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Author: Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D.

The Legislative Branch: How does a bill become law?

This will be a very practical and important class on the formulation of legislation and the pathways for its consideration. We will use the Library of Congress's search engine to track legislation, examine committee composition, and explore the Congressional Record.

Quotes of the Day

Tip O’Neill (1912–1994) represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives for 34 years. He was Speaker of the House from 1977 until his retirement in 1987. In this quote, O’Neill describes the advice he is famous for, “all politics is local.” As I read from Speaker O’Neil’s book, I’d like you to imagine what it would be like to be a member of Congress, or any elected official. Hendrick Smith is an acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former New York Times correspondent. His quote is taken from the late 1980s before the advent of e-mail and digital technology. Imagine the sheer volume of messages, letters, and phone calls current Members of Congress receive daily.

“During the campaign, my father had left me to my own devices, but when it was over, he pointed out that I had taken my own neighborhood for granted. He was right: I had received a tremendous vote in the other sections of the city, but I hadn't worked hard enough in my own backyard. ‘Let me tell you something I learned years ago,’ he said, ‘All politics is local.’

It was good advice and I've always adhered to it...You can be the most important congressman in the country, but you had better not forget the people back home. I wish I had a dime for every politician I've known who had to learn that lesson the hard way. I've seen so many good people come to Washington, where they get so worked up over important national issues that they lose the connection to their own constituents. Before they know it, some new guy comes along and sends them packing.”

Speaker Tip O'Neill, Man of the House, 1987, Random House.

“Congress is now drowned in a Niagara of constituent letters and postcards, mostly organized by lobbies and mass-generated by computers. In 1972, mail volume to the House of Representatives was 14.6 million pieces a year. But it jumped by 1985 to more than 225 million pieces--an average of more than half a million pieces a year per member.

Sometimes lobby groups target a particularly sensitive date and a key member of Congress and then truck in mass computerized mail all at once for maximum psychological impact. They literally bury a member in one day's mail....On several occasions, [Speaker] O'Neill's and [Majority Leader] Wright's mail ran 5 million or 6 million pieces in a single day. The record, according to Bob Rota, the House postmaster, came in the summer of 1985 when Speaker O'Neill got 15 to 18 million pieces in one day.

‘Three big trailers rolled up full of mail,’ recalled Rota. ‘Those big trailers, you know, eighteen-wheelers. There was no way we could count it. The freight people weighed it and gave us an estimate of the volume. Those trucks were blocking our whole area up here. We had to find rooms to store the mail and get those trucks out of there. You wouldn't believe the mail the members receive: car keys from people with notes saying, 'Unlock the economy,' pieces of two-by-fours from the homebuilders with the message 'Cut the budget across the board.' One year we had hundreds of thousands of baby chicks from farmers upset about high interest rates.’”

Hendrick Smith, The Power Game, 1988, Random House.

Discussion Questions

As a newly elected member of Congress, and someone who believes in full funding for the United Nations, why might you, despite your personal beliefs, avoid advocating for the U.N. budget? A friend of mine, a state representative here in Massachusetts, told me that if he needs to make a quick trip to the grocery store, he drives outside of his district. Why? Because its impossible for him to go to his local store without one of his constituents stopping him to discuss some public concern. We expect our public officials to be available at all times – for the Senior Center’s spaghetti dinner, to march in the Memorial Day parade, to hand out diplomas at high school graduation, the list goes on and on. In 2005, the annual pay rate for members of the U.S. House of Representatives is about $162,000 Is this fair compensation for the work they do? Would you want the job? Hendrick Smith describes an avalanche of mail coming to Capitol Hill. Have you even written a letter to your Senator or Representative? Do you think these letters make a difference?

Readings:

  • Congressional Quarterly, CQ Guide to Current American Government, 2001.
  • Congressional Research Service, The Committee System in the U.S. Congress, May 2003.
  • Library of Congress. How Our Laws Are Made (http://thomas.loc.gov/home/lawsmade.toc.html), 2003.
  • William Browne. Chap. 1-3, Cultivating Congress: Constituents, Issues, and Interests in Agricultural Policymaking, U.of Kansas Press, 1995.

Links

  • Thomas - Legislative Information on the Internet - http://thomas.loc.gov/
    • Search for bills in the current Congress
    • Click on "Search Bills and Resolutions" to find bills in past Congresses
    • Access Committee Reports for present and past Congresses
  • U.S. Code - all federal laws - http://www4.law.cornell.edu/
    • Search for legislation by Act number and section, or by subject
  • United States Senate - http://www.senate.gov/
    • Find your state Senators
    • Click on "Committees" to jump to individual Senate Committee websites and find who is the Chairman of each Senate Committee
    • See the Senate floor schedule
    • User-friendly, color-coded schedule of active legislation under "Legislation and Records"
    • Peruse Appropriations Bills for FY1997-present
  • United States House of Representatives - http://www.house.gov/
    • Click on "Write Your Representative" to find your district Representative
    • Click on "Committee Offices" to jump to individual House Committee websites and find who is the Chairman of each House Committee
    • Find out what's currently being debated on the House floor
    • Find Committee Hearing schedules
  • On the Issues: "Every Political Leader on Every Issue" - http://www.ontheissues.org/default.htm
    • Click on individual states on a US map to find out who holds seats in the Senate and House from that state, and where the state's politicians stand on key issues
    • Click on "SENATE" or "HOUSE" tabs (at the top of the page right below the advertisement) to read about Congressional representatives' views on issues
    • Click on the "QUIZZES" tab to take a quiz and find out which politicians (and celebrities!) your views most closely align with
  • Congress Merge - http://www.congressmerge.com
    • "Congressional Schedule" shows current schedule for House and Senate
  • C-SPAN - http://www.c-span.org/
    • Watch and listen to the floor of the House and Senate proceedings, and selected Congressional hearings.
  • Congressional Record - http://www.gpoaccess.gov/crecord/
    • It's like CSPAN on paper (But better because it's searchable!)
  • Library of Congress guide to law in Massachusetts - http://www.loc.gov/law/guide/us-ma.html
    • Includes info on MA Constitution, and Executive, Judicial, & Legislative branches
  • The General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts - http://www.mass.gov/legis/
    • Find Massachusetts bills introduced into State House or Senate under "Current Legislation"
    • Find Massachusetts laws under "Laws".
  • Law topic dictionary (Cornell University) - http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/topic1.html
    • Myriad topics listed alphabetically. Click on any to find out what it means in "law" terms.
  • The National Agricultural Law Center (University of Arkansas) - http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/
    • Legal perspectives on current issues, summaries of recent cases, Federal Register notices and Rules, USDA Judicial officer decisions
    • Full text and resources for all US Farm Bills 1933-present
    • Links to agricultural law on the Hill
  • The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture - http://www2.nasda.org/NASDA/
  • The National Conference of State Legislatures - http://www.ncsl.org/
  • The National Governors Association - http://www.nga.org/