Congress For Dummies book cover

Congress For Dummies

Authors:
David Silverberg ,
Dennis Hastert ,
Tom Daschel
Published: September 27, 2002

Overview

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.

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.

Congress For Dummies Cheat Sheet

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.

Articles From The Book

8 results

American Government Articles

House of Representatives Contact Information

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:

Congressional database 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).

American Government Articles

Getting the President's Signature on a Congressional Bill

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.

American Government Articles

Building a Bill in Congress

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.