Lawmakers, both state and federal, impact your business in many ways with the laws and regulations they pass. These actions are often taken based on the information lawmakers receive, not because they are experts in everything.
How a Bill Becomes a Law
Any member of the House of Representatives or the Senate may introduce a bill that can become law. The bill is assigned a number (such as H.R.1 or S.1, depending on the chamber of its origination), labeled with the sponsor’s name and published. Most bills will have co-sponsors. More co-sponsors are generally desirable. Bills usually have names which have been carefully crafted to convey the best ‘spin.’
Membership on committees is split between the parties as determined by the majority party in each house. Committee members rank in order of their appointment to the full committee. The senior ranking member of the committee of the majority party is usually elected as Chairman or Chairwoman. The committee chairperson is very important to the legislative process since he or she determines the docket and order, and assigns the bill to a subcommittee. Committees and subcommittees review proposed legislation, experts are consulted, feedback is obtained from government agencies, and public hearings are conducted to fully understand key issues on both sides.
After receiving a bill, the Speaker of the House or the Presiding Officer in the Senate submits the bill to the appropriate committee. Due to the high volume and complexity of its work, Congress divides its tasks between approximately 250 committees and sub-committees. The House and Senate each have their own committee system, which are similar. There are 22 committees in the Senate and 25 committees in the House of Representatives. A bill may be sent to more than one committee, and sometimes parts are sent to different committees.
A member usually seeks election to a committee. Eventually, content is determined and the full committee votes on the bill. If the committee passes the bill, it then holds a ‘mark-up’ session where revisions are made. If amendments are substantial, the bill is rewritten, and a ‘clean bill’ is sent to the House or Senate in place of the original version. That chamber then reviews all changes made by the committee before conducting a final vote.
Reporting a Bill
After a bill is reported, the committee provides the originating chamber with a statement detailing why they favor or disfavor the bill and defending any amendments. The bill is then placed on the calendar.
The Speaker of the House decides which bills receive attention and in what order. In the Senate, the Majority Leader decides which bills make it to the floor and when. For this reason, control of the House or Senate by a party is very important. The bill is then debated. In the House, the Rules Committee decides the limits of debate, and there must be a quorum (218 members present) to vote. In the Senate, debate is unlimited, and sometimes even a single member may block legislation by conducting a ‘filibuster’ so that debate lasts so long that the bill doesn’t pass. Sixty senators must vote to close debate in order to vote on a bill.
After debating is completed, voting begins. Generally, passage requires a simple majority of a quorum. After a bill is passed in one chamber, it is sent to the other to be voted on, unless the other chamber is reviewing a similar bill. Both the House and the Senate must pass a bill for it to be sent to the President to sign into law.
A bill not passed by both chambers is dead. If the House and Senate approve two similar but separate bills, the two bills are sent to a Conference Committee, made up of senior members of both chambers (chosen by leadership for each such occurrence) who work to reach a compromise bill. The Conference Committee writes a report on the final version, which is then voted on by both chambers. If passed, the bill is sent to the President for final review.
The President of the United States must decide whether to sign a bill or to veto it. If the bill is signed, it becomes law. If a bill is vetoed, the President sends it back to its original chamber with his reasons for doing so. Congress may override a veto by a two-thirds vote in both chambers, and the bill becomes law.
If Congress adjourns within 10 days after the bill reaches the President and the President has not signed it, it is vetoed automatically. This is called a ‘pocket veto.’ However, if Congress remains in session for the full 10 days, the bill becomes law.
Communicating with Your Legislator
An effective way to communicate your concerns with your legislator is by writing a letter. Phone calls are the quickest method of communication, but unless your legislator is available to speak with you, your concerns will be relayed to him or her through a staff member. In this way, neither your message nor your personal touch reaches your legislator directly.
Writing a letter is simple and is, in fact, the most popular method of reaching a member of Congress. When drafting a letter, please bear in mind these few basic suggestions:
Be Direct: State the purpose of writing your legislator in the first paragraph of the letter.
Be Accurate: If your letter concerns a specific piece of legislation, identify it as such, e.g., House bill: H.R. (number), Senate bill: S. (number). The Library of Congress provides a website that will assist you in researching a House or Senate bill number. Please visit the Library of Congress at http://thomas.loc.gov/.
Be Concise: Keep the letter to one page, if possible.
Be Efficient: E-mailing or faxing your letter, as opposed to mailing it, is highly recommended. Mail typically takes four to six weeks to reach your legislator’s desk. Legislators’ fax numbers, e-mail addresses (if available) and other write your legislator tools can be obtained by using the Your Elected Officials page on this website.
Addressing your Letters:
You can direct postal correspondence to your Senator as follows:
The Honorable (Name)
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Senator (Name)
You can direct postal correspondence to your Representative as follows:
The Honorable (Name)
United States House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
Dear Representative (Name)
Meeting with Your Legislator
When meeting with legislators and candidates, these tips will help you maximize the impact your message and make the most of every minute you spend with elected officials and those seeking office. Equally, there are more than a few pitfalls to make certain you avoid.
- Know your issue inside and out
- Develop talking points before the meeting to make certain you stay on message
- Clearly identify yourself as a constituent
- State your credentials as an industry expert
- Ask for specific legislative action or support
- Provide reliable data or fact sheets
- Be positive and friendly
- Be sensitive about time since meetings are often cut short
- Treat staff with the same level of respect as you do the official
- Compliment the member or staff on positive actions
- Admit if you don’t know an answer, but promise to follow up
- Leave your name and contact information
- Send a thank you note
- Follow up with any additional information needed
- Arrive without an appointment
- Be late
- Miss a valuable opportunity to meet with staff members if your legislator is unable to keep your appointment or cuts your time short
- Be confrontational or overly partisan
- Try to discuss more than one issue
- Get too comfortable or casual
- Forget to use proper forms of address
Writing Letters to the Editors and Op-Eds
While writing to your elected official about an issue, or calling their office can be an effective way of communicating your position, there are other ways to develop support for your issue. One way is to send a message for the “letters to the editor” section of your local newspaper. Another way is to write an article for the newspaper’s opinion page, called an “op-ed.’ Op-eds typically appear on the page facing the newspaper’s own editorials.
Your letter should be considered a conversation not only with fellow readers, but with the newspaper itself. Don’t write a letter out of the blue on a topic that is unfamiliar to the masses. Your letter should be in response to an article or editorial, and your letter should mention this specifically (makes job of ‘editing’ and fact-checking your letter easier, and thus more likely to get published.)
These guidelines are not meant to be viewed as universal, because all papers have different rules, but they are good protocols to keep in mind.
- Follow word count rule – every paper publishes what their limit/range is. If it says 150-200 words, don’t expect a 275 word letter to be published.
- Make your letter simple, concise and to the point.
- Show the editor you actually read the paper, by including info on previous articles published, and give exact date when possible.
E-mail is the preferred method of communication.
- Make sure to include personal information, such as name, address, e-mail, etc. Most papers don’t include this (aside from name and hometown) on the actual editorial page. Editors ask for this information because they want to make sure you are in readership area.
- Make your letter unique.
- Send a form letter. Editors won’t publish them!
- Be afraid to follow up, if after a few days you haven’t heard from them. This serves two purposes, ensures your letter was received and enables the editor to ask you any questions he/she might have that are impeding his/her ability to publish.
- Use inflammatory language. Letters won’t be discarded because of the opinion but they will be ignored if the opinion is written in a disrespectful manner.
- Send a letter once a week. Instead space your letters out (at least a month, preferably more time) so editors realize you are sincere in your efforts.
- Hand write your letter. As noted above, e-mail is preferred method. But, if you are sending your letter via traditional mail, make sure it is type-written and ideally double-spaced.