“Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy; and the Yeas and the Nays of the Members of either House, on any question, shall, at the Desire of one-fifth of those Present, be entered on the Journal.”
—Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution
Researchers often ignore the House Journal in favor of its flashier cousin, the Congressional Record. If laws were sausages, the Congressional Record would report the grinding process of making them. These volumes contain a blow-by-blow account of debate on the House Floor. For narrative color and potent quotations, the Record or one of its predecessors (the Congressional Globe, the Register of Debates, and the Annals of Congress) is the one-stop shop for researchers, even in earlier volumes in which debate was paraphrased. Yet the structure of these publications has morphed considerably over time, reflecting the whims of their various publishers. (The Annals, Register of Debates, and Globe were originally controlled by private publishers. The Record has always fallen under the jurisdiction of the Joint Committee on Printing in Congress.) The House Journal by contrast has—with a few minor formatting adjustments—has remained a constant over the span of House history, as a simple recapitulation of House actions as required by the Constitution.
So what are the benefits of the House Journal to researchers of congressional history? The Journal is, essentially, the “quick and dirty” version of legislating. These volumes record the dates and times for the opening of a congressional session, all recesses, and adjournments. All roll call votes are included in the Journal. It also includes the full text of every President's annual message to Congress—referred to in the modern era as the State of the Union Address. All volumes of the Journal also list the official communications to Congress and the bills introduced into the House every day of the session.
Why use the Journal instead of the wordy, more dramatic accounts in the Record and its predecessors? During the years covered by the Annals, Register of Debates, and Globe (1789–1873), the Journal offers information the other publications do not, including lists of official communications and proposed bills. Indeed, proposed legislation is always compiled in the appendix to the Journal. After the establishment of the Congressional Record in 1873, the Journal proved a less dense and House-focused alternative to the massive Congressional Record volumes, which divide coverage between the House and the Senate. With the Journal, there is no more wading through endless pages of Senate debate in search of a roll call vote in the House! In fact, by leaving records of debate to the Annals, Globe, and Record, the Journal becomes the most convenient source for shorthand information on the House's legislative business. It's particularly handy for tracking individual House bills through a session of Congress, without long-winded diversions.
Where can you find this supremely helpful House Journal? That's part of the Journal's charm. Of all the publications that cover congressional proceedings, it is currently the most accessible. The Library of Congress has the Journals for the first 43 Congresses (1789–1875) digitized and free to browse online. Equally free and browse-able are the eight volumes covering 1992–1999, which are available through the Government Printing Office's website. If you love the smell of paper or happen to need one of those volumes not available online, every Journal from every session of Congress should be available through the Federal Depository Library network in one of 1,252 locations across the United States and its territories.
Sources: Elizabeth Gregory McPherson, "The History of Reporting the Debates and Proceedings of Congress," (PhD diss., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1940); McPherson, "Reporting Debates of Congress," Quarterly Journal of Speech, April 1942; Richard J. McKinney, "An Overview of the Congressional Record and Its Predecessor Publications," Law Library Lights, Winter 2002.