As the name suggests, legislative history is supposed to track all of the legislative parts of a law. Through bill versions, reports, floor statements and committee hearings, we’re supposed to discern lawmakers’ intent behind a particular law. If I have learned anything from my years in Washington, it’s that lawmakers are more likely to express one kind of intent publicly, in the media, and another kind of intent semi-publicly in the Congressional Record and it’s ilk, because they assume that more people watch TV on a daily basis than visit THOMAS. Why, then, does legislative history not include all intent, from everywhere?
In fairness to the art of proper legislative history, I would like to propose a new kind of research guide: legislative storytelling. There is no better time than in an election year to take note of all of the possible outlets of extralegislative information: convention speeches, interviews, party platforms, campaign advertisements and other promotional material, blogs, tweets, Facebook posts. Blogs and news programs are already participating in legislative storytelling with respect to each presidential and vice presidential candidates’ record of governance vs. their current statements as part of their perpetual need for content to fill a 24 hours of air time. Why shouldn’t legislative history combine with some journalistic know how to story the most complete story possible of a law?
Before a bill is introduced:
- If a major program like national health care has been recommended by the executive branch for introduction into the law making process, check out Weekly Radio Addresses (back to 1982 at the American Presidency Project, in the Public Papers of the President in the same place, or in the Federal Register).
- Do a news search of the big national papers (some might argue, but I would say that includes the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times), for keywords related to the program and the phrase “White House staffer” and derivations like “West Wing” or “executive” to get any leaks, intentional or unintentional.
- Look to the Sunday editorials of each of those papers for about 6 months preceding introduction of any on point legislation. Also, look to see who sponsored the bill, and check their local paper, too (which will likely only work if it’s a big name rep or senator doing the introducing).
- Do a search of the major news magazines for about 2 years preceding introduction: Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, etc. Read the major book reviews. You don’t want to miss an Upton Sinclair.
While a bill is in the legislative process:
- Keep looking in all the above places, but now add in the wonk press: Roll Call, Politico, the Sunday morning shows like Meet the Press, and cable dailies from obviously aligned media houses like Fox and MSNBC.
- By George, don’t forget to check Parade magazine on Sundays. I’m not even kidding.
- Big enough issues will transcend subject and make it into Rolling Stone (remember that Iraq War piece?), Sports Illustrated, Popular Science. Expand your news search to include specialty magazines–all of them.
- Congressional and Senatorial race campaign materials come out every 2 or 4 years, gubernatorial races vary by state, and many races are won or lost based on what’s happening with national issues, flying in the face of “all politics are local.” In a presidential election year, don’t forget presidential ads too. I linked to a couple of resources above, but YouTube was born for this kind of research.
After the President signs a bill into law with 29,274 pens:
- Read the signing statement, if there is one, also located in the Federal Register.
- Read all of the news stories related to the signing.
- The day of the signing is a great time to check out the Extension of Remarks, as legislators are extra eager to take credit and align themselves with the President, or lambast the law and distance themselves.
- Follow the money: it seems to take a while for funding numbers to come out thanks to the least transparent financial disclosure process of all time ever, but once a bill has passed, check out Sunlight, Follow the Money, and Open Secrets to see who funded whom, and how they were related to passing the bill into law. Check out committee positions, caucuses, and of course, fundraising parties for these folks.
Does this sound like a lot more work than a traditional legislative history? Holy cow, yes. But, I truly believe that incorporating extralegislative media, where lawmakers spend most of their talking time, will help future researchers have a more complete picture of what caused a law to come into being.