A Key Policy Power Marker

Then-Senator Obama's door sign outside his Senate office.
Way back when.

While it is true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, it is less true that a House Speaker by any other name would control as much.

Legislatures the land over just love their titles. And too often, good folks unwittingly misaddress legislators, an immediate flag to the legislator that this person doesn't really get the landscape. Since everything we do with a legislator signals if they can trust us or not, getting their title right is key.

So let's take a stroll through some common titles and what the people holding them can do for us.

Member of Congress/Representative/Congresswoman/man/person: One position, so many names.

These are the creatures who populate the House of Representatives. There are 435 of them, each representing about 700,000 people. I've got a Representative and you do, too! (You get a Rep! And you get a Rep! And you get a Rep!) And we address them as "Representative" or "Congressman/woman/person."

If there's a bill we want them to cosponsor, H.R. are the magic initials – as in H.R. 1319, the Biking on Long-Distance Trails Act. H.R., standing for House of Representatives, is a bill that originated in the House. Representatives can't vote for bills beginning with S., those are Senate bills. There are complicated exceptions, but this is a good rule of thumb.

If we ever have an issue with a federal program - visas, passports, Social Security, immigration, find yourself overseas needing assistance, etc. - our Representatives have caseworkers to help. Either fill out a form on their website, or just give'em a buzz.

Representatives are also referred to - though not addressed - as Members of Congress. Which sounds like it should include Senators too, doesn't it?

But it does not. While Senators are technically members of Congress, they will not be referred to as such. And that, folks, is the United States Senate for you.

Years ago, I was in a meeting with a bipartisan bunch of House Members who were lamenting Congress stalemating, and one Congressman from the majority said, "The problem isn't the minority. The problem is the Senate."

That problem, also known as Congress's upper chamber, can be found just across the U.S. Capitol grounds from the House. And it is populated by...

Senators: There are only 100 of this rare bird around the whole country. And this rarity gives them a bit more star power - and far bigger office space - than Representatives.

There are two Senators per state, meaning you and I each have two Senators.

For those keeping score, that means we have THREE voices in D.C.: our Representative and two Senators.

Senators can generally only cosponsor bills starting with S. They also do the aforementioned constituent services. I usually start with my Rep, since they have fewer constituents and likely fewer constituent requests.

If you reach out to your Rep and don't get anywhere, try one of your Senators. I'd start with the one who has the most seniority (by years served in the Senate, not years alive on the planet). They may have a little more heft with federal agencies.

If you want to support/oppose a U.S. Supreme Court nominee or cabinet secretary (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, etc.), knock on your Senators' doors. Representatives have no say over those nominations.

Senators are referred to as one thing and one thing only: Senator.

Though evidently Senator Brian Schatz called Senator Joe Manchin "your highness" because of the latter's penchant for being a holdout vote.

Now to the state legislature side of things. And what I'll say is generally true, but with 50 state legislatures, they've all got their unique quirks.

Representative/Assembly Member/Delegate: Every state legislature save for Nebraska has a lower chamber, usually called the House of Representatives.

Here are the exceptions to the House of Representatives: California State Assembly, Maryland House of Delegates, Nevada State Assembly, New Jersey General Assembly, New York State Assembly, Virginia House of Delegates, West Virginia House of Delegates, Wisconsin State Assembly.

Assembly Members are usually addressed as "Assemblymember/man/woman" and Members of Delegates are usually addressed as "Delegate."

Like in Congress, Representatives have fewer constituents than their state Senate counterparts. They are addressed as "Representative." And they can typically only cosponsor bills that originate in their chamber.

Bill initials vary from state to state. Our compadres in New Hampshire, Montana, and New Mexico use HB (House Bill) and SB. For our succinct friends in Vermont, it's simply H. and S. In Maine, we have joint Committees made up of Representatives and Senators, and just one set of bill initials: LD (legislative document). A quick sniff around your legislature's website should set you straight.

State Senators: Every state legislature minus Nebraska has an upper chamber called the Senate. And they are filled with Senators who are addressed as - wait for it - "Senator."

Like in Congress, there are fewer state Senators than Representatives, those Senators represent more constituents, and they can typically only cosponsor bills that originate in their chamber.

Taking a step back, only 20% of Americans can name their state legislators. Knowing yours puts you in rarified policy air. In fact, I'm a big fan of meeting them, if you're able, and having their contact info in your phone.

Here in Maine, we just had an ice storm royale with big power outages. I told my Rep - who I'd made a point of meeting a few times - in the morning. He flagged my address for the power company and our electricity was humming that afternoon. It certainly wasn't just because I pinged my Rep, but it certainly can't hurt.

And it doesn't just have to be power outages. It could be any state issue: the highway near your house, Medicaid, public transportation, the DMV. Give those legislators a jingle! If they aren't the right person, they'll find out who is.

Here's the bottom line as I see it: titles are power markers. And the more we understand these titles, the more we understand what powers they confer and what we can ask of those who hold them.

Subscribe to Policy Is For Lovers

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.