How Congress Works

If you want to change the system, you must first understand how it works. 

 

You don't need to know every member of Congress or every step of the legislative process to be able to influence Congress. 

 

There are a few things, however, that will help you plan and execute the best advocacy strategy for your issue.

Here are six things about how Congress works that you must know to be an effective advocate:

#1: Members of Congress Want to be Re-elected

Members of Congress always have one thing on their minds:

 

Getting Re-elected!

Since members of the House of Representatives have to run for re-election every two years, their campaign essentially starts the day they are sworn into office.

Some argue that the Senate gets more accomplished and Senators are more open to compromise because they only have to run for re-election every 6 years

A recent analysis of members of Congress found that most of their day is spent on election activities like fundraising, attending district events, conducting press outreach, and meeting with their voters.

 

Members of Congress focus on raising money because 90% of the time, the candidate who raises the most money wins the election.

 

The member's office only cares about people inside their district or state because they are the only ones who can vote for (or against) them.

 

The press often criticizes Congress for taking long "recess" breaks, but the members have to spend a lot of time back home meeting with their constituents because that is the best way to engage with voters.

 

They spend a lot of time focusing on their voters because they are the ones who will re-elect them.

 

This is why the majority of Americans disapprove of Congress but 87% of incumbents were re-elected in the 2018 mid-terms

 

Good advocates know how much Congress cares about re-election and use it to their advantage.

 

Every interaction you have with your member of Congress and their staff needs to focus on convincing them that supporting your issue will help them to get re-elected. 

#2: Government Was Designed To Be Difficult

The Founding Fathers built a system of checks and balances to make sure that everybody had a voice in the political process. They wanted to ensure that the minority opinion had a chance to be heard and policies would not be passed based on a mob mentality or the whims and impulses of a few politicians.

 

Congress consists of 535 elected officials from different states and congressional districts across the United States. Each member of Congress has their own priorities, their own constituents, and special interests unique to their districts. Congress has often been described as 535 small businesses operating within a larger body.

That is why getting a new law passed is difficult: only about 2-3% of bills written get signed into law. There are many roadblocks each bill has to overcome and stakeholders that need to comment on the new policy. 

 

While we often complain about Congress being inefficient, the system is in place for a reason and helps protect our democracy. 

 

It is vital to keep this in mind when advocating for your issue so you do not give up when faced with the many obstacles you will certainly encounter.

Take a look at the infographic below courtesy of The Brookings Institute that shows all the steps it takes for a bill to become a law

An infographic showing all the legislative steps to how A Bill Becomes A Law.

 

Looking at this, it is no surprise that bills introduced in Congress are extremely difficult to get signed into law.


But don't give up!

 

There is a story about a nonprofit who had been advocating for a new policy for over nine years.

 

They had made great progress convincing members of Congress that their issue was important, but the law they were working on had not been passed.

Close to giving up, they held a meeting to discuss working on a different policy and shifting their strategy to lobbying for the issue at the state level.

 

After much debate, they decided to keep fighting for the law, and in year ten, the policy passed.

 

Their issue now gets over $100 million dollars each year in funding and the new policy has had a tremendous impact on their issue. If they had given up, their nine years of work would have been for nothing. 

 

(Source: The Influence Game)

#3: Congressional Committees Are Very Important

Each committee has a chairperson, or chair, who controls what legislation gets "marked up" and voted on by the committee members. These committee chairs are chosen by the political party in power and are influential on the legislative process and the issues that their committees oversee.

 

Your elected official might be enthusiastic about an issue, but without the support of the committee chair, there is no hope for your issue to move forward.

There are also "Conference Committees" which are temporary congressional committees formed to reconcile differences when the House of Representatives and the Senate pass two different versions of similar laws.

If you want to be an influential advocate, you have to learn about the congressional committee system and which committee oversees your issue.

#4: Congress Passes Appropriations Every Year

Most advocates focus their efforts on sweeping policy changes or large new government programs. While noble, their efforts will most likely be wasted because of how difficult it is to get a new piece of legislation passed.

 

The best place to start is the appropriations process. Appropriations bills have to get passed every year or the government shuts down.

 

Because these bills are so important, it forces Congress to compromise.

 

If you want your issue to break through, find out what appropriations subcommittee oversees your cause and advocate for more funding.

 

You will have a better chance at success, and the extra funds have the potential to make a big difference for your issue.

#5: Congressional Staffers Write The Laws

We learned earlier that members of Congress focus on re-election and have little time for other things. So, you might ask, how do laws get passed and how do things get done?

 

The answer is the Congressional Staffers!

 

Staffers are very influential in Congress and are the ones to speak with when you want to influence the legislative process.

 

They can give advice on how their member of Congress would vote, they make decisions on what should and should not be included in the legislative text, and they make recommendations about what you should be focusing your attention on accomplishing.

 

Congressional staffers are also extremely influential because they work with staffers in other offices and can introduce you to the right person you need to be speaking with on your specific issue.

 

If influencing your member of Congress is the most effective way to get something done on Capitol Hill, then influencing his or her professional staff is a close second. 

#6: Congress Doesn't Make Every Decision

The best advocates know that limiting your focus to the United States Congress is shortsighted.

 

Political appointees like cabinet officials and agency leaders are also important to target in your advocacy efforts.

 

They enact a lot of changes that do not require a new law or an act of Congress.

 

Folks in the Senior Executive Service can sometimes be even better targets. These are career government employees who have worked their way up to senior management.

 

Government employees have a lot of influence over policy, make important decisions, are easier to get hold of, and are more likely to listen to your concerns.

 

Also, unlike political appointees, they will continue to work on your issue when the next president comes along

 

Also, don’t forget about your state and local governments. State and county legislators are often easier to reach, and state governments are the proving grounds for ideas that make it to the federal level

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