If you are interested in getting involved with the political process, but don’t know where to start, here’s some basic information you might find helpful. We will walk through the basic steps a bill goes through to give you some background, talk about how bills are numbered to help you figure who to call, when states are in session so you know when you can call, give you some resources to look up who your representatives are, and help you figure out what’s the best action to take (hint, probably making a phone call), and explain how to use BillTrack50 to help find all the information you are going to need.
The Legislative Process.
First, the basics of how a bill becomes a law. For the rest of this post assume that everything I say has some nuance that is slightly different in some states. It’s amazing how different the states are, as you will see. But we’ll ignore most of those details in this overview.
The states, and Congress, have two chambers — except Nebraska, which only has one chamber. These are usually the Senate and the House though it’s different for some states. A bill can be introduced in either chamber, where it is sent to committee for review. The committee can pass it, kill it, or amend it. Then the entire chamber votes on it, and if it passes, it goes on to the other chamber, where it is again sent to committee to review. Again the committee can pass it, kill it, or amend it. If they pass it or amend it it goes to the full chamber for a vote. If it passes in amended form it has to go back to the originating chamber for a new vote. Then the bill moves on to the Governor (or President for federal bills) who can sign it or veto it. If vetoed, it goes back for another vote and can potentially be overruled. The graphic below shows this journey in more detail.
Of course the devil is in the details, but that, at a high level, how the legislative process works. The states each have their own version of this process, but they are all broadly similar. One important detail; in some places an identical bill is introduced in both chambers at the same time. When you are reading a bill on BillTrack50 you will see a link for “companion bill” if the bill you are looking at has a “sister” in the other chamber.
So, to summarize, the basic steps are:
- introduced in first chamber
- in committee
- crosses over to second chamber and put in committee
These steps are important to know because they impact what you can do and when you should do it. When you are looking at a bill on BillTrack50 you’ll see a graphic showing you which step the bill is currently on. You can also look at the action tab to see more detail about how the process is going.
How Bill Numbers Work.
Legislation is numbered when it is introduced, something like H001 or SB25. States all use different conventions for numbering, of course. But generally speaking, the letters in front of the number are the important part. The letters tell you two things: the chamber where it was introduced, and what kind of legislation it is. If the first letter is an S, the bill is being introduced in the Senate. If the first letter is an H or an A, the bill is being introduced in the House or Assembly (the name for the lower chamber depends on the state you are in). Some states include the B to stand for Bill, some states do not. So that first letter is what you need to figure out which of your representatives you should be contacting right now.
If the letters in front of a bill include a J that means it is a Joint bill being introduced by both chambers. If the letters include an R (except for Federal bills), that means the bill isn’t a bill but rather is a resolution. Resolutions don’t create new laws, but rather declare awareness days, congratulate football teams, express condolences, etc. The big exception to this rule is Congress. For federal bills House bills are designated HR, and house resolutions are designated Hres. For a deeper dive into bill numbers see this post.
Legislative Session Dates.
Another thing to be aware of is that most states have a part time legislature and only meet part of the year, and some states only meet every other year. There isn’t much point in contacting your representative after the session is over. Also, in a few states, there is a crossover deadline, meaning if a bill hasn’t crossed over by that deadline it is dead and you can’t influence it anymore. Be aware that states can call a special session, as North Carolina notoriously did in 2016. In that case new bills will be introduced and get new bill numbers; previously dead bills don’t come back to life. Here’s our pdf listing session start and end dates and crossover dates. Another great resource that I keep bookmarked is the NCSL calendar. Indeed the NCSL page is a great resource to learn about how state legislatures work, and about the issues they are working on.
Finding your Legislator.
There are lots of resources to figure out who your representatives are. You can google your own state legislature and they likely have a tool on their site. More generally, for looking up your state legislator, we are partial to this Tool by Open States. This page is a simple way to look up your representatives in Congress (two in the Senate, one in the House). If your zip code has more than one representative in the House then the House website can help by giving you a map.
Once you know who your legislator is you can look them up typing their last name into the search box at the top of BillTrack50, switching the search box to a legislator search, and clicking the magnifying glass. Once you have found your legislator you can see their contact info, as well as what committees they are on by clicking on the committee tab. We also give you links to FollowTheMoney so you can see who has donated to their campaign, and soon we will give you links to Ballotpedia so you can easily read up on their background.
Actions to Take.
Voting is the fundamental action we should all take as citizens; keeping in mind issues and how your representatives voted will help you decide who deserves your support. But you should weigh in on issues too. We are a representative democracy; help your representatives represent you. Ideally you should testify in committee when you have special knowledge (google your state to see your local rules/rights on testifying). Even further, if you representative is simply not listening, then run against them, or help a competing campaign when the time comes. Of course not everyone can (or wants to) enter public service. But you can totally pick up your phone. As many staffers have shared, tweeting, petitions, even emails, are not as effective as a simple call. Phone calls get tallied, social media not so much. If you are going to take an action, you might as well make it count, so make a call. Tell your friends on Facebook, sure, but also make a call.
If a bill is in committee (step 2 or 3) you can, in most states, attend the committee meeting and testify. You can also reach out to your representative in the appropriate chamber to tell them how you think they should vote when the bill comes out of committee. If your representative is on the committee debating the bill, your call is even more important. After the bill has crossed over you have another chance to attend a committee meeting and contact your representative, just make sure you check which chamber to reach out to (more on chambers in the bill numbering section below).
After the bill is passed you can write to the governor (or the President for a federal bill) to ask them to veto it. Although if a bill is unconstitutional it can be overturned by the courts, too. So once a bill has passed it isn’t entirely too late, but close.
What to Say.
When you call a legislator you’ll want to be clear and concise, so the person you are talking to (likely a member of your representative’s staff and not your actual representative) will know if they should put you down as For or Against. Let them know you are a constituent, which bill(s) you are calling about, what you think, and why. If you have personal experience or expertise, absolutely share it, but keep it brief and to the point. It can be helpful to google your representative to figure out if they agree with you before you call, so you can strike the appropriate tone with your call. Calls of support are a perfectly valid action to take on an issue; if your representative is on your side, it certainly won’t hurt to let them know they are doing a good job representing you.
Here’s what to expect when calling Congress, and some general advice and thoughts from attn. Here are some sample scripts (scroll down to the issues section) from The 65; even though their topics might not coincide with your concerns, these scripts should give you the idea of how to best put together your thoughts. You might also check out Broad Defense to watch a live stream of people calling their representatives to show you how it’s done.
As mentioned above, BillTrack50 will show you what you need to know about legislation and legislators before you call. Your account is free, you just need to register. Use the quick search to look for bills by bill number or keyword, and then click on the bill to read it. You can also use the search box at the top to look for bills or legislators. If you find a bill that is clearly about an issue you care about, but you can’t quite figure out if the bill is good or bad, you can look at the bill sponsors to help you figure out if they are people that you generally agree with. Just click on the sponsor names to see other bills they’ve introduced, which should help you get a general sense. Then read the bill with that leaning in mind. Note you can also see how your representative voted on any bill by consulting the vote tab. For more help getting started with BillTrack50 see this post or this video.