Legislative Purposes and Motives

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Article I of the Constitution vests all legislative powers in the Congress of the United States. Congress is thus ordained to be the policymaking arm of the government. Since Congress exercises this authority through the separate flexing of 435 members of the house of representatives and the 100 members of the senate, the statutes passed by Congress are always collective works—written, amended, and propounded by many. As a result, discerning a single purpose or motive for most statutes is not easy.

An individual member of Congress proposes legislation to solve a problem. As that proposal winds its way through the legislative process, many forces affect the proposal and its meaning. Witnesses favoring and opposing the proposal testify before committees, and their testimony may present an interpretation altogether different from that intended by the proposal's sponsor. While the bill remains in committee, amendments may be offered and voted upon, further changing the purposes or effects of the proposal. Constituents, hearing about the proposal, will express their views to their representatives, voicing still other potentially competing concerns and perceptions about the proposal. After the proposal comes out of the committee, frequently in amended form, it is further refined and amended in floor debate. Again, the purposes and perceptions of the legislators are vast and varied. Once the proposal is approved in one chamber, the whole process is replicated in the other chamber. If further amendments are adopted in the second chamber, the differences between the two chambers' versions are ironed out in a "conference committee," consisting of legislators from both chambers. Only when the House and Senate approve an identical bill does the proposal go to the President for his approval.

With such a tortuous journey to complete, a piece of legislation rarely survives its odyssey with a clear purpose intact. As a result, judges and lawyers must devote much of their time and attention to the process of interpreting statutes. Although the judges, lawyers, and lawmakers have developed many rules and strictures for performing this task, there is much disagreement on what rules or strictures apply in a particular case.

Sometimes a legislative body will seek to ease the task of interpretation by putting a "preamble" or "statement of purposes" into the statute. Unfortunately, such efforts frequently end up as broad platitudes that do not help readers to discern more subtle nuances, such as the legislative intent or purpose of a statute. On occasion, the preamble is used to reassure dubious legislators that the statute does not have the effect that its plain words imply. Because these preambles are usually included as window dressing, most courts have rejected efforts to use the preamble to "trump" the plain meaning of the words of the statute. The title of a statute can also be misleading as to the law's real purposes. An infamous example from one of the state legislatures involved a statute entitled An Act Relative to Sheep and Swine that also imposed a residence requirement for candidates for public office.

The rules that the courts use in interpreting statutes are usually called the "canons of construction." There are perhaps a dozen well-known canons that are most frequently employed. The most commonly accepted canon is the "plain-meaning rule," which requires that a court first look at the words of the statute without regard to the floor debate or committee reports. On this view, if the plain meaning of the statute can be discerned from such a review of the wording, the court should look no further; the statute should be construed in accord with such plain meaning. Few statutes lend themselves easily to the plain-meaning approach. When the meaning is not clear, both judges and lawyers differ as to where to look next. Some look to the floor debate, and others look to the committee reports that accompany such a legislative proposal when it goes to the floor for debate. Some judges and scholars apply other canons of construction, on the theory that the legislators knew and used such canons in deciding what words to use. Still others delve into the testimony of committee witnesses for clues about congressional intent. All of the congressional activities that took place before the statute was passed are called collectively the "legislative history" of the statute. Because the activities are so multifarious, use of legislative history by the courts is sometimes disparaged as being comparable to a performer looking out at an audience and waving to his friends.

There is not much to indicate that the legislators in fact do their work with the canons of construction in mind. One of the canons states that expression of one thing excludes another, similar thing. Legislators frequently will insert specific amendments to emphasize a particular concern without considering this canon. Another canon (ejusdem generis) states that when an enumeration of examples is followed by a general catchall phrase, the catchall phrase can apply only to persons or things of the same general kind or class that were specifically mentioned. Notwithstanding this canon, the statutes and court decisions are full of examples where the catchall phrase was not so limited. In any event, the canons frequently contradict each other, and even when they are consistent, they are not always consistently applied.

All agree that the individual expressions of purposes by individual members of Congress ought not be controlling—not even when such an expression comes from the sponsor of the legislation. Statements of purpose voiced after the statute is passed are almost never given any weight; the theory of legislative interpretation turns on deciphering the purposes of the legislative body before the statute was voted upon.

Even the record of congressional debate may be suspect. Members of Congress frequently engage in artificial floor debate in an effort to influence the way in which a statute will be interpreted in the future. A dialogue will be written out between two or more members in which questions of interpretation of particular parts of the statute will be asked and answered. Because these dialogues usually involve only a few members and are not voted upon by the entire membership, the weight to be accorded such "debate" should be light. However, many judges are beguiled by such artificial legislative maneuvers.

Congress sometimes avoids elaborating the minute details of its intent by delegating the effectuation and elaboration of its purpose to an administrative agency. A large number of statutes establish agencies to administer programs created by Congress. Two examples are the Environmental Protection Agency, which is mandated to administer and enforce the environmental laws passed by Congress, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is mandated to administer and enforce the securities laws passed by Congress. The laws usually provide that an appeal may be taken from the final decision of the administrative agency to the federal courts. In such an appeal, the interpretation placed on the statute by the agency charged with its administration is to be given great weight by the reviewing courts. Unless the agency has violated the plain meaning of the statute, the courts are supposed to defer to whatever interpretation the agency places upon the statute. The theory behind this doctrine, derived from Chevron USA, Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council (1984), is that the agency has been charged by Congress to be the main actor in that particular field, and the courts should not interfere with the discretion exercised by the agency.

many state constitutions require the state legislatures to enact statutes limited to a single subject. This limitation makes it easier for the legislators and the citizenry to know what is in a statute and assists courts in interpreting the meaning of a statute. The United States Constitution has never contained such a limitation, and Congress routinely includes a variety of provisions and subjects in a single bill. A single continuing appropriation bill passed by the Congress can contain substantive law provisions covering a wide range of topics. Because some of these provisions are inserted during floor debate and do not have much legislative history, it is frequently difficult to decipher a provision intention or purpose except from the brief explanation that may be made by the sponsor.

Finding the legislative purpose or motive of a particular statute is one of the difficult tasks given over to administrative agencies and the courts.

Abner J. Mikva

(see also: Environmental Regulation and the Constitution; Securities Law and the Constitution.)


Frankfurter, Felix 1947 Some Reflections on the Reading of Statutes. Columbia Law Review 47:527–546.

Llewellyn, Karl N. 1950 Remarks on the Theory of Appellate Decision and the Rules or Canons About How Statutes Are to Be Construed. Vanderbilt Law Review 3:395–406.

Mikva, Abner J. 1987 Reading and Writing Statutes. University of Pittsburgh Law Review 48:627–637.

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Legislative Purposes and Motives