How to Search Congressional Legislative Materials at Thomas and FDSys

Searchable databases of legislative/congressional materials such as public laws, bills, resolutions, hearings, congressional reports, and committee reports can be found at two governmental sites: The Library of Congress’s Thomas site (http://thomas.loc.gov) and FDsys (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/home.action).

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Legislative/congressional materials are valuable to researchers for the following reasons:

  • To track a current bill as it is going through the legislative process
  • To discern the legislative intent of a bill
  • To conduct historical research about a bill that was never passed (and, thus, would not be contained in a Public Law database or the U.S.C.)
  • To read a public law in its entirety (instead of trying to piece it together once it has been scattered throughout various sections of the U.S.C.)

Searching the Library of Congress’s Thomas site for Bills, etc.

The Library of Congress’s Thomas site (http://thomas.loc.gov) offers various databases, such as:

From the home page, bills can be searched through the Bill Summary and Status (BSS) database, but only for the current Congress (http://thomas.loc.gov). Although you can keyword and phrase search the BSS, it does not search the full text of the bill. BSS only searches: sponsor(s); cosponsor(s); official, short, and popular titles; floor/executive actions; detailed legislative history; Congressional Record page references; bill summary; committee information; amendment information; and subjects (indexing terms assigned to each bill). Current bills can also be searched by Bill Number or browsed by sponsor at the BSS database on Thomas’ home page.

The BSS database also has an Advanced Search option (http://thomas.loc.gov/bss) where you can search by Keywords and Phrases (but still not the full text). They can be limited to Exact Match Only or expanded to Include Variants. You can also search by one or more of the following: Sponsor by House or Senate Members, Committee, Stage in Legislative Process, Date of Introduction, Type of Legislation, and Standard Subject Term. On the Advanced Search page, you can search back to 1973 (93rd Congress), except for amendment data, which only goes back to the 95th Congress (1977). You cannot search multiple Congress years here. You will have to select one Congress year.

The Bills, Resolutions “Bill Text” database, in contrast to the BSS, does search the full text of the bill and allows you to search through one or multiple Congresses, but only back to 1989 (http://linkon.in/IiVk24). Your keywords and phrases can be limited to Exact Match Only or expanded to Include Variants. You can also limit your search of Bills to: All; Bills with Floor Action; or Enrolled Bills Sent to the President. You can also limit your search of Bills to: Both House and Senate, House Bills Only, or Senate Bills Only.

It is not necessary to use quotation marks to indicate a phrase. For example, a user can enter think tank, not "think tank," to retrieve information about think tanks.

Bills and Resolutions can be browsed by Bill Number, Popular and Short Titles, Public Laws, Private Laws, Vetoed Bills, and Sponsor Summaries (http://linkon.in/IzhwiV). You can also browse the House or Senate bills separately by Bills, Joint Resolutions, Concurrent Resolutions, Resolutions, or Amendments.

The Congressional Record database (http://linkon.in/Hyzgds) goes back to 1989 and is searchable by Keywords, Phrases, Date Received or Session, Member of Congress, and Section of Congressional Record.

The Committee Reports database (http://linkon.in/HyAOnL) goes back to 1995 and is searchable by Keywords and Phrases, Report Number, Committees, or Date Available Online. The Reports can also be browsed by selecting House, Senate, Conference, or Joint.

The Public Laws database (http://linkon.in/HoTZam) cannot be keyword searched. Instead, the only option is to browse the Public Laws in numeric order. However, the database goes back to 1973, which is much farther back in time than the FDsys’s Public and Private Laws database.

Searching the FDsys site for Bills, etc.

For those who need to retrieve a document by its citation, visit the Retrieve By Citation page (http://linkon.in/Ij0nj3) and choose a Collection from the Collection drop-down menu. For those who prefer to browse, visit the Browse Collections page (http:// linkon.in/HyFAsc) and browse through various legislative/congressional materials by: (1) Collection (e.g., Congressional Bills or Congressional Reports, etc.); (2) Congressional Committee (e.g., Energy & Natural Resources); or (3) Government Author (e.g., Impeachment Trial Committee).

FDsys researchers can also keyword or phrase search (using simple or complex queries) through all of FDsys’s Collections together from the search box on FDsys’s home page (http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/home.action).

If you want to search fewer than all Collections (e.g., one or two, etc.), you would use the FDsys Advanced Search page (http://linkon.in/y2uMZC). To search, select a specific Collection from the “Available Collections” drop-down menu and click “Add.” You can continue to add more collections (or search all). After choosing the Collection(s) (and date if you wish), you can enter your keywords/phrases into the search box to the right of the “Full Text of Publications and Metadata.” If you want to search by other criteria, click the downward arrow to the right of “Full-Text Publications and Metadata” and you will be offered Collection-specific Search Criteria. If you select the Congressional Bills Collection, you can search by Bill Number, Bill Version, etc. but if you select the Congressional Reports Collection the criteria you can search by would be by Report Number, Conference Report, etc.

Using the Advanced Search also allows us to: (1) add specific dates (into the Publications Date box located at the top of the page) and (2) add five more search criteria options to any search.

According to the documentation at FDsys, its simple queries are similar to a “typical search engine such as Google” because FDsys uses the same Boolean connectors (AND, OR, -) as Google and phrase searching (where you surround a phrase with quotation marks). There are some differences, though: (1) Boolean connectors are case insensitive at FDsys while they must be in uppercase at Google, (2) FDsys researchers can also use NOT instead of the minus sign ( - ), since they are interchangeable at FDsys (but not at Google), and (3) FDsys researchers can use the Boolean connector AND or leave a space in between words (but Google scolds you if you type AND in between words).

  • In addition, FDsys allows for the following types of complex queries (some of which are not found at Google): Proximity connectors (near/#, adj, before/#)
  • Field operators, which allow you to restrict your keywords to specific metadata fields (parts of a document), such as: 
    • Congress Member: To search by this Field, enter your search this way— member:mcconnell 
  • Wildcards, which are indicated by:
    • the question mark symbol (?) to replace one character before, within, or after a search term; 
    • the asterisk symbol ( * ) to replace one or more characters before, within, or after a search term. 
    • Typing int**city into the search box indicates a search for any word that begins with int, is followed by any two characters, and then ends with city. The search results might include the words intercity or intracity, or both words. 
  • Parentheses, which should be used when creating complex searches such as those where you use multiple proximity connectors and/or multiple Field operators. The following is an example: 
    • (congressional OR executive) AND hearing AND (member:mcconnell) •

You can narrow your search results by Collection, Date Published, Government Author, Organization, Person, Location, or Keyword. For example, if you wanted to view a Congressional Report on a specific topic from 2004 and also 2011, you would select those dates from the left-hand “Narrow Your Search” column once you retrieved your results.

The Public and Private Laws Collection goes back to 1995 (for earlier years, see Thomas’s Public Laws and Private Laws). This Collection can also be used to update the text of a U.S.C. section (if it was later amended) or to learn if it has been repealed. For example, after reading the text of 22 U.S.C. 6208 at the House OLRC site, visit FDsys’s Advanced Search page (http://linkon.in/y2uMZC) and select the Public and Private Laws Collection, then select United States Code Citation criterion from the Search in drop-down menu and enter the U.S.C. citation (be sure to place periods in between each letter because “USC” will not work). Our search for 22 U.S.C. 6208, which was enacted in 1994, revealed six results, with the first result (Public Law 111–202) showing a 2010 amendment.

The Congressional Bills Collection can be keyword searched back to 1993 by choosing Congressional Bills at FDsys’s Advanced Search page (http://linkon.in/y2uMZC). There are eighteen different criteria to choose from and one or multiple Congresses can be searched. To limit Bills to a specific Congress or multiple Congresses, choose the Congress Number criterion. To search Bills by sponsor, you would select the Sponsors and Co-sponsors criterion. However, you would need to type in the sponsor’s name. We prefer the Library of Congress’s Thomas site for this type of search because there we are offered a list of names from which to choose.

The History of Bills Collection offers fourteen different criteria by which to search. While this Collection is not available at the Retrieve by Citation page, a Bill Number Citation search criterion is one of the fourteen criteria that can be searched by choosing History of Bills from the Advanced Search page (http://linkon.in/y2uMZC). If you don’t know which Congress a specific bill number was introduced in, you can search all Congresses (back to 1983) by selecting the Bill Number Citation and entering the bill number (e.g., enter s. 9 to search for the history of every Senate Bill number 9 in every Congress back to 1983).

The Congressional Reports Collection (also referred to as Committee Reports) offers twenty-one different criteria by which to search by choosing Congressional Reports from the Advanced Search page’s Available Collections.

The Conference Reports are not listed as a separate Collection, but can be searched by choosing the Conference Reports search criterion within the Congressional Reports Collection at FDsys’s Advanced Search page (http://linkon.in/y2uMZC). Dates of coverage go back to 1995.

The Congressional Records Collection can be searched by thirty different criteria back to 1994 by choosing it from the Advanced Search page’s Available Collections.

The Statutes At Large Collection can be searched by twenty different criteria (back to 2003), by choosing Statutes At Large from the Advanced Search page’s Available Collections. To search from 1951-2002, select the Additional Government Publications Collection from the Available Collections, then Publication Name (from the Search in drop-down menu. From the Select Value pop-up box, select United States Statutes At Large (Digitized).

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