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Debates of Congress: A Beginner’s Guide

This post was co-authored by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer

One of our most frequent requests at the Law Library of Congress is to help patrons with their legislative history research.  Often, researchers will want information about the votes and debates made on the floor of Congress in order to track the history of the bills and resolutions in which they are interested.  The best resources for this information are located in what is called the “debates of Congress,” which have been published in several different resources, depending on the time period in which the debates occurred.  These resources include: Annals of Congress (1789 to 1824); Register of Debates (1824 to 1837); Congressional Globe (1833 to 1873); and Congressional Record (1873 to present).

Although this post will focus more on where a researcher can find full-text copies of the debates of Congress, true beginners in the area of legislative history research may want to first read an overview of the history and structure of the Congressional Record and its predecessor publications in order to determine whether these publications can be useful to them.  Some very helpful resources that offer this background information about the debates of Congress, and the Congressional Record specifically, are:

One important aspect of the Congressional Record that should be mentioned before discussing its availability is that it is published in two main forms—the Daily and Bound Editions.  The Daily Edition is, as its title suggests, printed on a “daily, over-night basis,” and allows for separate pagination for “the proceedings of the House, the proceedings of the Senate, the Extensions of Remarks…and the Daily Digest of activity in the Congress.” The Bound Edition is instead printed at the end of each congressional session, and does not distinguish between proceedings for its pagination.  As such, if your Congressional Record citation has an “H,” “S,” “E,” or “D” before the page number, you are likely dealing with the Daily Edition rather than the Bound Edition.

While the coverage dates of the debates of Congress are easy to trace, the method by which a researcher can find the publication he or she needs may be more complicated. Like congressional voting records, the availability of the debates of Congress is date-specific.  As such, this Beginner’s Guide will focus on three main eras: (1) 1789 to 1875; (2) 1875 to 1989; and (3) 1989 to the present.

[Two Congressional reporters at work at desk]

[Two Congressional reporters at work at desk] (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

1789 to 1875
Those searching for the earliest debates of Congress, including the predecessors to the Congressional Record, are in luck, as all of the debates of Congress created from 1789 to 1875 are made available by the Library of Congress on its A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation website. Even if you are less comfortable with electronic resources than print resources, you will quickly find that this site is intuitive because it can be browsed like a book.

To view the debates of Congress on A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, first look to the right-hand side of the home screen, under the heading Debates of Congress, and choose from one of the options listed below:

After you make your selection, on the left-hand side of the screen, you may choose to browse or search across the selection. Once you delve into the volume, you will find that you can turn the pages like a book by clicking “Next Image,” or you can type in a page number to jump to a page.

1875 to 1989

For those seeking copies of the Congressional Record printed between 1875 and 1989, the process is, unfortunately, a little more complicated.  To access these volumes, you will need to visit a library or use one of several subscription databases.

The libraries most likely to have the volumes of the Congressional Record you seek are those that are part of the Federal Depository Library Program.  These federal depository libraries make available all sorts of “historic and current publications” from the federal government.  To find a federal depository library in your area, visit the Federal Depository Library Directory website, and click the “FDLP for Public Page” link. On the next page, choose your state and browse through the list of libraries available near your location.

Congressional Record volumes are also available through several online subscription databases, which can be typically accessed through a public law library. Some subscription databases that are available at the Library of Congress are:

  • ProQuest Congressional and Legislative Insight. You may use ProQuest Congressional by entering in search terms, using the drop down to narrow your search to select fields or content types, and then placing a check mark next to Congressional Record Bound Edition & Predecessors published between 1789-1999 or the Congressional Record Daily Edition published from 1985-present. You may also choose “search by number” on the left, and scroll down to enter a citation or date. This section of the site also has a feature that allows you to cross reference the Daily Edition to the Bound Edition.  ProQuest Legislative Insight allows you to enter a public law number, U.S. Statutes at Large citation, or enacted bill number and retrieve a compiled legislative history. This legislative history will feature full text links to the Congressional Record.
  • HeinOnline U.S. Congressional Documents Library. After selecting the U.S. Congressional Documents library, you may choose the Congressional Record from 1873-2009 or the Congressional Record Daily from 1980-present. The predecessors to the Congressional Record are also included in this library.  Click on the “plus” symbols to expand your selection. Note that in the last volumes for each Congressional session, you will find an index and a history of bills and resolutions that will allow you to easily locate pages of interest
  • Lexis (1985-present). You can locate the Congressional Record in Lexis by using “Find a source.” This database uses citations to the daily edition, not the bound edition. Lexis offers the ability to search by terms and connectors, natural language, and easy search. By using the segment drop down menu, you may search the Record with an extensive list of segments, including items such as speaker, session, bill, co-sponsor, etc. Just choose a segment, type in your search term, and click “add” to add that segment to your search.  You may also restrict your search results by date.
  • Westlaw (1985-present). The database identifier for the Congressional Record in Westlaw is CR. The database uses citations to the daily edition, not the bound edition, and does not include the index or history of bills. Westlaw offers the option of a natural language search or a terms and connectors search. If you choose a terms and connectors search, the available terms and connectors are listed at the bottom of the screen. For the Congressional Record, Westlaw also offers a template search option that allows you to search by field. The fields available include citation, chamber, type of document, member of Congress speaking for the record, text, and date.

1989 to Present

After 1989, the Congressional Record is freely available online through several governmental sources. Three of these sources–THOMAS, Congress.gov, and the Congressional Record App–are made available through the Library of Congress.  To access the Congressional Record through these sources, use the following directions:

  • THOMAS (1989-present). By default, you can search the Congressional Record for the current Congress. You may enter search terms, and narrow your search by particular members, sections of the Record, and dates. At the top of the screen, you may also choose to view the latest daily digest and browse daily issues. You may also want to try browsing the keyword index. This represents a keyword driven master index to the Congressional Record from 1995-present. You can just click on a keyword, and it will provide you with citations to the Record for where that term appears.
  • Congress.gov (1995-present). Click on “Congressional Record” at the top of the screen. First, you may perform a quick search in the search box at the top, searching across multiple Congresses. Or, if you prefer, on the right-hand side of the screen, you can enter a date or you can enter a date and page number. Once you have selected an issue, you may view the entire issue by clicking on “Entire Issue” on the left, or you may click through the tabs at the bottom of the screen to browse the Record by section. Note that the “Daily Digest” is a helpful summary of proceedings which may assist you in locating material.
  • Congressional Record App (1995-present). The Congressional Record on Congress.gov also contains a link to a Library of Congress app. for the Congressional Record. If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, click on the link to download the app. from iTunes. Even if you do not have an iTunes compatible device, you may still access the Record on your mobile device. The Record on Congress.gov uses responsive web design and automatically scales to fit any device or computer, including Android devices.

These resources are also available through the Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (Daily (1994-present), and Bound (1999-2001)). You may search the Congressional Record by highlighting it in the left-hand column, and then click the “add” button to move it to the right-hand column. At the top of the screen, you may narrow by date. At the bottom of the screen, you may type in your search terms, and then choose the field in which your search term should appear using the drop-down menu. For example, you might use the drop-down menu to choose “bill number citation” and enter a citation to a bill in the search box. Note that you can search the Bound and Daily editions of the Congressional Record, as well as the Index.

If you have any questions, please contact the Law Library of Congress.

[1] Until 1795, Senate sessions were not open to the public. The Annals of Congress represent an attempt to reconstruct earlier proceedings. You may supplement the Annals with Senator Maclay’s Journal.

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