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Lessons from The Hill: Maximizing Your Voice in a Democracy

This is the first entry of a three-part series on lessons from interning on Capitol Hill. The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the office for which I worked.

This semester, I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for a Member of Congress. I’ve learned so much from this experience—from the depth and breadth of the legislative branch to interview skills for jobs within the government—and I thought that it would be a disservice if I don’t share these lessons with others.

In this post, I want to share the ways in which I’ve learned how to maximize our voice and participation in our democratic government. We all know that democracy isn’t a spectator sport, but our participation doesn’t–and shouldn’t–stop at the voting booths or getting people there. There are so many resources out there that are free and available, but for some reason, aren’t public knowledge. And the fact that we don’t know or use these resources, and instead rely on headlines and/or posts on social media for information, makes us susceptible to politicized news that may or may not give us the full picture of what’s happening.

As an intern, one of my daily tasks was to conduct research for the legislative team on everything Congress-related. In supporting the Legislative Correspondent, I conducted extensive research on particular bills that constituents write to the Member of Congress about before drafting a response to them (constituent work is a major part of our work and office culture). In supporting the Legislative Assistant, I’ve done research to support an amendment introduced in the Rules Committee. Finally, I was usually the first person that individuals come in contact with over the phone in the office.

Below, I share some tips and resources on how to get in touch with your elected officials, find information on past, present, or future bills, and keep up with Hill happenings. I hope that these resources will help you become a more informed citizen.

Write to your elected officials

How many of you know who your elected officials are?

If you don’t, you aren’t alone. Only 37% of Americans can name their Representative; 77% can’t name a Senator from their home state; and only 26% of Americans can name all three branches of government.

Womp womp.

Okay, I recognize that these numbers may be old (the articles were published in 2015 and 2017), but still! These numbers are telling of how ill-informed we are as a nation about our own government. And that’s pretty sad.

Let’s start with the basics:

  • The legislative branch of government is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Together, these Chambers make up Congress. This is where national bills are made!
  • There are 435 Representatives that represent districts across the country, who are elected every 2 years.
  • There are 50 Senators that represent states across the country, who are elected every 6 years.

Since there are so many Representatives, don’t feel bad if you don’t know your own. Chances are, you have a new one! And it’s easy to find out who they are.

Find your Representative on house.gov

Write your zip code on the right hand side under “Find Your Representative” — voilà!

Find your Senators on senate.gov

What can you do with this information, besides winning a trivia question on Civics and not being a part of an embarrassing statistic? A lot, actually!

Let’s say you are an educator who is enraged at the large amounts of budget cuts proposed for education (hi, Betsy DeVos). You know who’s in charge of approving the national budget? Your elected officials! Call their office(s) and voice your opinion. Be sure to include the following information when calling (if you forget, they will ask anyway so don’t worry):

  • First & last name
  • Full address (particularly your zip code)
  • Email address, if you prefer emails to snail mail

Your voice will be heard–take it from someone who takes calls and mail from constituents and logs them daily for a Member of Congress.

If you’re ever visiting Washington, DC, you can call your elected official’s office to request tours in the nation’s capital–for free! You can tour the Capitol, White House (must be 90 days in advance), Library of Congress, the Pentagon, State Department, and the list goes on. You also get to visit their DC office, which personally is always a treat for staff.

Pro-tip: Staff-led Capitol tours are more personal to ones led by the Capitol Visitor Center guides. Staff members can only take up to 15 people in one tour, so your tour group is smaller. Plus, staff could take you to the speaker’s balcony for the best view in town (depending on the Speaker or Congress’s schedule).

Keep them accountable

Now that you know who your elected officials are, what if you want to find out how they voted on certain legislation, or persuade them to support a specific bill?

You can type in the name (e.g. Equality Act), bill number (e.g. H.R.5), or even the subject of any legislation that you have any questions about on Congress.gov, and you will see the text of the bill, the list of sponsors or cosponsors of the bill, and any actions that either Chamber has taken. You can narrow your search further to see what bills your elected official has signed on to in the past.

A couple of things to note:

We are in the 116th Congress, so pay attention to that when looking at bills! Any bills introduced in either Chamber but not passed by both in past Congresses have “died,” which means they won’t be considered again unless they’re reintroduced this session.

Bill numbers that start with H originated in the House, and bills with S originated in the Senate. All bills must pass both Chambers and signed by the President to become a law. Many of us learned that bills originate in the House, but this process of course has become more complicated in the present day. Having worked on a bill and delivered one myself, feel free to send me a message if you’d like to learn more about this process!

Legislation at the top of the list on the House floor this session:

  • H.R.1, For the People Act of 2019 (voting reform)
  • H.R.4, Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 (H.R.1 companion)
  • H.R.5, Equality Act (LGBTQ+ rights)
  • H.R.6, American Dream and Promise Act (immigration reform)
  • H.R.7, Paycheck Fairness Act (equal pay)
  • H.R.8, Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019
  • H.R.9, Climate Action Now Act

And now that you know how to call your elected officials, call them to voice your support or opposition to certain legislation. Simply say, “Hi, I’d like for the Congresswoman/man to vote YES on H.R.5!” or even, “Hi, I’d like to thank the Congresswoman/man for voting YES on universal background checks!”

That being said, what you don’t want to do is call every single Democratic or Republican elected official who doesn’t represent you. Many people do this as a way to advocate for their position, but it’s highly ineffective. Offices can only log the mail or calls coming from their district. So, if you’re calling to express your frustration on the border wall, budget cuts, etc., to an office of a Member who doesn’t represent you, what you’re actually doing is harassing the staff member on the other end of the line.

What would be most effective is rallying everyone who lives in your district to call the same Member of Congress. (Since I didn’t work in a Senate office, I am not able to speak on behalf of Senate offices.)

And, of course, use Congress.gov to inform yourself on who to vote for every 2 years. There’s no automatic reelection unless candidates run unopposed. So, it’s your job to make sure your elected officials either keep or lose their job!

Reliable Hill-related news sources

Curious about what happens daily on The Hill? You can always follow your regular news sources, often they have a specific section dedicated to Congress or The Hill. But, in general, check out The Hill or Roll Call for Hill-specific news that usually comes out before other major news sources.

Remember your State Legislature and local governments

Capitol Hill gets a lot of coverage, but to be honest, your State and local governments are the ones that will most greatly impact your lives on a daily basis.

It can take months, even years, for a law to be passed on the national level. Right now, the Democrats control the House and the Republicans control the Senate, which means that many of these important bills that have already passed the House are under the control of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who decides whether they will be debated on the Senate floor. (And with 2020 just around the corner… you can gather how this goes.)

To truly make a change, we must be involved in all levels of government. Know who your City Councilwomen and men are. Know who is in your State Legislature; make sure that you take the time to do your research and choose carefully who will best represent you. Use these resources to be better informed about your elected officials who represent you in the nation’s capital. And finally, exercise your right to vote in every election. Hopefully, these resources have served to make you a better-informed voter. 2020 is just around the corner, y’all!

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