll call information). This topic presents more challenges than may be readily apparent, because researchers must not only determine what resources cover the period of time in which the laws at issue were passed, but also whether that resource is available in a paper-based or freely available digital format.
As the availability of these resources is very date-specific, I will focus on three main “eras” of data collection: 1774 to 1875, 1876 to 1989, and 1989 to present.
1774 to 1875
Bucking the trend of older resources being harder to find, the Library of Congress offers the federal legislative documents published from 1774 to 1875 to the public on its A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation website. While this website does not offer a single clearinghouse resource that simply lists votes, it does have several resources that can be used to find congressional voting information.
The most official of these resources are the records of the debates of Congress, which include the: (1) Annals of Congress (1789-1824); (2) Register of Debates (1823-1837); (3) Congressional Globe (1833-1873); and (4) Congressional Record (started in 1873). While all of these sources can be searched by keyword, researchers may be better served by browsing the resources, using their indices to find all mentions of the law(s) at issue.
Voting information can also be found in the Journal of the House of Representatives (House Journal) and Journal of the Senate (Senate Journal).
1876 to 1989
Unfortunately, online availability of congressional voting records is extremely limited for laws passed from 1876 to 1989. As such, researchers should consider visiting a local federal depository library, which will be likely to provide access to the federal government resources they need. To find a federal depository library near you, simply visit the Federal Depository Library Program Directory, click “FDLP Public Page,” and then select your state or territory from the map.
The resources previously mentioned still provide congressional voting information during this period, although the Congressional Record begins to add the additional assistance of the Resume of Congressional Activity. Begun in 1947, the Resume of Congressional Activity provides summary information about the activity of Congress in every session, including the number of “measures introduced” and the number of private and public bills passed. Unlike most resources during this period, copies of the Resume of Congressional Activity can be found on both the House and Senate websites.
In addition to these established resources, two other resources created during this period, the CCH Congressional Index (began in 1938) and the Congressional Quarterly Almanac (began in 1948), offer layouts that are more user-friendly for congressional vote researchers. These resources will provide researchers a one-stop location for in-depth information about the votes on each bill.
1989 to Present
The 101st Congress (1989-1990) marks a return to roll call information being freely available online. There are three main websites that provide this information in an easily-accessible form:
- The Library of Congress’s THOMAS system has links to both House and Senate votes, broken down by Congress and session
- The Senate Legislation & Records website covers the Senate roll call information
- The House Legislation & Votes website covers the House roll call information
For a resource that offers both information about congressional votes and the members of Congress themselves (including how often they voted with their party), researchers might consider visiting the Washington Post’s The U.S. Congress Votes Database. To review voting information by Congress (102nd Congress to the present), simply select the Congress you are interested in via the pull-down menu on the left-hand side of the screen.
As mentioned previously, voting information is also available for this period in the Congressional Record, House and Senate Journals, CCH Congressional Index, and Congressional Quarterly Almanac (Plus). Copies of selected volumes of both the Daily (from 1994 to the present) and the Bound (from 1999 to 2001) editions of the Congressional Record (as well as editions of the House Journal from 1992 to 1999) can be found on the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDsys). Further, roll call information is available on the Library of Congress’s new legislative information system, Congress.gov, either via the Current Legislative Activities section of the homepage (for the current Congress) or by selecting individual Bill Summary and Status pages after a search.
As always, please do not hesitate to contact the librarians here at the Law Library of Congress via our Ask a Librarian service if you have any questions about this or any other legal topic.
Thanks for sharing methods for tracking congressional voting. The basic information is a great start for students learning about how the government works. I cannot wait to try these techniques with my students.