Congress For Dummies book cover

Congress For Dummies

By: David Silverberg and Dennis Hastert Published: 09-27-2002

A clear, direct guide into the nitty-gritty workings of Congress and the way the institution really functions

Congress For Dummies
helps you sort out what Congress does on a daily basis and what it all means to you, the citizen. It shows you how to get organized, make your voice heard, and influence legislation that might affect you. Full of helpful resources such as contact information for House and Senate offices, and smart, straightforward explanations of the legislative process, this book is everything you need to understand Congress and get involved in your government.

Whether you just want to know how government works, or you want to get involved to change your country, this simple guide covers all the ins and outs of Congress. It’s a nonpartisan look at Congress that includes forewords by Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Inside you’ll find easy explanations and helpful tips on how to:

  • Get involved in the democratic process
  • Influence legislation that’s important to you
  • Understa nd Congress and the media
  • Contact your senators and representatives
  • Check out Congress in action, in person
  • Deal with congressional staff

Expert author David Silverberg — Managing Editor and a columnist at the Washington weekly The Hill — takes the mystery out of getting something done in Congress, introducing you to the players and explaining everything from legislation and lobbying to caucuses and coalitions. Written with the citizen advocate in mind, this helpful guide gives regular people the tools and knowledge they need to achieve their aims. Inside, you’ll discover:

  • How the three branches of government work together
  • How to register your opinion with your elected officials
  • How the legislative process works — from idea to law
  • How debates, conferences, and vetoes work
  • How budgeting and appropriations work
  • How to get the most effect from your political contributions
  • How the lobbying process works
  • How to advocate for legislation
  • How to deal with congressional staffers
  • How to make use of congressional services

Getting something done in the messy confusion of democracy and bureaucracy is no easy task. Full of the kind of information and knowledge that Washington insiders take for granted, Congress For Dummies levels the playing field so that regular people — just like you — can make a difference, too.

Articles From Congress For Dummies

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9 results
Congress For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 04-19-2022

If you’re planning a trip to Washington, D.C., follow some basic recommendations for protocol when visiting with a member of Congress or a White House staffer. Plan your trip to the Capitol Building around Congressional recesses, and be sure to have all the correct contact information for the House of Representatives and Senate to make travel easier and quicker.

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Getting the President's Signature on a Congressional Bill

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

After Congress passes a bill, it doesn't become law without the president's signature, and if he vetoes it, it may not be enacted at all (although Congress has the option of overriding the veto). Thus, the president is an immensely powerful presence throughout the legislative process despite his small constitutional role. The president's role in legislation begins while legislation is being formed. "There's no lobby more powerful than the President of the United States," a powerful lobbyist once said. That lobbyist is right. In our system of government, the president can't command, because the president must go to Congress like anyone else and convince the members to do what he wants. Congress can accept or reject the president's recommendations. Having said that, remember that the president is unlike any other lobbyist. The major difference, of course, is that the president is the highest elected official of the land, leads the executive branch of the government, oversees the economy, and serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, making him responsible for the defense of the nation. A majority of the people gave him a mandate to govern, and, as a result, he speaks for the entire nation at home and abroad. When he speaks, he can talk to the entire country at once, if he so desires. The president has a team of legislative liaisons, political advisors and policy specialists constantly monitoring congressional activity. They stay in touch with the congressional leadership of both chambers, helping to shape legislation as it moves through Congress. The White House can't monitor all bills, but it pays close attention to those that it thinks are important, and if it wants changes, it often gets them, especially when the president's party is in power in one or both of the chambers. All that it takes is a word to the leadership or the appropriate legislator. When the opposing party is in power in one of the chambers, the president has a much tougher job because lobbying has to be much more active, especially when Congress seems bent on passing legislation the president doesn't like. The president's lobbying efforts are just like yours: It takes salesmanship. The president and his officials have to convince a majority of Congress to go along with his desires. However, three differences exist between you and the president when it comes to lobbying Congress: He's the president and you're not. He has many more tools at his disposal to convince members of Congress to do what he wants. He has a veto. When the president wants something, he can draw on a wide variety of instruments to convince members to accede to his desires. He can Promise them federal benefits like public works projects in their states or districts. Aid their pet projects and programs. Campaign for them at election time. Mobilize the entire country on behalf of his agenda or against his opponents. Command more media attention than any other official. Raise more money than any other public figure on behalf of his supporters. Place friends, constituents, and relatives of supportive members in official positions. Propose all sorts of honors and awards for friends and allies. Appeal to members' sense of duty and patriotism. One of the president's most effective tools is the official hospitality of the White House. Having members over for breakfast or lunch or inviting them to a state dinner replete with glamorous celebrities produces an extraordinary effect even with veteran lawmakers accustomed to public attention. The White House actually is a rather modest building, but it exerts a hypnotic effect on its invited guests. Given the president's power, knowledge and influence, by the time a bill reaches his desk, it's usually shaped to his liking, especially when he's working with a friendly Congress. However, when Congress is in unfriendly hands, it may pass legislation that the president doesn't like and the president, therefore, may have to use the ultimate constitutional tool: the veto. Wielding the veto After Congress sends the president a final bill, he has 10 days to act on it in one of two ways: Sign it into law. If he doesn't want to sign it but doesn't want to veto it, he can simply ignore it and it becomes law in ten days (excepting Sundays) while Congress is in session. Veto it. The word "veto" literally means "I refuse" in Latin, and the president has the constitutional power to stop a piece of legislation in its tracks, even after it's been through the entire legislative process. It's the Constitution's ultimate executive check on legislation. The president can veto a bill in two ways: • The return veto: The return veto mechanism is a straightforward provision in the Constitution. The president simply refuses to sign the legislation into law and sends it back to Congress with a message explaining why the legislation wasn't signed. • The pocket veto: In a pocket veto, the president neither vetoes a bill nor signs it — but if Congress adjourns during the 10-day period when the president has the bill, the bill doesn't become law. In other words, the president puts the bill in his pocket, waits out the Congress, and nothing happens. Overriding a veto When the president vetoes a bill, the legislation is dead unless Congress takes action. Congress can override the veto, and in doing so, passes the bill over the president's formal objection. Overriding a presidential veto requires a two-thirds majority vote of the members present and voting (in other words, those who are actually in the chamber rather than two-thirds of the total) in each chamber. An override vote is a momentous step and difficult to win. In recent years the mere threat of a veto has been enough to convince members not to proceed with provisions that the president doesn't like.

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Building a Bill in Congress

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

As soon as you start working with the United States Congress, you begin hearing about this bill or that bill. It's as if someone named Bill is everywhere in Washington. In the congressional context, a bill is simply a proposal, an idea, that's written up in legislation and presented to the Congress. Starting with an idea It all starts with an idea, a simple concept. You take that idea to your representative or senator because you see a need, you have a cause, and you want it to become a law. Remember that only members of Congress can propose resolutions that are considered by the entire body. Your task comes down to convincing a member to actually want to introduce your idea. Anyone can write up, or draft a bill, but only a member of Congress can introduce it. However, the more work that you do for members, the easier it is for them to work on your behalf. When you have a bill that you want Congress to consider, writing it up in legal language and presenting it to your representative or senator as a draft is a good idea. Lobbyists routinely draft legislative proposals. Figuring out how to write a bill is easy. Just look up an existing bill on the congressional Web site and follow that format to compose your proposal. Although your representative may make a few changes, he and the staff won't have to do as much work creating the bill by themselves. Looking at the types of legislation Several kinds of bills can be introduced and each one has a special designation. Bill The bill is the most common form of legislation. It's an idea, a proposal, and in the House it receives the designation H.R. for House of Representatives (not House Resolution as many people think). In the Senate it gets S. for Senate. A bill becomes law when it's approved by both the House and Senate and reaches the president's desk for signature. After it's signed by the president, it's no longer called a bill, but becomes an "Act." Resolution A resolution is much the same as a bill, except that it's usually concerned with the operation of the House or Senate. In other words, it's about something that concerns only the institution and doesn't need to be signed by the president. In the House, such a resolution is designated H. Res. and gets a number, and in the Senate, it becomes S. Res. Joint resolution A joint resolution is virtually identical to a bill. Contrary to what one would expect given the name, it can be proposed in either the House or the Senate and it goes through the same procedures as a bill and must be signed into law by the president. One slight difference between a bill and a joint resolution is that a joint resolution frequently has a preamble, a paragraph explaining the justification for the bill with all the "Whereas" resolving clauses that are a feature of legislative language. Joint resolutions are also used to amend bills already under consideration. A joint resolution gets the designation H.J.Res. in the House and S.J.Res. in the Senate. The only time a joint resolution differs in its procedure for consideration is when it's an amendment to the Constitution. Then it has to be approved by two-thirds of both houses to pass, and it's also sent to the states for ratification rather than being signed (or not) by the president. Concurrent resolutions A concurrent resolution can be introduced in either house and doesn't go to the president for signature. It isn't a bill and doesn't create any law. Usually, concurrent resolutions are used to express facts, principles, and opinions of the two houses. After being passed by both houses, concurrent resolutions are transmitted to the U.S. archivist rather than the president. In the House, they are designated H.Con.Res. and in the Senate, S.Con.Res. Many people dismiss concurrent resolutions as having no teeth because a "sense of resolution" has no power behind it. It's merely an expression of opinion and usually reflects the lowest common denominator: For example, "It is the sense of the House and Senate that all Americans should support Motherhood and Apple Pie." One example in the 107th Congress was S. Con.Res. 44, resolving that, in light of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the House and Senate paid tribute to those who died and those who survived the attack. This resolution didn't enact a law, but it expressed a congressional sentiment. However, dismissing the role that concurrent resolutions can play would be a mistake, especially as part of an overall lobbying campaign. When effectively used to show the sentiments of the Congress where a particular cause or measure is concerned, concurrent resolutions can lead to real legislation, can warn opponents of the strength behind a measure, and can encourage supporters inside and outside Congress. Private bills While many people look to Congress for help with personal problems, sometimes such assistance must be approved by the entire Congress in the form of a bill. Your representative or lawyer can tell you whether that will be the case with any proposal you may make. The use of private bills has declined considerably. For example, in the 96th Congress (from 1979-1981), 123 private bills were passed, but by the 104th Congress (from 1995-1997), the number had dropped to only 4. Members are leery of private bills because they have the potential for creating trouble for the member if it turns out that the beneficiary doesn't have the cleanest record. In the past, private bills were mostly used to assist people who had a grievance or demand on the executive branch. Moreover, the need for them has declined because today there are more ways to appeal to executive agencies than there were in the past. Nonetheless, private bills are an option that usually fall into the following categories and go to the following House committees: Armed services decorations issues are handled by the National Security Committee. Civil service issues go to the Government Reform and Oversight Committee. Claims against the government. Domestic claims go to the Judiciary Committee; foreign claims go to the International Relations Committee. Immigration issues (for example, naturalization, residency status, and visa classification) go to the Judiciary Committee. Medical issues (for example, Food and Drug Administration approvals and health maintenance organization enrollment requirements) go to the Commerce Committee. Patents and copyright questions go to the Judiciary Committee. Public land issues (for example, sales, claims, exchanges, and mineral leases) go to the Resources Committee. Taxation issues (for example, income tax liabilities and tariff exemptions) go to the Ways and Means Committee. Vessel documentation issues go to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Veterans' benefit issues go to the Veterans' Affairs Committee. Private bills almost always are introduced only in the House since they deal with individuals and the House is the direct representative of the people (as opposed to the Senate, which represents states). If they get through subcommittee and committee consideration, they then move to the floor where all the private bills are considered together on the first and third Tuesdays of each month (although the House can decide to call them up at any other time when everyone agrees). Private bills usually go sailing through and routinely are approved by a voice vote. However, whenever two members object to a private bill, it goes back to the committee for reconsideration or is held for further consideration until the next batch of private bills comes up.

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Categorizing Congressional Lobbyists

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

Usually when people refer lobbyists, they're talking about professionals, people who hire themselves out to clients to work on their behalf. Frequently, lobbyists started their careers either as members of Congress or as congressional staffers, leaving government service and then using their contacts on behalf of their clients. Some lobbyists base their business on a long-standing relationship with a single, powerful member of the House or Senate. Defining and describing Full-time lobbyists spend their days influencing lawmakers and members of the executive branch to pursue particular courses of action or introduce, shape or alter pieces of legislation. The different kinds of lobbyists include the following: Association lobbyists represent industry and trade associations. Corporate lobbyists work on behalf of individual companies. Usually these people have titles like Vice President for congressional relations. Foreign agents lobby for foreign governments and businesses and are registered with the United States government. Nonprofit and public-interest lobbyists work on behalf of various causes and voluntary organizations. Professional lobbyists work on behalf of the clients who hire them. All full-time professional lobbyists must register with Congress. If you're simply on Capitol Hill on behalf of your own cause, you don't have to worry about registering, and you're completely free to talk to any representative or senator who wants to talk to you. Registration is necessary only when you accept payment from clients for whom you have lobbied. Demystifying special interests One thing that you, the lobbyist for your cause in Congress, will have to get over is all the pejorative talk about special interests running the country and not having the good of the country as a whole in mind. After all, what is a special interest but you? The term special interest usually describes any person or group of people who pursues their own interests. That means you and the cause that you plan to take up with your representative in Congress. In practice, however, a special interest usually is the other guy who's pursuing his particular interest in conflict with your particular interest. As soon as you begin pursuing your particular cause, you become a special interest. If you've come to Congress to get your particular idea or cause adopted, you're going to have to petition the government more effectively than your opponents. That's why effective lobbying is so important. The country's founders assumed that conflict would occur among and between special interests, or factions, as they were referred to in the Federalist Papers. The Framers' idea was to have all the interests competing in a free and open marketplace of ideas. They also thought that sensible people would choose the best ideas among them. In a system that made the right to petition government one of its fundamental precepts, there could be no other result. By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. — James Madison, writing as "Publius" in Federalist No. 10, appearing Nov. 23, 1787, in The New York Packet. As James Madison noted, people always divide into factions for a wide variety of reasons. Because the causes of factionalism cannot be prevented, the only thing the government can do is control its effects and make sure that factionalism never becomes destructive.

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Understanding Congressional Relationships

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

As part of a balanced, three-branch system, with the American people serving as the big boss who hires them and can fire them at election time, Congress has to maintain working relationships with various bodies and constituencies. House-Senate relations Having been set up to provide checks and balances over one another, members of each chamber of Congress tend to get annoyed with each other. Members of the House tend to often get impatient with the Senate's slow deliberation and discussion of legislation, while senators tend to regard representatives as subject to popular whims and passions and lacking the necessary maturity for governance. But other major differences between the two chambers are in keeping with their origins. In the Senate, everyone is equal, but in the House, the rule is by majority in keeping with the House's representative origins. You see, in Washington they have these bodies, Senate and the House of Representatives. That's for the convenience of the visitors. If there's nothing funny happening in one, there's sure to be in the other, and in case one body passes a good bill, why, the other can see it in time and kill it. — Will Rogers, American humorist Executive-congressional relations through the years The legislative and executive branches are equal under the Constitution. The Constitution notwithstanding, the relationship among the branches, particularly the executive and legislative, is a constantly shifting one. Generally, in times of peace and prosperity, Congress has been the more dominant institution. In times of war or danger, the executive branch is the dominant branch. For much of early American history, the president was relatively powerless, and though not an unimportant figure, was secondary to Congress. From 1820 to 1860, as slavery, states rights, and enormous expansion threatened to tear the country apart, members of the Senate were the ones who kept the nation together with a series of compromises. Executive branch powers increased considerably during the Civil War, as President Abraham Lincoln commanded new resources and sought new authority to keep the union together. After the Civil War, the relationship continued to change, and some great clashes and momentous events have taken place marking the legislative-executive relationship: In 1868, Congress passed a measure to prevent the president from removing cabinet officers without its approval. President Andrew Johnson believed that this was unconstitutional, defied the restriction, was impeached, and escaped removal by a single vote. (The president's position was later upheld by the Supreme Court.) In 1920, the Senate defeated President Woodrow Wilson's bid to have the United States join the League of Nations. The struggle between Wilson and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass., 1893-1924) marked a major shift in the center of gravity to the legislative branch. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt, boosted by Democratic gains in Congress, launched the New Deal to combat the Great Depression. This effort inaugurated a long period of executive branch activism and expansion that continued through World War II and the Cold War of the mid-20th century. In 1994, the overwhelming election of a Republican House and Senate marked a resurgent Congress whose struggle with the executive branch culminated in the 1999 impeachment of President Bill Clinton. In 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and the launch of a war against terror inaugurated another period of executive activism at home and abroad. The relationship between Congress and the executive branch changes every day. Congressional-constituent relations For elected officeholders who must provide what people want and reflect what they need, calibrating the popular mood is no easy task. It's part instinct, part empathy, part science, and part reading the newspapers and watching TV. In addition to your expressions to them, your elected officials and those who would be your elected officials are always polling people to get their opinions on the issues of the day, or else they're holding focus groups to explore peoples' beliefs in depth. When a federal official or candidate has this information, she has to absorb it and decide how to use it in order to get elected or stay elected. Your opinion is very important in formulating the party platform and the individual candidate's campaign. Having said that, during the campaign, the candidate will promise you and everyone else the moon and stars to get elected. Most people don't trust campaign promises — and rightfully so. Promises are exaggerated during the campaign and are quickly forgotten as soon as the election is over. However, a good politician tries to deliver on campaign promises on some level. To do that, though, a politician faces numerous obstacles, including the following: Opposition from opponents: Opponents may be from the other party, or they may be people within the candidate's own party who simply don't like another member's proposal. Institutional drag: Any organization must go through certain policies and procedures to get anything done, and some organizations take longer than others. Different leadership priorities: Party leaders in Congress may have other priorities or different priorities, or they may not support a member's agenda. Executive branch opposition: The president or executive branch agencies may oppose a member's efforts. Distractions: A member of Congress has to deal with many other priorities. A member of Congress who delivers on campaign promises is one to be valued, and one who consistently fails to deliver doesn't deserve to stay in office — but a good faith effort and due diligence should count for something, too.

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When Are the Congressional Recesses?

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

A congressional recess is a time when congress isn’t meeting but will meet again. The recesses usually fall around a major holiday (usually lasting a week or two) and the month of August. Check your current year’s calendar for exact dates of recesses: Presidents Day: February Passover/Easter: March or April Memorial Day: Last week of May Independence Day: First week of July August: Full month until Labor Day in September First Thursday in October: Target adjournment

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Tips for Visiting a Member or Staffer of Congress

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

If you’re trying to meet with your Senator or Representative to lobby for a cause, these tips can help you prepare for your trip to Capitol Hill (or to your local government offices) and make a lasting first impression: Be prompt, brief, and concise. Know your goals. Prepare the ground. Do your homework. Be courteous and calm. Know your facts. Offer assistance. Provide data on the cost and economic impact of your proposal if you can. Provide helpful written material and offer to answer any questions. Always follow up with a call, e-mail, or note.

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House of Representatives Contact Information

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

You can gather information about your representative from his or her Web site, but if you need to contact another member or staffer of the House of Representatives, try the email formula below. Of course, you can always call or go the old-fashioned way and mail a letter. Here’s the House contact information you'll need: The House of Representatives Web site: www.House.gov Clerk of the House: www.clerkweb.house.gov House e-mail addresses consist of the person’s first name and last name, separated by a dot, followed by @mail.house.gov. (Be aware that some people use nicknames and middle initials.) Congressional database http://thomas.loc.gov/ Capitol switchboard (House and Senate) 202-224-3121 Mailing address Rep. __________ United States House of Representatives Washington, DC 20510 House offices The Capitol (H) Cannon (CHOB), 1st St. & Independence Ave. SE, three-digit room numbers, the first digit is the floor number Longworth (LHOB), Independence Ave. & New Jersey Ave. SE, four-digit room numbers starting with 1, the second digit is the floor number. Rayburn (RHOB), Independence Ave. & S. Capitol St. SW, four-digit room numbers starting with 2. In Rayburn, the second digit is the floor number. All of the buildings have maps to help you find individual office numbers. In Rayburn there are several subcommittee offices on the “B” level (where the cafeteria is also located).

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How to Contact Your U.S. Senator

Article / Updated 03-26-2016

If you need to contact your Senator or a Senate staffer, use the following information, which provides a variety of options, including phone, e-mail, address, and location of Senate offices: The Senate Web site: www.Senate.gov Senate e-mail addresses consist of the person’s first name and last name, separated by a dot, followed by @[last name of senator].Senate.gov Congressional database thomas.loc.gov/ Capitol switchboard (House and Senate) 202-224-3121 Mailing address Sen. __________ United States Senate Washington, DC 20515 Senate offices have conventional room numbers; the first digit of the room number is the floor number. The Capitol (S) Russell (SR) 1st St. and Constitution Ave. NE (East Corner) Dirksen (SD) 1st St. and Constitution Ave. NE (West corner) Hart (SH) 2nd and C Streets NE

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