What Is It?
So the thing about Congress is that you learn about it one way in school, but when you read the news, there seems to be some totally separate set of rules that everyone is actually playing by. It can feel like only people who do politics as a living can get anything done in Washington.
You’re not crazy. There’s how Congress works, then there’s how Congress really works. Plus, with the legislature gridlocked year after year, people are starting to wonder if anything can get done. Nothing is ever simple, but if you’re ready to put in the work, there’s a lot you can do to impact your representatives and senators in Congress.
Let’s start with some basics. Congress is divided into two parts: the House of Representatives and the Senate. They both have equal power but some of their responsibilities and rules are different.
The House has 435 representatives and each state gets a certain number of them based on its population. (Learn more about that process here.) The Senate has 100 senators, and each state gets two, no matter its population size. Today, people vote for their senators the same way they vote for their representatives in the House, but that wasn’t always the case. Under the Constitution, state legislatures originally had the power to elect senators. That changed in 1913 when the 17th Amendment was ratified, making senators elected by the public.
While it may feel like this is all set in stone, people have always had ideas for changing the way our system works, and still do. That’s why we have a process for amending the Constitution, after all. For example, some people say that the House is too small to represent a country with such a huge population and should actually be much bigger than it is. The House began with only 65 representatives and grew over time to 435 members in 1929 — that’s when Congress decided it was big enough and capped its size. Today, the average member of the House represents more than 747,000 people, a lot more than the 30,000 the framers of the Constitution originally intended.
Folks have some ideas for reforming the Senate, too. Some think it’s unfair that sparsely populated states like Wyoming and Vermont have the same representation in the Senate as densely populated states like New York and California. They’ve proposed various solutions, like giving each state one senator but assigning the rest based on population, or even abolishing the Senate altogether. Meanwhile, others believe that it’s important for every state to have two senators because it ensures that rural states have the same clout as urban states. And, while some people think it was a major step forward when Americans began directly electing their senators, others believe we should give that power back to the state legislatures.
Ok, that was a lot of background. So what does Congress do?
- Writes laws
- Holds hearings to better understand issues and how to write those laws
- Oversees the executive branch (aka the president) by conducting investigations
- Serves as the voice of everyday Americans and the states in the federal government
Why It Matters to You
It would probably be faster to answer the question “Why doesn’t it matter to you?” Here’s just a handful of examples of why the Congress matters to you:
President Biden and Congress kicked off 2021 by wrangling over a huge bill that would spend money to upgrade the nation’s bridges, roads, mass transit, water systems, and broadband internet. Some lawmakers believe the bill should also include investments in “human infrastructure” like childcare, education, and job training. How it all shakes out is going to be largely up to Congress.
The U.S. has a lot of debt and runs a budget deficit. Many people say this spells financial doom for our future and even threatens our national security. Others are less worried, arguing that the risks are overblown. No matter what you think, every bill that Congress passes has the potential to save or cost money.
Spending on health care finally appears to have slowed its roll a bit, but the price of staying healthy is still wildly high for Americans — both in terms of out-of-pocket spending and tax dollars. Congress continues to debate different ideas to improve access and lower costs, whether by reducing the price of prescription drugs, making health insurance marketplaces more stable, or expanding government health care to cover everyone.
Some states are changing their voting systems by making it harder to vote by mail and reducing early voting hours, among other things. In response, the House passed a bill known as H.R. 1 that would require things like automatic voter registration, same-day registration, and at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections. The bill doesn’t look likely to pass the Senate.
H.R. 1 would also require states to use independent redistricting commissions to draw their congressional district maps. Each commission would need five Republicans, five Democrats, and five independents. (Learn more about the redistricting process here.)
How to Make an Impact
Hit Them Up
You might assume that your senators and representatives know what you think about the issues — doesn’t there always seem to be some layer of professional advocates and organizations that go crazy every time anyone in D.C. says something? There is, but that doesn’t mean you have no say. Hit the phones, hit send on an email, or hit the streets for a meeting to make your voice heard.
Happen to Be in the Neighborhood
Meeting with your congressional representatives in person at their Washington, D.C. offices is totally worth the trip if you can make it. But you can get a face-to-face chat much closer to home at one of their district offices. All House representatives have at least one office in your congressional district and senators have several across your state.
When Congress holds hearings, it asks all kinds of people to testify: topic experts, government officials, and yes, regular people. If you have experience or expertise that could help Congress understand how an issue affects individual Americans, make sure your senators and representative know that you’re engaged and you’re willing to speak publicly. It’s a long shot but constituents absolutely testify at hearings and their words can be powerful.
You may not think of states and cities having Washington, D.C. lobbyists, but they do. That means your representatives and senators are hearing from your state legislators, mayor, county government and more. Is there a local issue that you think needs more oomph in Congress? Talk to your local elected officials and ask them to push it in D.C.
Running a successful congressional campaign takes a lot of elbow grease. Get directly involved by supporting or opposing a House or Senate race. In most House districts, the real action is in the primary, so start paying attention early to see which candidate is doing it for you. Posting on social media is just one small piece of winning a campaign — research shows that one-on-one conversations are most effective. Sign up to phonebank if you like making a difference from the comfort of your home, or to knock on doors if you’re looking for some exercise and like to play with people’s dogs.
Duh. You’d think so, anyway. Even though the 2020 elections had record voter turnout, millions of eligible voters still didn’t cast ballots. Stop reading this right now and go make sure you’re registered to vote! When you get back from doing that, learn how to make the most of your ballot.
On the Ground
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents American businesses of all sizes, has been an advocate for broadband access across the country. In 2020, it wrote a letter to top Democrat and Republican on the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, asking them to provide funding and make permitting easier for broadband access.
In a 2020 referendum, a majority of Puerto Ricans voted to become a U.S. state, rather than remain a commonwealth. Action by Puerto Rican voters boosted the issue in Washington — pro-statehood lawmakers in Congress now point to the election results to demonstrate that the idea has clear support on the island.
When a House bill proposed doing away with the “orphan drug” tax credit, which provides incentives to companies that are working to create pharmaceuticals for rare health diseases, the parents of children with those rare diseases stepped up. Some went to Washington to lobby members of Congress not to pass the measure.
While many education decisions are made by states, some members of Congress want to support school choice at the federal level. That brought a group of students from six states and Washington, D.C. to Capitol Hill to tell their representatives what school choice meant to them.
One House press secretary is working to change Capitol Hill from the inside. He founded the Congressional Progressive Staff Association with the goal of bringing in progressive activists, organizers, faith leaders, and others into the halls of Congress as staffers.