The first step to staying informed is to keep up-to-date with congressional actions including introduced legislation, votes, and committee hearings. While news stories relate the impact of certain bills, we often learn of damaging legislation after it has passed the House, the Senate, or both. If we’re tracking legislation, we have the opportunity potentially influence its passing (or not). Already this session the 115th Congress has introduced several bills that are alarming.Due to the GOP-led Congress and Executive Branch, the minority congressional members don’t have enough votes to block harmful legislation. Unless we, the constituents, speak up – repeatedly – to sway GOP congressional members, we don’t have a shot at blocking harmful legislation.
Information about legislation is publicly available from the sources listed below. It may take some patience to maneuver the .gov sites and read about the legislation, this is our opportunity to read about bills from their source – our legislative bodies.
The Constitution – where the Legislative Branch gets its authority to enact laws & other powers
The executive, legislative, and judicial branches receive their authority and power under different articles of the Constitution. The Constitution consists of a Preamble (“we the people…”), seven articles, and amendments. The first ten amendments are collectively known as the Bill of Rights. There are currently 27 amendments to the Constitution. More information on the Constitution can be found through the National Constitution Center’s website.
Presidential Executive Orders
Click here to read presidential Executive Orders (as provided by the White House). While not legislation, folks may find having a link to the 45th president’s Executive Orders handy. Published by the White House. Use this White House link to view of the legislation that pending, signed, and vetoed by the president.
Finding Federal Legislation
The Congress.gov site provides legislative information and updates for both the Senate and the House of Representatives and posts committee hearing and vote schedules. This is a go-to site to bookmark. For regular citizens, the Congress.Gov site is an invaluable tool to educate ourselves on legislation and to track not only a bill’s progress, but also how our congressional members voted. From the main page, can search for legislation by congressional sponsor or search this session’s introduced legislation. From this site you check in on the floor activities and also watch videos of the proceedings (unless the black out is in effect and then, well, we’re blacked out and will need to read about it later). “Yesterday in Congress” provides easy access to legislation introduced, reported, passed, and considered by the full House or Senate each legislative day.
- See active Senate bills
- See active House of Representatives bills
Use GovTrack.us to track legislation as a companion to the above sites. Using this link, you can sign up for email updates on legislation. More on GovTrack below.
Senate and House Proceedings: Committees, Schedule, & Live Feeds
Below are links Congress’ committees, schedules, and live feeds of floor proceedings. Knowing what bill is in what committee is critical – we shouldn’t wait to contact elected officials until a bill is headed to the floor for a vote. ANY citizen can contact committee members to lobby for/against a bill. Below are useful links to the committees and downloadable call sheets for the congressional committees.
There is nothing, in my opinion, more inspiring than watching democracy live, watching our elected officials debate issues. It may sound boring, but it is a very good educational experience. See the Helpful Tools & Apps page for a phone app to get alerts and information on the Congressional committees.
Information on Senate Committees
Senate Committees lists with member and committee contact information (click and download) *under construction*
WATCH Senate Floor Proceedings – LIVE (when in session). Previous sessions’ recordings also available.
US House of Representatives
US House Committees (pull down menu)
Alphabetical list of all 435 HoR members and the committees they sit on
US House hearing schedule
WATCH House of Representatives Proceedings – LIVE (when in session). Previous sessions’ recordings also available.
House Committees lists with member and committee contact information (click and download).
How to Comment on the Rule Making Process (Regulations)
under construction Once a law is passed, typically, regulations are needed. At the federal level, regulations are called rulings and proposed rulings are posted on federal agencies/department websites. This article provides helpful information for folks unfamiliar with the rule making process.
Find State Legislation
Let’s not forget about state legislatures. Information on individual State House legislation can be found here or click on the map to be re-directed. Most state legislatures have video streaming available for constituents to watch floor proceedings and floor schedules are published daily.
We’re all getting a valuable civics lesson on states’ rights vs. federal rights these days. Several Governors including those from California, Oregon, Washington, and Virginia are speaking up and pushing back against the new administration; their state legislatures are following suit. As an example, the California state legislature’s Democrats currently have a super-majority in both houses. Immediately following the election, the leaders of the CA legislature posted a joint statement that renewed the states’ right to push back. May it serve as an example for other states. Engaging your elected state legislatures is critical to ensure state laws do not negatively impact its citizens. Several states have introduced legislation criminalizing protesting and demonstrating. More now than ever, we need to engage at all levels from City Hall to Congress.
You’ve Found the Legislation, Now What?
If you’re not familiar with the legislative process, skip below to download a quick overview PowerPoint Presentation (prepared by Dinner at the Grange) or watch a short, 5-minute video on the process (from the Congress.gov site).
1. Reading and tracking legislation is not as difficult as may you might think.
Sure, it sounds daunting and the gov sites aren’t the most user-friendly, however, it’s rather straightforward to find legislation. Go to the sites (listed above) and check for new legislation (sort by most recent or popular), or search by keyword. Find the legislation, identify its number, and which committee (or subcommittee) to which it has been assigned. Find the subcommittee and identify which congressional members sit on the committee. ANY citizen can contact ANY congressional committee member, regardless if you are one of their constituents and lobby for or against a bill. That’s what professional lobbyists do – and so can you.
2. Call your Congressional member and ask their position on a specific piece of information.
If you’re wondering how your congressional members may be leaning on a specific piece of legislation you can do two things. 1) check their official website & their social media site(s) and see if they’ve taken a position on the bill. They may have already posted a statement. 2) Call their District office and ask. You’ve got nothing to lose by asking. You may have a lot to lose if you remain silent. If their position doesn’t reflect your own, tell them why and ask for the congressional member to reconsider their position based on your position. Remember to add you’re a voting constituent and personal accounts as to why a piece of legislation will affect you is important.
3. If bill analysis are available, they are worth reading.
Aside from giving a good summary of what the bill will do, bill analyses provide any budget/fiscal impacts the legislation may have, and may list the organizations that have officially lobbied for or against the legislation.
4. Most likely some organization has published information about the bill.
Read that information with the understanding that their viewpoint is not a bill analysis and it is most likely biased – they’ve got an opinion and agenda about what the bill is and what it will or will not do.
5. The best companion site to the Congress.gov site is GovTrack.us
This site is an alternative to the Congress.gov site and provides helpful, supplemental information. Since the inauguration, the dot gov sites have been available intermittently and it’s good to have a back up. Follow them on social media sites or sign-up for email updates/alerts.
From the site: GovTrack.us tracks the United States Congress and helps Americans understand what is going on in their national legislature. We publish the status of federal legislation and information about your representative and senators in Congress. Use GovTrack to track bills for updates or get alerts. We also go beyond the official record with statistical analyses, bill summaries, and other tools to put information in context. GovTrack was the first to create open data about Congress (see the developer docs), and we have successfully lobbied Congress to make more and better legislative information available to the public.
A Quick Overview of the Legislative Process
To be effective communicators with our elected officials as to why we do or do not like a specific piece of legislation (or an amendment to it), we need to know the process. For most of us, the legislative process is a fuzzy, distant high school civics memory but we’ve retained the jist of it.
Friends recently asked me to give a U.S. civics’ overview/refresher presentation. I am not an expert on federal legislative affairs (I’m a scientist!) but given my background and personal interest, I was happy to help. Turns out the group really liked it, so thought I’d provide it for others to watch – Dinner at the Grange’s U.S. Civics’ Overview PowerPoint presentation. The link takes you to DropBox where the presentation may be downloaded. It is a brief, basic refresher of the U.S. Constitution, checks and balances between our three branches of government, and focuses on how bills become law – with tips on how folks can get involved to lobby for (or against) a bill.
The video below is informative (but brief) overview of the federal legislative process. It is also from the Congress.gov site. Understanding the general terms and process will help when reading, tracking, and discussing bills with others including congressional members and their staff.