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Effective Advocacy: What City Officials Need to Know About How Congress Works

Eve O’Toole is the League’s legislative representative in Washington, D.C., and principal of MARC Associates. Yvonne Hunter is a legislative representative for the League in Sacramento.


As cities pursue opportunities on the federal level, understanding the nuances and differences between the federal and state legislative processes is key to advancing your objectives with your federal elected officials. Although the basic process is similar, there are significant differences.
 
In theory, a member of Congress introduces a bill. If both houses approve it, then the bill is sent to the president to be signed into law. In practical terms, it’s not that simple. The main differences between the federal and state processes are on the bill’s journey to passage.
Congress convenes each year in early January, which initiates the federal process that allows members of the House of Representatives and the Senate to introduce legislation. Thousands of bills are introduced in Congress every year.
 
To Be Heard or Not?
After a bill is introduced, it is then referred to the appropriate committee that has jurisdiction over the area affected by the measure. But unlike in the California Legislature, not every congressional bill that is introduced in the House and Senate is heard in a committee. In fact, a large majority of bills are never heard in committee. Generally, bills that are heard address a priority issue of the House or Senate leadership, or of individuals who chair a House or Senate committee or subcommittee. Those in power wield a significant amount of influence over which legislation has the potential to become law.
Congress considers a large number of bills. Between Jan. 4 and Oct. 31, 2005, the Senate introduced 2,313 measures and passed 452, and the House introduced 5,064 and passed 523.
 
Hearings and Mark-Up Sessions
For the few bills that are heard, the first step is usually a hearing, which is tightly orchestrated; testimony is by invitation only from the committee. This is very different from the California legislative process, where virtually anyone can testify at a committee hearing.
After hearings in Washington, D.C., bills usually go through a mark-up session. During this time, amendments that can change the bill’s meaning can be offered by committee members. After mark-up is completed, committee members vote to accept or reject these changes. This process can take place at either the subcommittee or full committee level, or both. Take note: The fact that a bill has a public hearing does not ensure that it will have a subsequent mark-up session. Again, the process of amending bills differs significantly between Congress and the California Legislature.
 
The Importance of Committee Reports
At the end of the mark-up session, if committee members approve and report the bill out of the committee, a committee report is formulated. This report describes the bill and the committee’s reasons for specific provisions in the legislation. The report is significant because it is widely used to determine the bill’s intent and meaning. Once approved by the committee, the bill goes to the floor of either the House or Senate for a vote. Under certain circumstances, bills have bypassed the committee process and been brought to the floor directly. For this very reason, it’s crucial for city officials to closely track bills of interest — the process can be very fluid. The League’s Priority Focus newsletter provides regular updates on the progress of bills, both federal and state, that directly impact cities. It also provides resources that make it easier to communicate with your elected representatives on key bills. Information about federal issues is also regularly posted at www.cacities.org on the Issues and Legislation page; click on “Federal Priorities.”
 
Consideration, Rules and Conferencing
Floor consideration differs somewhat in the House and Senate; consideration of a bill in the House may be governed by a “rule.” Such a rule, which is put together by the Rules Committee and must be passed by the House first, sets out the specifics for debate on a bill. This includes, for example, how much time will be allowed for debate and, perhaps most importantly, whether amendments can be offered to a bill and which ones specifically will be heard.
After a bill is approved, it goes to the other house for consideration. In order for a bill to be presented to the president for his signature, it must pass both bodies in the same form. So if a measure is approved by the House and Senate but is not identical, it must go through a process of reconciling differences between conflicting House and Senate versions. Usually a conference committee is appointed by leadership and includes members from the House and Senate to resolve differences. Members appointed to a conference committee, known as conferees, generally are also members of the committee(s) that had jurisdiction over the area that the bill addresses. This has become an increasingly contentious process and a place where major decision-making is made, as the two chambers have not seen eye-to-eye on priorities. Often, conference committee staff do what is called “pre-conferencing” to try to work through as many differences as possible, leaving the major differences for the members, who have to iron out a final agreement on those items.
After the bill has been conferenced, both the House and Senate again consider the bill for final passage. If it is approved by both houses, the bill is then sent to the president.
 
The President’s Options
The president has three choices of action on a bill.
  1. If he signs the bill, it becomes law.
  2. If he does not sign the bill within 10 working days after receiving it, it automatically becomes law as long as Congress is in session. The president can “pocket veto” the bill when Congress adjourns before the 10 days are up. The pocket veto occurs only when Congress is adjourning at the end of its biennial session (at the end of the two sessions that make up each Congress), not during the interim recess (at the end of Congress’s first session).
  3. The president’s third option is to veto the bill. A two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate is required to overturn a presidential veto. This session so far has seen no vetoes.
Once a bill becomes law, the Executive Branch, through its federal agencies or departments, is responsible for developing regulations to implement a new law. This is where a committee report can be key — it helps to guide the agency that is affected by the law in designing important rules for implementation.
 
How You Can Have an Impact
Clearly, there are many variables in the federal process. However, there are several ways for cities to effect change on the federal level — from subcommittee and full committee mark-ups to floor consideration where amendments may be offered, to the pre-conference and conference committee process. Letters, phone calls and in-person visits to members and their staff are key ways to make contact and communicate your city’s perspective on an issue.
Given the busy schedules of members and staff, it is essential that cities follow these guidelines in their contacts with members and staff:
  • Be focused. Concentrate on your top priorities and present them in order
    of importance.
  • Be prepared. Do your homework. Be ready to explain how your city is specifically impacted by a particular measure.
  • Be brief. Boil it down to the essential points for members and staff.
  • Be targeted. Make sure you’re sending letters and making phone calls and in-person visits at strategic times during the federal process.
For issues that are League priorities, be sure to check the League’s online Advocacy Center (www.cacities.org/advocacycenter) for sample letters and talking points. The National League of Cities also regularly posts information about federal issues affecting cities at www.nlc.org.
In conclusion, while there are similarities between how the California Legislature and Congress work, there are distinct differences that city officials should be aware of in order to be effective. For more information on how the California Legislature works, please see Navigating the Legislative Process, available on the League website at www.cacities.org.
 
Top Five Things to Remember When Advocating in Washington, D.C.
  1.  If your senator or representative is a ranking minority member (meaning he or she is the most senior member of the minority party) and sits on or chairs a key committee, it is especially important that you contact them when requested by the League. Bear in mind that members of Congress listen to people in their district and it is important that they hear from you. This is no different than in the California Legislature.
  2. If you write a letter, be sure to note the issue or bill number and the action you wish to convey (support, oppose or request amendment) at the top of the letter.
  3. If you are invited to testify at a committee hearing, be sure to seek guidance from the League or the National League of Cities.
  4. When visiting your member of Congress in D.C. or in their district, be prepared to discuss the League’s top federal priority issues.
  5. State how a particular issue will impact your city. Be factual. Don’t exaggerate, but don’t miss an opportunity to make the case for your city.