A Student Activist’s Guide to Lobbying Congress
Making your voice heard in Washington, D.C. may feel like an overwhelming endeavor to the average college student, but regardless of age, the road to making a meaningful change often starts with a single person. After all, like voting, lobbying Congress is your right as a United States citizen. Every important piece of legislation passed in Congress was first backed by a passionate and involved group of citizens that started out just like you. It doesn’t matter whether you live in Oregon or across the U.S. in Connecticut “” this is important.
Making a Difference
Due to inequalities among United States citizens, including women and minorities, civil rights movements have been a major part of our country’s history. Perhaps the most famous piece of legislation to pass through Congress, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Another important piece of legislation was passed by Congress 11 years after Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered for his sexual orientation in Laramie, Wyoming. On October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
These acts would not have had the momentum they needed to reach Congress and the President without the help of citizen activists pushing them along the way. Matthew Shepard’s friends and young people marching on Washington played an important part in rallying for change and bringing important causes to the forefront.
The Nuts and Bolts of Legislative Procedure
Schoolhouse Rock put the legislative process into layman’s terms, but understanding this procedure more thoroughly can make it easier to get involved. Because laws should benefit everyone, Congress welcomes input from citizens. Here are the basics of creating a law:
- A piece of legislation starts with a single idea. If you have an idea for a law that will benefit the public, contact your senator or congressperson. This is the first area where it helps to have a large group of people supporting the legislation and contacting that representative.
- If your senator or congressperson likes your legislation, they will draft a bill and introduce it. This makes that representative the bill’s sponsor.
- After a bill is introduced, it is sent to the appropriate Committee. While in Committee, a bill can be killed, modified and voted on. If it passes the vote, it is sent to the other house of Congress to repeat the process.
- If a bill passes in both the House of Representatives and Senate, it is ushered on to the President for a final vote. The President will either veto a bill, sending it back to Congress to be rewritten, or he will sign it into law.
Choosing Your Cause
In an age where everything relevant happens online, finding a cause, assembling support and spreading the word is easier than ever. Websites like DoSomething.org, Change.org and POPVOX.com give users access to causes and campaigns already under way and provide a central location for like-minded citizens to meet. Simply follow your passion to click the right cause. It’s activism made easy.
Knowing Your SIGs
If there is a cause you would like to back, consider creating, supporting or joining a special interest group. Advocacy groups help influence public opinion and policy through methods like lobbying and media campaigns. Formerly known as the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, Greenpeace was formed in 1970 to stop nuclear weapons testing in the United States. Another well-known advocacy group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was formed to help bring awareness to animal cruelty and affect social change through legislation.
Knowing Your Rep
Representatives are voted into office by the public for a two-year term. These Congressional members represent the public by crafting popular legislation into bills. You can easily find your Representative according to zip code.
Researching Relevant Congressional Committees
Finding the right Congressional Committee to lobby to is an important part of getting your legislation passed. After all, this is where bills live or die. Committee members have the great honor of considering, shaping and creating legislation that will possibly be signed into law.
Once a bill reaches a Committee, the Committee Chair can either move the bill along or veto it. You can help get bills relevant to your cause passed by finding the Committee considering the bill and contacting Committee members. Whenever possible, attend Committee hearings and offer testimony to make a bigger impact.
Drafting a Strong Letter
Taking the time to write to your Representative can help spark change. Representatives need to hear from the public in order to perform their jobs well. Follow these steps to create a powerful letter:
- Write legibly, or when it doubt of your handwriting skills, it is a good idea to type letters.
- Include your name and address in the letter and on the envelope, so that they know you are a constituent and can respond.
- Keep it simple by limiting the letter to one page and topic. Choose three main points to back your opinion and develop them clearly. If the bill already has a number, be sure to include it.
- Make a connection with the representative by pointing out why you voted for them. Also, let them know how the legislation affects you and the community.
- Be professional by avoiding harsh language and exaggeration. Taking a friendly and factual stance is likely to win more support for your proposal.
For more letter writing tips, check out DoSomething.org.
Be the Change
Some might argue that younger generations are apathetic when it comes to politics, but it’s possible we just need the tools to get started. For better or worse, the young people participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 proved to be a force to be reckoned with and demonstrated that it takes organized collaboration to achieve change. Use this guide to help shape your world and make a difference.