Just a Bill

By jschneidewind on August 19, 2011 in Policy/Advocacy

by Bill McColl, Political Director

I know, I know.  Congress is out of Washington and they aren’t taking any immediate actions that will affect people living with HIV.  Everyone is dealing with dried out lawns, tomato crops, vacation plans, broken ACs and it’s too hot to think about politics.  So we can take a break, right?

Actually, no!  AIDS United urges you to continue working to contact your Senators and Representatives but in August we urge you to do it in person.

Why?  Three simple reasons.

First, your Senators and Representatives are likely to spend at least part of the next three weeks somewhere near you.  They will be hosting Town Hall Meetings, meetings in their offices and showing up at public events.  They need to hear from their constituents that HIV/AIDS funding and health care is important to their constituents and shouldn’t be cut.  And, while some of them may not listen, the ones who are planning to be in office a long time generally do.

Second, it helps establish a relationship with your Member of Congress.  Who do Members of Congress listen to?  Well, while it may seem that they only listen to their donors, they really do listen to their constituents.  In particular they listen to constituents whom they know and have come to trust.  That means that someone who is persistent , and who is reasonable and trustworthy.  Someone that can become a go to person on an issue or two.

Third, it can help you to meet or talk to Senate and House Staffers.  If you speak to your Member of Congress  about an issue, he or she will likely refer you to a Congressional staffer.  Take him or her up on the offer and get to meet these staffers (see more about staffers below).  These are the people who help shape the decisions when they count.

The Legislative Process: How You Get Heard and What that SchoolHouse Rock! Video Left Out

August is a bit of a nostalgic month – it’s the month of no school, county fairs and the harvest.  I watched Schoolhouse Rock! and the iconic video, “I’m Just a Bill” which describes the legislative process in basic terms.  Of course it doesn’t describe, the arm twisting, the letter writing, the pleading, the advocacy that goes into a bill.  No video could.  But it does show the complicated process of getting a bill to pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate and then signed by the President.  Every Member of Congress counts.  The more people make sure that their own Members of Congress will support these issues, the more we can be sure that the entire Congress will find ways to support prevention, treatment and research for HIV/AIDS.

There is usually a hierarchy to Congressional personal staff.  They are usually trusted to make recommendations about approaching an issue.  If you can convince a staff member to champion your cause, you can often get the Member to do so too.  Similarly they are also the gate-keepers to the Member.  If you can’t get an idea past the staff, you probably won’t get it to a Senator or Representative.  In addition to personal staff, particularly a Chair or Ranking Member of a Committee or Subcommittee may have access to Committee staff.  However, for the most part a Member of Congress is likely to refer you to their personal staff.  With some variation, most Members have at least the following:

Chief of Staff – The chief of staff is usually the most senior person in a Member of Congress’s office – and particularly for new Members, the chief of staff may have more experience with the way Congress works than the actual member.  The chief manages other staffers and is often a political expert who helps the Senator or Representative to understand the political implications of their decisions.

Legislative Director – The Legislative Director works with the chief of staff to manage other staffers and is often the person who is responsible for process questions – understanding how to move a bill through committee or the floor and legislative strategy.

Legislative Aide or Legislative Assistant (LA) – LAs are mid-level staffers who work on specific issues.  For the HIV/AIDS issue, the most important LA is the Health LA.  Health LAs are responsible for understanding an issue and doing so in a way that protects the interests of Members of Congress.  They often make the most basic decisions about whether or not an issue gets to a member of Congress.  Please be aware that these folks have no time to waste.  They may not only be responsible for every health care issue, but they may be responsible for other issues as well.  Legislative Correspondents (LCs) – LCs are junior staffers who assist the LAs and other office members to do basic work such as writing letters, returning e-mails and answering phones.

District or State Staff – These are staffers who work out of offices based in a Senator’s State or a Representative’s District.  Many of these staffers are responsible for constituent assistance and they can be very helpful resolving issues with federal agencies.  Also they are in touch with the LAs in Washington and can let them know if a particular issue is becoming a concern in the State or District.

Scheduler – Most offices have a scheduler based in Washington DC to coordinate the Members meetings (and some offices also have a system for them to coordinate staffers meetings).  Many offices will also have a separate District scheduler working to schedule the Member’s appearances in the District.

The size of a Senator or Representatives office varies depending on the number of constituents being served, whether they are a member of the Majority or Minority and seniority.  A senior Senator in the majority might have as many as 30 personal staffers while a junior minority Representative might have as few as five staffers.

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