Remember Schoolhouse Rock: “I'm just a bill, and I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill..."?
Timeless? Yes. True to life? Not exactly.
A classic ‘70s PSA aimed at 8-year-olds watching “Scooby Doo" on Saturday morning isn’t intended to be realistic in all respects. That’s not the point.
But in the real world, if you’re looking to Congress to:
- Approve your policy change
- Block a proposal you oppose or
- Fund your pet issue
You don’t necessarily need a “bill on Capitol Hill.”
And maybe you shouldn’t even want one.
You have more tools to advance your issue than you may realize - and they could be better and faster than trying to get a bill through Congress and signed into law.
That's because the 6th grade civics version of how a bill becomes a law is actually extremely time-consuming.
And there are obstacles all along the way that can derail or defeat your efforts.
The truth is, most bills introduced in Congress never go anywhere - they are referred to a committee, perhaps then to a subcommittee, and that’s it. No further action.
They’re essentially dead on arrival.
• During the most recent fully completed term in Congress - January 3, 2013 to January 5, 2015 - there were 10,637 bills introduced in Congress.
• According to GovTrak, only 296 - that’s 3 percent - were signed into law by the president.
• The vast majority of bills introduced - 9,184 or 86 percent- didn’t even get a vote, never mind a presidential signature.
So what do you do if you want to advance your agenda in Congress?
Highlight Your Issue, Making Your Case Using Platforms Available To You On Capitol Hill
- Congressional Hearing: Is there a public hearing relevant to your issue? Request that your Representative and/or Senator ask witnesses to respond to questions about the policy you’re advocating.
- Oversight Letter: Request that your Representative and/or Senator send an oversight letter to the particular Executive department, agency or company with authority over your issue asking a series of questions related to it.
- Constituent Group: Organize a group of supporters from outside Washington who are active on your issue.
- Constituent Meeting: Set up Capitol Hill and/or local office visits to explain your issue to your Representative and Senator or appropriate staff members, tell them why you're taking your position and ask for help.
- Call: If an Executive department or agency is an obstacle to making progress on your issue, ask a staff member in your Representative’s and/or Senator’s office to call the relevant Executive office. A call from Capitol Hill can spur action from Executive Branch decision-makers.
Press Your Case
- Op-ed: Write an op-ed for your local paper in support of your position. Share it with your elected officials (if they don’t see it first).
- Press Conference: Hold a press conference and feature “real people” telling their stories and explaining why your issue is so important to them.
- Hearing: Organize a public “hearing” in your community modeled after an official congressional hearing with witnesses supportive of your cause. Invite the press. In Congress, the minority party uses this tactic to highlight its positions, an alternative to official hearings that can only be convened by the majority party.
Accentuate the Negative
Sunlight generated by the tactics above can publicly expose policies you're trying to change, and the accompanying heat may trigger an organization to abandon its position and adopt the view you’re advocating.
I’ve seen this tactic used many times. Here’s one example:
It was almost 12 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) wanted to repeal a policy first put in place after 9/11 to protect airline passengers and crew members: the ban on small knives aboard flights.
When I served as Chief of Staff to then-Congressman Markey, we teamed with flight attendant unions, pilots, airport screeners and other activists to form a coalition of Democrats and Republicans.
We spoke with one voice about TSA’s plan: It was a very bad idea.
Over three months, we used several of the tactics above and succeeded in getting TSA to reverse course and keep the ban in place.
Two Closing Points
- Introducing legislation and moving it painstakingly through the legislative labyrinth is often not the best single strategy for advancing your agenda.
But introducing a bill can be an effective organizing tool as part of a broader legislative plan.
This means that the mere introduction of a bill can draw attention to your policy - an important interim goal of your efforts - even if the bill is just referred to a committee and no further action ever occurs.
2. Although a significant bill rarely moves unchanged from introduction to enactment into law, the contents of legislation - bits and pieces of the text and sometimes even the entire text itself - may be folded into larger bills that do get signed into law.
When such legislative language is “baked into” a bigger bill, this language also gets the president’s signature.
It's essentially a "bill on Capitol Hill" hitching a ride on a moving train bound for the White House.
But still, remember:
Next time you want to advance your agenda in Congress, “Think Beyond the Bill.”