If You Want to Get a Bill Passed

Picture of President Roosevelt captioned, "President Roosevelt Signing an Important Bill."
President Roosevelt signs an unnamed but nevertheless Important Bill. Courtesy Mike Steele

A seasoned driver in Delhi once told me that to drive in that city, you need three things: A good horn, good breaks, and good luck.

Getting a bill passed isn't so different. You need some attention on it (horn), some patience (breaks), and good luck for miles.

Given all the air time our compadres in Congress get, you'd think they'd be busy as a diner griddle on Saturday morning. And yet talking about policy to the media does not equate to making policy for the American people.

Congress passes 2% of bills, so a great many state legislatures are picking up the slack. And that, dear reader, is where we'll focus.

Most state legislatures are part-time, so it's possible that your legislature isn't up and running at the moment. Click here to find out!

No matter the issue we care about, the state legislature probably has a bill, or 27, on it. Today, we'll figure out how we can get a bill chugging down those legislative tracks.

But first, a word from the great Zen Buddhist teacher Suzuki Roshi: "The most important thing is to remember the most important thing."

For we who want to change policy, the most important thing is this: Everything in our interaction with a policymaker signals to them if they can trust us or not.

  • When we reach out signals if we understand the legislative calendar: are we emailing during the thick of session, say, when they have zippo time.
  • What we ask for signals if we understand process: asking a rank and file legislator to get a bill to the floor when it hasn't passed out of Committee shows we don't quite get legislative process or who controls the floor (leadership).
  • How we ask signals if we know our stuff or are a legislative lightweight who can't be that helpful.

The more we show a legislator we understand the political reality they're operating in, the more likely they'll trust us and share insights about how we can get this bill we both care about across the finish line.

Step One to Passing a Bill: Find the bill we want to pass.

This should be pretty straightforward, right? Let me invite you into the Wonderful World of State Legislatures' Websites, a world that makes a papyrus scroll look cutting edge.

State legislatures are often hesitant to spend money on themselves for fear of blowback ("Legislature Spends Your Tax Dollars on Plush New Carpets!"). So the legislature's web presence is rarely spiffy or modern, making bill searches a great teaching in patience.

But the upshot is that the more we fumble around on that clunker of a website, the more we learn how to navigate it and make it work for us.

Step Two: Identify where the bill is in the legislative process.

There's lots of nuance, but here's the quick and dirty of how a bill becomes a law:

  • Bill is introduced
  • Bill's referred to the Committee/s of jurisdiction
  • The Committee takes action (hearing, markup, work session, or otherwise)
  • Floor action (bill gets a floor vote)
  • Referred to the other chamber (every state legislature save for Nebraska is bicameral) where it likely goes through the same process
  • Governor signs it into law

Precious few bills make it through that process (why that is here). We want to see what step the bill is on; that determines what needs to happen to get it to the next step.

Step Three: Identify the bill's sponsor + cosponsors.

The bill's sponsor is the legislator who introduced the bill, the bill's #1 Champ. Bill cosponsors are legislators who support the bill. Check to see if your legislators are either. (Don't know who your state legislators are? Find out this very minute!)

Sometimes, the more cosponsors, the more popular the bill, the more likely to become law. Sometimes.

To briefly dip back into Congress, the Assault Weapons Ban has 206 cosponsors in the U.S. House; that's nearly half of the chamber. But all those cosponsors are Dems and the House is controlled by the GOP who will pass that bill when Elvis is found to be alive, well, and running a small, but thriving blue suede shoe store in Tupelo.

Step Four: Send a friendly note to the bill sponsor/cosponsors at the right time.

If the sponsor or any cosponsors are our legislator, reach out to them. If none of them are, reach out to the sponsor.

Also send a friendly note to your legislators, making clear you're a constituent, and asking them to cosponsor the bill. If it's a House bill, only ask the House Rep, don't ask your Senator and vice versa if it's a Senate bill.

And in a friendly way (we're building the world we want to live in in the building of it), we want to say something to the tune of, "Thank you for introducing X; I care about this because of Y! I've encouraged my legislator, insert legislator's name, to support this bill. I know it's insert stage of legislative process, and I would love to help move it to the next stage by..." Then offer a few things we could do, like:

  • Testify or submit written testimony on the bill (this is if the bill hasn't had a Committee hearing yet).
  • Write a well-placed op-ed supporting the bill.
  • Encourage folks in key districts to ask their legislators to become cosponsors.
  • Or just plain old, "How can I be helpful here?"

I also add: "I know you must be busy; do let me know if there's a staffer I should be in touch with instead." This unburdens the legislator, and the staffer might be able to share intel about the bill's path forward. But note: House Members in part-time legislatures might not have any staffers working with them or they may share an overworked staffer with several other members.

If they do connect you with a staffer, it's fabulous to give that staffer a big thanks. They are the unsung pillars of democracy and its loving and lovely to acknowledge them.

When to reach out: Check the legislature's calendar to see what days they are in session (meaning members are at the statehouse voting - aka, busy bees) and reach out on a day they aren't in session. The closer they are to the end of session, the busier they'll be.

Step Five: Friendly follow up.

If we don't hear anything back, send a friendly note two weeks later when they aren't in session. If this is a part-time legislature, these are part-time legislators making part-time salaries who may hold down another job, be raising kids, juggling life. I lead with, "I can imagine your inbox is more than full and I just wanted to circle back about bill X and how I can be helpful."

The nice thing about working with a staffer is they are likely full time (when the legislature is in session), so they may be easier to reach.

If we do hear back, let's follow up as quickly as possible. This is part of building trust with a legislator and showing that we're true to our word, which makes it more likely they'll share useful intel with us.

Step Six: Keep the faith. And keep on top of the bill.

Likely, the legislator won't have time to keep us posted on the bill's latest. If a staffer's involved, they can. But good to track it ourselves. If it's a higher profile bill, check if any of the statehouse reporters - there are sadly very few these days - are covering it. If not, we resort to our old friend, the legislature's website.

But say we do all of the above and the bill doesn't even move out of Committee. That good luck wasn't on our side...yet! All is not lost.

We learned a ton about how the policy process does and doesn't work. We were friendly along the way, so we have plenty of unburned bridges behind us that we can walk over next legislative session. And we can share all we've learned with goodhearted pals who'd like to help build the world they want to live in.

Policy change is more tortoise than hair. But it does change. That's why we have seatbelts and child-safe pill bottle caps, air traffic control and protections for animals involved in research. And so much more.

Our work is to bring the good horns and the good breaks, which helps create the good luck.

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