Legislative News Worth Hearing About



One of the most confusing things for new advocates to deal with is the jargon of government. This glossary contains definitions of terms commonly used in the lawmaking process and in advocacy.

Administrative Advocacy: An attempt to influence policies within the executive branch such as agency rulemakings, grant programs, or agency budgets. Also known as "regulatory advocacy."

Advocacy: Speaking out on issues of concern. This can mean something as formal as sitting down and talking to your legislator; as intensive as engaging in efforts to change a change in laws or policies; or as simple as telling your neighbor about the impact of a law.

Amendment: A change to a bill or motion, sometimes replacing the entire bill (called a "substitution"). An amendment is debated and voted on in the same manner as a bill.

Appropriations: Basically, a fancy word for budget. A legislature's appropriations committee will craft a bill that lays out how the government's money should be spent for a given time period (usually a fiscal year), which is then voted on by the legislature and signed into law by the president or governor. Often, these bills are huge, and contain many "riders"

Authorization: Legislation that formally establishes a program or activity and sets its funding limit. Authorizations are often for a limited time, and programs must be periodically "re-authorized," sometimes with changes.

Bill: Legislation drafted for consideration by the legislature. Bills usually must be formally filed with the legislature's clerk and given an identifying number (H.R. 7, for example, is the seventh bill filed in the House of Representatives this session).

Charity: A non-profit organization that is tax exempt under IRS code section 501(c)(3) which derives substantial support from the general public or is a religious, educational, medical or governmental or charitable support institution. Charities must apply for 501(c)(3) status with the IRS.

Committee: A group of legislators that develops legislation on specific topics (veterans" affairs, for example), and has jurisdiction over all legislation that deals with its topic. Generally, legislation must pass in a committee before the entire legislative body can vote on it. Committees often schedule public hearings to discuss legislative issues. Most action takes place at the subcommittee level.

Congressional Record: The official transcript of federal House and Senate proceedings. Often includes statements by members that are added directly into the record, and not fully read on the floor in the interest of time and staying awake.

Conference Committee: The House and Senate appoint members to a conference committee to resolve differences between versions of legislation passed by both bodies. Both chambers then vote the combined legislation, which is called a "conference report."

Continuing Resolution: Legislation passed by both the House and the Senate permitting executive branch agencies to continue operating in the absence of a budget. In past years, several continuing resolutions have been needed before a federal budget was finally passed.

Cosponsor: When a legislator supports a bill, but is not the primary sponsor, they may sign their name onto the bill as a cosponsor to show their support. Legislation can sometimes have hundreds of cosponsors.

Direct Lobbying: To present a case for or against a specific piece of legislation, and to ask a legislator to vote a certain way. While any citizen can lobby his or her legislators, nonprofits have limits on how much money they can spend on lobbying.

District: The geographic area from which a U.S House member or state legislator is elected.

Electoral activities: Activities that directly attempt to influence the outcome of an election. Charities are strictly prohibited from engaging in electoral activities, although other types or nonprofits are not.

Electoral Advocacy: Efforts to educate voters (such as legislative scorecards), or to register or encourage them to vote. These activities cannot include efforts specifically designed to influence the outcome of an election (see Electoral Activities).

Executive Order: An action by the President or a Governor that has the legal authority of a law, often dealing with regulations or the workings of agencies.

Filibuster: Delaying tactic used in the US Senate by the minority in an effort to prevent the passage of a bill or amendment. The Senate's rules allow for unlimited debate in some situations, unless a 2/3 vote to end debate passes. A filibuster results when one or more Senators continue "debating" for as long as possible (sometimes for days).

Grassroots Lobbying: Stating a position on a specific legislative proposal to the public, then asking the public to urge their legislator to support that stated position. Nonprofits are limited in the amount they can spend on grassroots lobbying.

Hearing: A meeting in which evidence to support particular points of view can be presented to a committee. Usually in conjunction with the consideration of a specific bill and can include experts on a specific topic, or members of the public who would be affected by the bill or issue at hand.

House: The lower body of the Congress, and most state legislatures. House members are elected to represent a geographic district. The US House (with 435 voting members and five nonvoting delegates) is much larger than the Senate (with 100 voting members) , as is the case in most states.

Information Advocacy: Activities to either provide, or ensure the provision of, information that can be used to shape policy.

Judicial Advocacy: Working for policy change through the legal system, either by lawsuits, friend of the court briefs, or providing information for legal cases. Also includes efforts to promote a more just an equitable legal system, which may also include legislative advocacy.

Legislative Advocacy: Efforts to change policy through the legislative branch. May include formal lobbying in support or opposition to a bill, the crafting of new legislative language, writing amendments to existing bills, or encouraging others to contact their legislators.

Lobbying: Communication with elected officials or their staff, which expresses a position on a pending piece of legislation.

Mark up: The process of amending a legislative proposal in a committee or subcommittee. Committee members can offer amendments, which if successful, are incorporated into language of a particular bill. Legislation may be drastically changed during mark up.

Majority Leader: The leader of the majority party in the Senate, elected by his or her peers. In the House, the Majority Leader is the second in command after the Speaker of the House and is also elected to that post by his/her peers.

Minority Leader: Leader of the minority party in the House and Senate, elected by members of his or her party.

Omnibus Bill: A bill related to a specific area that covers many issues or topics. Often, the federal budget is an omnibus bill that deals with many agencies' budgets at once.

Public Law: After a bill passes both the House and the Senate and is signed by the president, it becomes a public law.

Regulation: A rule or order that has the force of law that originates from the executive branch (usually from an agency), and deals with the specifics of a program. Congress, for example, may instruct EPA to reduce automotive emissions by 5%, but the EPA must develop regulations to reach this goal.

Rider: An amendment to an appropriations bill, which may not actually deal with the allocation of government funds.

Roll Call: A formal vote on a bill or amendment taken by each legislator announcing "yea" "no" or "present" as their name is read by the clerk.

Senate: The upper body of the Congress, and most state legislatures. Each state has two US Senators, elected at-large, to serve six-year terms, with one-third of the seats up for re-election every two years. In state legislatures, Senators usually represent larger geographic areas than House members.

Speaker of the House: The "leader" of the House of Representatives, elected by the majority party. The speaker controls the calendar and other aspects of the House's activities.

Sponsor: One or more legislators who are the primary writers of a bill. All bills must have at least one sponsor, but many have more than one primary sponsor, and a number of cosponsors as well.

Subcommittee: A part of a committee that deals with a specific issue within the committee's jurisdiction (such as the veterans" benefits subcommittee of the Veteran's Affairs committee). Most legislation is first developed and voted on at this level, as a full committee will usually not consider legislation until it has passed its subcommittee.

Voice Vote: Voting on a bill by acclimation, or asking those in favor to say "yea" and those opposed to say "no." Usually, only non-controversial legislation without any "no" votes is passed this way (such as renaming post offices), but a voice vote will sometimes be taken before a roll call vote.

Whip: Senator or Representative who serves as an internal lobbyist for the Republican or Democratic party to persuade legislators to support their party"s position, and who counts votes for the leadership in advance of floor votes. While the whip is an official position, there may be other members who act as a whip for specific legislation or issues.


Face to Face

Myth: Most Senators and Congressmen won't meet with an unknown citizen.
Fact: Members of Congress are impressed when citizens take time to make a personal visit. Citizens making that effort are more impressive than a herd of Washington lobbyists.

Myth: Travel to Washington is a must to be listened to. Only paid lobbyists can afford the time or the expense - a luxury most citizens do not have.
Fact: Travel to Washington is not necessary as there are other available opportunities. Members of Congress come home weekends. In addition, there are longer designated "work periods" during national holidays. Work days and Town Meetings are normally scheduled during the summer recess. These are held to solicit constituents' views. Sometimes the member of Congress is seeking support for a project he wishes to sponsor. He may even ask for your help.

Myth: Only experts are listened to.
Fact: While it is important to know the substance of an issue (particularly when talking about local or state causes), constituents are not expected to know every fact or every detail of a national piece of legislation. Do your homework. Follow the scouting motto and Be Prepared. If the legislator has questions and you have no ready answer, it is OK to say, "I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to you" --- and be sure you do get back!

Obtaining an Appointment with Members of Congress
Call your legislator's District or Washington office. Ask to speak with the appointment secretary or scheduler.
· Introduce yourself as a constituent living in _____________ .
· Tell the scheduler you wish a meeting to discuss _________________ .
Hint: A single topic is always best.

If an appointment is not possible during an upcoming recess, express your disappointment and immediately request an appointment for the next time the Congressional Member is at home. Telephone appointments are rarely satisfactory.

While it usually is best to meet directly with your legislator, if he or she is unavailable, ask for a scheduled appointment with the legislative staff member that is working with your issue. Legislative aides are usually well informed and as time permits, most helpful.

Hint: A letter confirming your appointment is an excellent follow-up. Include your name, address, phone number, e-mail address and subject to be discussed.
Hint: Ask one or two interested individuals to go along. They can take notes, listen and should be prepared to be a vital part of the discussion.
Hint: Doors fly open when at least one person in the visiting delegation is a constituent from their State or Congressional District. This interest and participation makes an immediate and important impression.

Prior to the Meeting
+ Prepare appropriate fact sheets or other materials to leave with the lawmaker. Place these items in a folder identified with the discussion topic and the date. Add a business card, or prepare an index card containing your name, title, organization, email address and phone number. This information is important for future contacts. Remember that our lawmakers do not have time to wade through a ton of information.
Be brief. Be concise. Be accurate.
+ Establish your message. What do you wish to convey? Is there something you would like the legislator to do? Put your thoughts together ahead of time - write notes.
+ Learn something about the person you are meeting with. (i.e. hobbies, committees they serve on, information discovered on their web site) Talk with staff in a district office.

During the Meeting
+ Be prompt. Members' schedules are tightly packed. It is important to be on time.
+ Be flexible. If interruptions occur during your meeting, be patient.
+ Dress professionally. Don't let your appearance detract from your message or impair your credibility.
+ When appropriate begin with a compliment. Thank the member for his or her time. Express your appreciation for the favorable position he or she recently took on an issue you cared about.
+ Concisely state what issue you want to discuss, what your position is and what action
you would like the member to take.
+ Tell how the issue affects the member's district and state (if relevant). Make it personal. Discuss why you care. Be helpful and willing to share your experiences.
+ Be a good listener. After you make your pitch, allow the member to respond. Answer questions to the best of your ability. If you do not know the answer - admit it. Try to provide the requested information promptly in a follow-up letter.
+ Ask direct questions to which the legislator can respond yes or no.
+ Always thank the member for their time, even if he or she did not agree with you, your position, or agree to do what you asked. Wars were never won in one day.

After the Meeting
+ Write a thank you note.
+ Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper about the meeting, if meaningful.
+ Share information about the meeting with interested groups that work on the same issue.

Tidbits for a Personal Touch Bring Ice Breakers: A plant or seeds of your state flower, or wildflower; flowers from your garden; the organization's calendar or publication; a written invitation to a garden club luncheon meeting or special club event like a dedication.
One legislator changed his position after a passionate presentation - and his favorite cake.
Thoughtful gestures are remembered - especially by that caring staff person that was so helpful.

* Download a pdf copy of  this How To Tip on
Meeting With Members of Congress

How To Series: Understanding Roles of The Congressional Staff

    Each Member of Congress has staff to assist him/her during their term(s) in office. To be most effective in communicating with Congress and a Member's staff, it is helpful to know the titles and principal functions of key staff. Many Members also have Interns that answer the phones and record constituents' positions on legislation before Congress.

    Commonly used titles, job functions and abbreviations:

    Administrative Assistant (AA) or Chief of Staff (CoS): The AA reports directly to the Member of Congress. He/she usually has the overall responsibility for evaluating the political outcomes of various legislative proposals and constituent requests. The AA is usually the person in charge of overall office operations, including the assignment of work and the supervision of key staff.

    Legislative Director (LD), Senior Legislative Assistant (Sr LA), or Legislative Counsel (LC): The LD is usually the staff person who monitors the legislative schedule and makes recommendations regarding the pros and cons of particular issues. In some congressional offices there are several LAs and responsibilities are assigned to staff that has particular expertise in specific areas. For example, depending on the congressional responsibilities and personal interests of the Member, an office may include a Legislative Assistant (LA) for Energy plus an additional LA for Natural Resources and Environmental issues.

    Press Secretary (Press) or Communications Director (Comm Dir or CD): The Press Secretary's responsibility is to build and maintain open and effective lines of communication between the Member, his/her constituency, and the general public. The Press Secretary is expected to know the benefits, demands, and special requirements of both print and electronic media, and how to most effectively promote the Member's views or position on specific issues.

    Appointment Secretary (Appt), Personal Secretary, or Scheduler (Sch): The appointment Secretary is usually responsible for allocating a Member's time among the many demands that arise from congressional responsibilities, staff requirements, and constituent requests. The Appointment Secretary may also be responsible for making necessary travel arrangements, arranging speaking dates, visits to the district or state, etc.

    Caseworker: The Caseworker is the staff members usually assigned to help with constituent requests by preparing replies for the Member's signature. Responsibilities may also include helping resolve problems constituents present in relation to federal agencies. For example, Social Security and Medicare issues, passports, etc. There are often several Caseworkers in a congressional office.

    There are additional titles used in a congressional office that may include: Executive Secretary, Office Manager, and Receptionist. The Directory for the 110th Congress - 1st session Congressional Directory only lists four staff positions which are: CoS, LD, Sch and Press.

    * Download a pdf copy of  this How To Tip on
    Understanding Roles of Congressional Staff

How To Series: Writing to Congress - Elected Officials

We have become so dependent on using convenient e-mail that we tend to no longer use other methods of communication.. With the rise in electronic communication, many special interest groups have used e-mail to bombard elected official with form bulk messages. As such, bulk or blast e-mails, generally have lost their effectiveness with elected officials.

A 2002 survey of Minnesota legislators stated e-mail is effective under certain circumstances. When an e-mail is personally written by a constituent, it can be as effective as sending a letter.

How can we write an effective and powerful letter? Letters and faxes are reported to be the most effective and persuasive way of communicating our views. One letter from a concerned constituent will carry more weight than hundreds of form e-mails. Hand written letters are so rare they are even more effective.

These helpful suggestions will help you write an effective and persuasive letter:

  • Keep your letter short. Limit it to one page and only one issue.
  • Identify yourself and the issue.
    In the first paragraph of your letter state who you are and what issue you are writing about. If you are referring to a specific bill, identify it by number
    (e.g. H.R.1234 or S. 1357) and the name of the bill.
  • Focus on your main points or concerns.
    There may be many reasons you support, or oppose, saving the habitat of the Bald Eagle. Select no more than three of the strongest points and develop them clearly.
  • Make it personal.
    Tell your legislator why the issue matters to you, your family, your community.
    Make a connection to the legislator. Did you attend his/her town meeting?
  • Ask for a reply.
    Include your name and address on both your letter and envelope.
  • Trust yourself.
    Be polite, courteous and confident in your understanding of the issue. It is very possible that the legislator may know less than you.

Thank elected officials when they vote the way you requested.

Addressing Correspondence:

To a Senator: To a Representative:
The Honorable (Full Name) The Honorable (Full Name)
United States Senate United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20510 Washington, DC 20515
Dear Senator: Dear Representative:

Note: When writing to the Chair of a Committee, or the Speaker of the House, it is proper to address them as: Dear Mr. or Madam Chairman, or Dear Mr. or Madam Speaker

* Download a pdf copy of  this How To Tip on Writing to a Member of Congress 

    How To Series: Understanding the Legislative Process
    A simplified version of how a bill becomes a law

    There are two basic types of legislation: bills and resolutions. Anyone may draft a bill; however, only members of Congress can introduce a bill. Bills are used to create public policy.
    There are three types of resolutions - joint, concurrent, and simple - that can be used to appropriate money or express a sentiment of Congress. Constitutional amendments originate in Congress as joint resolutions.

    Bills are assigned an identifying number, are referred to a committee, or committees that have jurisdiction over its subject and is printed by the Government Printing Office. Those in the House begin with H.R., and those in the Senate begin S. All legislation appropriating money must originate in the House.

    Committee Action
    When a bill reaches a committee it is placed on its agenda. It is at this point that a bill is examined carefully and may be sent to a subcommittee. If a committee does not act on a bill, it is the equivalent of killing it. Committees therefore have a great deal of power to decide which bills will receive attention. The more support a bill receives from congressional or committee leadership or from the president, the greater its chances are for getting committee attention.

    Subcommittee Review
    Subcommittees have a more narrow focus than committees.
    There usually are three steps taken: Hearings, Mark Up and Reporting Out.

    • ·Hearings. Expert witnesses, other public officials, supporters and opponents are called to testify and put on the record their views about the merits or shortcomings of the legislation.
    • Mark Up: When all hearings are completed the subcommittee may meet to mark up the bill, that is, make changes and amendments prior to recommending the bill to the full committee. Committee members may offer their own views on a bill and suggest amendments. Amendments do not have to be related to the subject of the overall bill at this stage. If a subcommittee votes not to report the bill dies.
    •  Reporting Out: When the mark up is complete, a final draft of the legislation is voted on for approval. If a majority supports the bill, it is reported out. If the legislation does not receive majority support, the bill dies.

    After a subcommittee reports out legislation, the full committee will go through the same consideration process. If the committee approves a bill, it is reported out to the full House or Senate.

    Publication of a Written Report
    After a committee votes to report a bill, the committee chair instructs the committee staff to prepare a report on the bill. This report describes the intent of the legislation, its impact on existing laws and programs, position of the executive branch, and views of dissenting members.

    Scheduling Floor Action
    After a bill is reported back to the chamber where it originated, it is placed in chronological order on the calendar. In the House there are several different legislative calendars, and the Speaker and majority leader largely determine if, when, and in what order bills come up. There is only one legislative calendar in the Senate.

    When a bill reaches the floor of the House or Senate, there are rules or procedures governing the debate on legislation. In the House, the Rules Committee sets the terms of debate.
    The Senate places fewer restriction and terms of debate are often set by a Unanimous Consent Agreement. These rules determine the conditions and the amount of time allocated for general debate.

    After the debate and the approval of any amendments, the bill is passed or defeated by the members present and voting.

    Referral to Other Chamber
    When a bill is passed by the House or the Senate it is referred to the other chamber where it usually follows the same route through committee and floor action. This chamber may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it, or change it.

    Conference Committee Action
    If only minor changes are made to a bill by the other chamber, it is common for the legislation to go back to the first chamber for concurrence. However, when the actions of the other chamber significantly alter the bill, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions.
    If the conferees are unable to reach agreement, the legislation dies. If agreement is reached, a conference report is prepared describing the committee members' recommendations for changes. Both the House and the Senate must approve the conference report.

    Final Action
    After a bill has been approved by both the House and the Senate in identical form, it is sent to the President. If the President approves of the legislation he/she signs it and it becomes law. Or, the President can take no action for ten days, while Congress is in sessions, and it automatically becomes law. If the President opposes the bill he/she can veto it; or if he/she takes no action after the Congress has adjourned its second session, it is a pocket veto and the legislation dies.

Overriding a Veto
If the President vetoes a bill, Congress may attempt to override the veto.
This requires a two thirds roll call vote of the members who are present in sufficient numbers for a quorum.


  1. Rules and Procedures in State Legislatures may differ from the Congress Chambers.
  2. Members of Congress receive proposed drafts of bills from constituents, academics, interest groups, lobbyists, any state legislature, a department of the executive branch, federal agencies and the President of the United States.
  3. Members of Congress who embrace the concept can introduce it as the sponsor. Or, if they wish to keep some distance from the proposal, can introduce it by request, but having introduced the bill does not mean they are necessarily embracing its ideas.
  4. Members of Congress may seek support by asking other members to sign-on to the proposed legislation and co-sponsor the bill.
  5. Attempts to amend proposed legislation may drastically alter the bill as originally submitted if approved.

    * Download a pdf copy of  this How To Tip on How a Bill Becomes a Law


THOMAS was launched in January of 1995, at the inception of the 104th Congress.

The leadership of the 104th Congress directed the Library of Congress to make federal legislative information freely available to the public.  Since that time THOMAS has expanded the scope of its offerings to include the features and content listed below.·   

.    Bills, Resolutions
·    Activity in Congress
·    Congressional Record
·    Schedules, Calendars
·    Committee Information
·    Presidential nominations
·    Treaties
·    Government Resources
·    For Teachers
·    Help and Contact

THOMAS – Legislative Information on the Internet, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/home/abt_thom.html

What You Can Find on THOMAS
     A provided summary on each THOMAS feature briefly states what information is available.  Accessing each subcategory of the feature will provide a huge amount of information from which you and pick and choose. 
     Novices, or newcomers to surfing (using) THOMAS may want to start their learning process by accessing the feature “Government Resources” which contains basic information and details about the current Congressional House of Representatives and the Senate.

     This home page feature searches the text of legislation for the current Congress by word/phrase or bill number.  This is a “quick and dirty” search for those who do not want the advanced features found on the Advanced Bill Text Search page.  A link, Search Bill Summary & Status, contains information that includes the sponsor(s), the official, short and popular titles, bill summary, a link to the full text, the committees of referral (committee(s) the bill was referred to) and legislative history.

    The link, Yesterday in Congress, provides a list of floor activity for the previous legislative day of the current Congress.  It also provides The Daily Digest, which is a summary of a day’s activities in both chambers of Congress and provides a link to search Congressional Records from the 101st (1989) through the current Congress.

    If interested in learning more about the Congressional Calendars access Days-In-Session Calendars.  The link House Floor This Week provides dates and time of the House session, along with bills that are likely to be passed or expected to receive floor action.  This feature is updated throughout the week when the House is in session.

    Committee Reports from the 104th (1995) through the current Congress can be obtained by accessing Search Committee Reports.  Generally, reports can be searched by word/phrase, report number, bill number and committee.  Fortunately searches can be limited by type of report (House, Senate, Conference, Joint).  Searching only by word or phrase usually produces a huge number of results.


    SEARCH TREATIES provides information from the 90th (1967) through the current Congress.  This feature does not contain the actual text.  The full text of treaties can be searched at GPO (Government Printing Office) Access.

    THOMAS resources for teachers include classroom activities, lesson plans, guides to congressional information and more.


Margo Racca, Chairman
211 Larry Street
Iowa, LA 70647-4003