The 6 Most Important Names to Know in Policymaking

Six photos of presidential pets.
The 6 Most Important Names: Top left: Willow, the Biden's cat; Barney, the W. Bush's Scottish Terrier. Center: Socks, the Clinton's cat, Bottom left: Rebecca, the Coolidge's raccoon; Bo, the Obama's Portuguese Water Dog; Vicky, the Nixon's French poodle, lounging as the President chats with Henry Kissinger.

Six has long been a significant number for human beings.

Six Flags. Six-packs. Six degrees of Kevin Bacon. That Bruce Willis movie The Sixth Sense.

So it is only fitting that there are six key names to know in policymaking.

  1. Your city/town councilor
  2. Your state representative
  3. Your state senator
  4. Your U.S. Congressperson
  5. Your U.S. Senator
  6. Your other U.S. Senator
For my friends in Nebraska with a unicameral legislature, it's just five key names to know. And now let me speak to the significance of the number five in the history of humans: Five senses, five basic tastes, the Jackson 5...

One of democracy's defining beauties is that we get to have a say in how we're governed. Our legislators are our most direct voice in that process. Which makes knowing their names useful.

If we don't have a clue who they are, no hairshirts or shame needed. This is the day we get to fill in those blanks.

Federal Legislators
Find out who they are here. And let's take a moment right now to learn a quick bit about them.

U.S. Senators
These are some of the biggest fish in the Congressional sea because they represent whole states and serve long terms and have dress codes.

  • How many Senators does your state have?
  • How long is your Senator's term?
  • How do you address your Senator?
  • Can your Senator wear Air Jordans?


  • Your state - and every other state - has two Senators, bringing the Senate to a grand total of 100 members.
  • Senators serve for six years.
  • You address a Senator as - wait for it - Senator. You do not need to curtsy (much though they may like it).
  • In the dress code laid out in the SHORTS Act (SHow Our Respect To the Senate Act...and somewhere, the creator of the acronym is wishing the United States Senate never got ahold of the idea), footwear is not specified. Ergo, your Senator appears to be allowed to wear Air Jordans on the Senate floor.

U.S. House Members
Across Capitol Hill from the Senate sits the 435 Member-strong zoo known as the Animal House People's House.

  • How many people does your House Member represent?
  • How long does your House Member serve for?
  • How do you address your House Member?
  • Which member of the House is 2nd in line to the presidency?


  • Your - and every - House Member represents about 750,000 people.
  • Every House Member serves two-year terms.
  • You address a House Member in a few ways: Congresswoman/man/person or Representative. "Greetings Meathead!" while perhaps accurate, would likely not get your email answered.
  • The Speaker of the House is second in line to the presidency. (Just noting that the Senate Majority Leader isn't even in the line of succession. Take that, Upper Chamber.)

State Legislators
Pop over here to find out who they are. And that alone is a major power move. Only 20% of Americans can name their state legislators, so you've just entered into some rarefied air.

There's so much variation from statehouse to statehouse (and that's federalism, folks!), but a few general constants:

  • Less is more: State Reps have fewer constituents, so there are more of them. State senators have more constituents, so there are fewer of them.
  • Now this is gonna really knock your socks off. You address a state Senator as "Senator" and a state Representative as "Representative."
  • Most state legislators are part-time. Why not find out if yours is?

City/Town Councilors
Your councilor should be listed on your town/city's website. If it's not readily clear which is yours, give the town clerk a jingle; they administer elections and should be able to easily look up your district.

Local elected office is often non-partisan; the old chestnut goes, "There aren't Republican potholes or Democratic potholes. There are potholes." That said, if you take a few moments, you can usually read between the lines to see if someone leans more elephant or donkey.

Your council may have at-large councilors, who represent the whole dang town, or district councilors, who represent one part of town. Or both. And there's a grim history to this.

Back in the 20th century, at-large districts were the norm for towns over 10,000. But this form of representation effectively canceled out the voting muscle of communities of color that were concentrated in particular neighborhoods. Following the Voting Rights Act and subsequent court rulings, many municipalities shifted from at-large representation to district representation or a combo of the two.

So it's great to know who the Speaker of the U.S. House is or the Secretary of State. But the most important names to know, besides all the Presidential pets, are the six folks whose primary job is to be our voice in shaping our democracy.

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