Understanding the legislative process
This article is part of Advocacy Basics: Working with Congress.
There are two chambers in Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each U.S. citizen has two senators and one representative. Your local RESULTS chapter may be in contact with several representatives, depending on where you live, in addition to your two senators. RESULTS works to influence both the House and the Senate and sometimes the president as well.
Throughout the year, you may contact your members of Congress more than once on the same pieces of legislation. For example, early in the year you might ask your representatives to contact committee leaders during the writing of a bill and urge for greater funding levels for key programs.
Then, when bills we support are formally introduced into Congress, your may ask your members of Congress to cosponsor the legislation, which publicly shows their support for the bill. With thousands of bills being introduced each year, bills with many cosponsors are more likely to make it to the next phase of the process.
The next phase of the process after the bill is introduced is for the bill to be sent to the Congressional committee, which can consider the bill and even propose important changes.
If one of your members of Congress sits on a committee that is considering a piece of legislation that RESULTS has a strong interest in, they can play an important role in shaping policy or funding decisions. Weighing in when a bill is being revised in committee — known as “marking up” — is an important step in the legislative process. But even if your member of Congress doesn’t sit on the committee in question, they can still influence the process by contacting members of that committee.
Once the committee considers and passes a bill, it is sent to the full House or Senate for debate and a vote. During debate before the full house or full Senate, RESULTS volunteers often work to build support for certain amendments, or urge passage or defeat of others. This process happens in both the House and the Senate. We’ll often be working to move legislation through both chambers at the same time.
Then once the bill has passed both the House and Senate, any differences between the House version and the Senate version are worked out in what is called a conference committee. RESULTS works to influence members of the conference committee to make sure provisions we support are included in the final bill. Once a compromise is reached in the conference committee, the final compromise bill is voted on by both the full House and Senate, with no amendments. If passed, the bill is then sent to the White House for the president’s signature or veto.
Here’s an example of legislation that RESULTS volunteers helped get passed: For four years, RESULTS volunteers worked to protect and expand Head Start, a preschool program for low-income children and their families here in the United States. RESULTS activists like you worked hard to shape a bill before it was even drafted by meeting face to face with members of Congress. Our volunteers also did great work to generate dozens of editorials across the country that influenced the debate. And, they also helped fight off amendments in committee that would have weakened Head Start substantially. Because of all this tireless work, we got a good bill passed. Volunteers then weighed in with key negotiators in the conference committee that followed. A final compromise bill passed the House and Senate, and was signed into law by President Bush in December 2007. The result? Greater access to early learning opportunities for infants and toddlers, and improvement in the quality of Head Start for almost one million children.
The more you learn about how Congress works, the more you can make a difference. Over the years, RESULTS has successfully advocated for billions of dollars for health and education programs around the world. We have helped create vitally important changes in everything from Food Stamp eligibility, to World Bank policy on education, to microfinance. And it’s passionate and savvy grassroots activists who make it happen.