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Know How Congress Works

Learn the rules of the legislature so you can better understand--and thereby be better equipped to influence--the legislative process.  Know what is happening, for example when a bill is referred to a committee or how the differences between a House and a Senate version of a bill are resolved. 

Important Point: Find out the status of your bill, because bills get referred to a committee after being introduced, so asking your Congressman to simply "vote for/against a bill" is meaningless as no vote will occur until subcommittee and committee action has taken place. For a bill where no action has been scheduled and it's just sitting in a subcommittee, one important task is to ask other members to sign on as co-sponsors.

The rules the House and Senate follow have been written and mastered by big government liberals in both parties to defeat, bury, or alter conservative bills; and to sneak through without notice dangerous bills, treaties and even Congressional pay raises!  By gaining some knowledge of the rules can you predict these traps and tricks, and improve your citizen lobbying skills.

Beware that the most dangerous bills will usually have a few token scraps of interest to conservatives within them to buy their votes.  But a minor scrap does not make a thousand-page freedom-robbing bill any better, and that is a point you can make when discussing such issues with a Congressman.  The "Patriot Act" is a tragic example of this strategy.  Liberals will often appear to compromise and accept less than they want to gain passage, only to expand the program in future years to get 100% of their original bill--essentially Lenin's "two steps forward, one step back" strategy. Backers of amnesty, for example, would accept fewer visas, cumbersome return-home requirements, and higher "fines" knowing that they will push to eliminate the fines and return-home requirements and expand the visa numbers in future years. Don't fall into their trap!

Read two publications which explain the legislative process from the introduction of a bill to the President's signature:

Other useful information:

The Key Staff Positions in a Congressman's Office Include:

  • Chief of Staff (CoS) or Administrative Assistant (AA):  One of the few staff who report directly to the member, the CoS is often the senior political advisor to the Congressman, and may be the office manager as well (this may be the person to talk to if you are looking for a job in their office).  Unless you are a campaign donor, friend, or otherwise well-connected (or a job seeker) you will not likely meet with the CoS on grassroots legislative matters.
  • Scheduler/Appointment Secretary/Personal Secretary:  Handles all aspects of the member's schedule, who he will and won't see, constituent visits, speaking engagements, etc.  If you are visiting Washington, talk to the scheduler to see if you can arrange a meeting with the Congressman.
  • Press Secretary: Handles all media activities, sets up news conferences, writes news releases, works to get the Congressman on TV and radio shows, cultivates a friendship with the media, answers media questions, preps the Congressman to give the right answers, etc.
  • Legislative Director (LD):  The LD is the senior Legislative Assistant; and oversees the LAs and their assignments and takes a senior role in advising and writing legislation.
  • Legislative Assistant (LA):  Each office has a few "LAs", each specializing in different issues.  They write legislation--and work with the committees, the White House, Federal agencies, lobbyists and special interests (both good and bad) who have written legislation for them; advise their member or the LD on pending legislation, etc.  They report to the LD above. 
  • IMPORTANT: The "LA" who handles the issue you are concerned with is the person you should talk to, not the receptionist. Call the office and ask: "who is the LA. which handles [your issue]?", then talk to that person and request that they discuss the issue and your views with the Congressman.  Have something of interest (facts, debate points, news, ideas) to tell the L.A. not just "tell the Congressman to vote no." Follow up with a brief letter or fax--ask for their email address.  If possible, schedule a visit.  The LA can also tell you if the member is planning to vote for or against a particular bill--or if he is undecided.  Those who are undecided are those you want to give the most lobbying attention.
  • Committee and Subcommittee Staff: Each committee and subcommittee have their own legislative staff, and more than member's own staff, they are more involved in drafting legislation and holding hearings. They are valuable to talk with or meet to discuss legislation, but not for the purpose of asking a member to vote for/against a bill.
  • Receptionist: When you call and just ask that the Congressman support or oppose a bill, the receptionist will usually be the one who assists you. But the receptionist will just add your opinion to a list showing that X number of people called in favor and X against an issue.  For greater influence, talk to the LA handling your issue as described above.
  • District Staff: Members have one or more offices in their district or state, staffed by a few people.  These staff are often easy to arrange to meet with (and you won't have to travel far!), and be sure to ask them to have the member write you a reply as a confirmation that the staff reported the meeting to the member.  District offices receive fewer phone calls so targeting such offices for calls will make a greater impression (positively or negatively) than calls to their U.S. Capitol office.
  • Caseworker: Works with constituents to solve problems with federal (not state/local) agencies, such as Social Security, Medicare, etc.  The caseworker usually works at the Congressman's district office.  Sometimes a call or letter from a Congressman's office can get action where your efforts have failed.
  • Legislative Correspondent (LC):  Answers constituent letters, faxes & emails.  The LC will usually prepare for the Congressman a periodic summary of how many letters, faxes and emails are for and against each issue.  Most offices do not reply to out of state/district mail and email, unless you are writing as a representative of an organization or company or if you are a donor or other supporter.  Always ask for a reply if you want one, and expect that most replies will be form letters.

"Personnel is policy"  You may find that many staff have different political views than their Congressman or Senator, thus a good conservative representative can be somewhat neutralized in his effectiveness on our issues by staff not loyal to his philosophy. Congressional briefings for new members encourage members to accept 'diversity' by not selecting staff loyal to their philosophy.  Lobbyists and advocates for big government also seek to befriend representatives and their top staff to convince them that "business-as-usual," more spending, taxes, pork projects, special laws and exemptions, and campaign donations are the way to go.  That makes YOUR job as a citizen lobbyist all the more important to overcome these layers of protection and often false information.

Senate staff have similar titles and responsibilities, and benefit from a greater number of staff.  Depending on the office, some staff may hold two or more posts or have different titles.  During election campaigns, the member will usually be accompanied with campaign staff--not office staff--at political events and rallies, and they may be less likely to relay a legislative-related message should you talk to one of them.

Once in a rare while if you call before or after business hours, you may find a Congressman will answer the phone!

Whenever you visit Washington DC, stop by the offices of your Congressman and your Senators and ask to see their LA who handles your issue of concern.  You will find that if they are in the office and have a moment, they may see you, but likely only for a couple minutes; so be very concise and if possible have some reading material and contact information to leave with them.  Campaign donors, particularly large donors, will get much favored access.

Here's a very brief description of how a bill moves through Congress:

A "bill" is a proposed law, and a "resolution" is a non-binding proposed statement of the opinion of Congress.  A law is in its simplicity anything you can be arrested for violating, to force you to do or not do something, to order or fund the government to do or not do something.  Thousands are written and introduced every year, but few are good and most are dangerous in greater or lesser degree to our liberties; and several hundred are passed and become a law or an official statement.  The path to passage is of course made much more difficult for bills mandating true constitutional government, cutting spending, ending abortion, stopping illegal immigration, etc.

The text of bills can be written by Congressmen, their staff, committee staff, lobbyists and special interests, the White House, and by even civic activists like yourself.  It then is reviewed by lawyers and policy experts, and regardless of who wrote it, a Congressman or Senator will then submit it in his name as the sponsor.  Often a bill is submitted with the names of additional supporters, known as 'cosponsors,' and the more cosponsors a bill has at the start or who sign on later, the more regard the bill is given--particularly if a majority have signed onto the bill.  Once reviewed and ready for submission, a bill is simply put in "the hopper" (just a box) and then it is given a sequential number such as H.R. 1234.

After a bill has been introduced, it will be sent to a subcommittee which specializes in the subject of the bill.  The most effective actions at that time are: gaining support in the subcommittee, to get the bill scheduled for a subcommittee vote, and to gather additional cosponsors.  Or alerting Members that a bad bill should not receive hearings, gain cosponsors or be voted upon.  Asking members not on the committee to simply vote for/against it is premature, as no vote will take place or even be scheduled until it has survived subcommittee and committee votes, so the better request would be to ask them to cosponsor the bill and get their colleagues to cosponsor it as well.  Once the subcommittee has voted for it, it may advance to the committee.  Then support must be built for a full committee vote.  Only if it passes the committee vote can it then be scheduled for a vote by the entire House or Senate.  Various rules and deals can result in little or no debate allowed on bills, and in the Senate, "filibusters" (unlimited debate, sometimes lasting 24 hours a day for many days) are sometimes used to delay or prevent bills from passing.  In recent years, job-destroying treaties have often been submitted with "fast-track" deals denying members from improving or otherwise changing the language, always to the detriment of our nation.

The chairman of a subcommittee or committee has great power to push a bill he favors or to prevent a vote from ever taking place--you may hear a bill will "die in committee," meaning it has no support or that the chairman will never let it be put to a vote or even debate because he's afraid it might pass.  Various tricks, deals and battles can occur to prevent a bill which has survived a committee vote from ever having a vote or to sneak through a dangerous or unpopular bill; for example you may have heard the term "reconciliation" in the ObamaCare battle, which is a trick to bypass the Senate rules on cutting off debate.  The text of an unpopular or dangerous bill can often be added to a popular bill as an amendment to force opponents to vote for it.  Bills may also have a page or two of dangerous legislation buried in a seemingly innocent bill--they hope nobody will notice.

Many in Congress and the media use groups like "children," "the elderly," "the needy," etc. to pass socialist legislation, accusing any legitimate opposition of being "against children".  Here Senator Jay Rockefeller stooped low to defend the dangerous and expensive SCHIP bill, January 2009: “To me, it should be difficult enough to (even) think of voting against a bill on children."

Once passed by both houses, a "Conference Committee" of several Representatives and Senators will be selected to work out any differences between the Senate and House versions, and only after both houses have approved the same language will the final version be presented to the President for his signature or veto.

Congressional bills fall into several categories: A proposed law (anything you can be arrested for violating, or which directs any part of the government to spend your tax money or to do something) will be titled S. or H.R., meaning simply 'Senate' or 'House of Representatives.'  An official statement of the House or Senate which does not have the force of law is called a Resolution, and is often referred to as H. Res. or S. Res.  Resolutions have no legal force and are used to send a message that the Congress of the United States is concerned about an issue or applauds good works.  Treaties, nominations, etc. will not have a numeric designation.

"Consensus is the absence of leadership" Margaret Thatcher

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