This primer provides the basics for understanding the legislative process so that you can become an effective advocate. In theory, the process of getting a bill through Congress is fairly straightforward. However, the process does not always play out as planned because of (1) the volume of legislation pending before Congress, (2) the system Congress has for distributing its work, and (3) politics.

Legislation is grouped into three main categories:

Authorizing legislation

Authorizing legislation creates a new federal program, extends the life of an existing program, or repeals existing law.  It does not provide funds to operate the program.

Appropriations bill

Appropriations bills allocate funding for specific federal programs.  Each year, Congress must pass 12 appropriations bills to keep federal departments and agencies operating.

Entitlement legislation

Entitlement legislation guarantees a certain level of benefits to persons who meet eligibility requirements set by law.  Entitlement programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid and college student loan programs, typically do not need to be reauthorized, but they often require congressional action to adjust funding levels.

The Role of Individual Members of Congress

Generally speaking, the earlier you get involved in the development of a piece of legislation, the better your chances of having an impact on decision-making. The further along a bill advances in the legislative process, the more difficult it becomes to change or modify. This is especially true now that Congress often groups several issues into one bill.

The first formal step in the legislative process occurs when one or more Members of Congress introduce a bill. But from an advocate's perspective, the work begins much earlier than that. For example, once you have identified an issue or problem that merits special attention, you should identify one or two Members of Congress whose philosophy and voting record indicate that they would be willing to play a leadership role in supporting the issue. In addition, you may want to contact other organizations or advocates who share your interest in the policy or even help to form a coalition yourself. After extensive discussions with the senator or representative and their staff, formal legislation is prepared for introduction. Bills introduced in the House are assigned an "H.R." number (e.g., H.R. 2006) and bills introduced in the Senate are given an "S." number.

To achieve success legislatively, a bill must have broad support from many legislators. Members of Congress may “co-sponsor” the legislation to show their support. Constituents may ask their own senators and representatives to co-sponsor a bill, so that their names are added to the list of bill supporters.

The Importance of the Committee System

Congressional committees are the "workhorses" of Congress. As the number of issues brought before Congress grows, lawmakers increasingly rely on the committee system to sift through the facts and determine how issues should be resolved. Congress is made up of both standing committees and select committees. Generally, standing committees have the power to generate and pass legislation in their particular areas of jurisdiction, such as tax-writing or appropriations. Select committees, such as the Senate Special Committee on Aging, are primarily investigative and advisory in nature, but their members often introduce legislation based on the committee’s work.

Most committees have delegated specific issues under their jurisdiction to subcommittees, whose job is to analyze each issue and eventually make a recommendation to the full committee. In their earliest stages of review, subcommittees welcome input from interested organizations and individuals. At this point, e-mails, letters, and personal visits with members of the subcommittee and their staff can have a significant effect on the panel’s recommendations. In many instances, a subcommittee or full committee will hold public hearings in Washington, D.C., where experts and stakeholders are invited to testify. Hearings and town meetings in the district are also forums for advocacy on your issues.

If your senator or representative is not on the relevant subcommittee, does that mean you have no influence over the outcome? It is true that members of a subcommittee or full committee are regarded as more knowledgeable by their colleagues and, therefore, can wield considerable power in deciding whether or not an issue will be advanced through the legislative process. However, your own senators or representatives, whether or not they are on the subcommittee, often can be effective intermediaries, depending on their personal or political relationships with the subcommittee members.

Floor Action

Once a committee has approved legislation, it becomes eligible for debate on the House and Senate floors, where it may be passed, defeated or amended. The leadership decides which bills come to the floor.  Because floor debates often are scheduled on short notice, you should prepare your messages (e.g., e-mails, phone calls, etc.) well in advance.  However, keep in mind that timing is extremely critical. Any communication about legislation that is coming up for floor debate should arrive as close as possible to the time of the vote.

Conference Action

It is usually the case that the House and Senate pass different versions of the same bill. When that occurs, a handful of members from each chamber are appointed to serve on a conference committee that attempts to work out a compromise. A conference committee usually consists of selected members of the House and Senate subcommittees and full committee that originally developed the legislation. In some instances, conference committees may need to resolve only a few issues; in the case of appropriations bills, there may be several hundred to be reconciled.  

Constituents whose senators or representatives happen to be on a conference committee can play a crucial role in the deliberations. The end product of the meetings is a conference report containing a compromise bill and a section-by-section explanation of the agreed-upon compromise. Once both the House and Senate agree to the conference report, the measure is sent to the President for approval (or veto). It should be noted that in recent years, many of the discussions and compromises on bills passed by the House and Senate have been done less formally and without a conference committee being appointed.