Making Your Voice Heard

If we can convince 2 Republican Senators and 23 Republican Representatives to vote with the Democrats, we can block legislation. They don’t have to be the same legislators on each topic. Think about what issues affect your state, particularly if you live in a Republican state.

Congress is the last standing part of our system of Checks and Balances. We are supposed to have three branches of government: the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial. The White House (Executive Branch) is holding press conferences to issue verifiable lies (they call them “alternative facts”), and is keeping us informed through Twitter – it appears to be not working for the American people anymore. The Supreme Court (Judicial Branch) is no longer functional, as the Senate refused to even have hearings on President Obama’s nominee for 273 days, so it currently stands at an even number of members, unable to make important decisions. (This will doubtless change soon.)

Quick Summary of Terms:

  • There are two houses (lower case) of Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives.
  • The House of Representatives is often abbreviated to the House, not to be confused with the lower case houses of Congress.
  • People elected to the Senate are called Senators, and people elected to the House are called either Representatives or Congresspeople.
  • Congress” refers to both the House and the Senate.
  • Each person has two Senators and one Representative in Congress.
  • Sometimes the combination of your Senators and Representative are called your “representatives” (lower case) in Congress.
  • When you’re writing a letter, you should address your Senators as Senator XXXX and your Congressperson as Representative XXXX.

First, find out their names, contact details, and committee assignments:

You are a constituent based on where you are registered to vote. If you are not eligible to vote, you still have the same representation, and you are, strictly speaking, a constituent, but let’s face it, they are going to be more responsive to a registered voter. Be sure to register if you have the right to do so. If you are a US Citizen living in another country, you can register in the state where you were last resident.

Immediate Action: The Cabinet Confirmation Hearings

A new president nominates people to be on his or her cabinet. These people will be the heads of the individual organizations of government, such as the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Education, the Secretary of the Interior, Defense, and so on. After the president makes a nomination, the nominee is vetted by the Office of Government Ethics to determine any conflicts of interest, and then subject to a Senate Hearing in the Committee most closely related to the position. After the hearings, the Senate as a whole will vote on the nominee. If the Senate refuses the nominee, the entire process begins again.

Here’s some background from ABC News.

Here is the link to today’s schedule of hearings.

If you have a Senator on the committee, contact him or her as soon as possible. Phone calls are best – try all the numbers for both Washington and district offices, but if that fails, send an email through their contact page.

Here’s a link to the ones who have been confirmed so far.

Here’s a list of the overall schedule from the UPI (United Press International  – a good source of non-partisan news.)

If your Senators are not on the committee, reach out during the hearings anyway. Votes on the floor will take place shortly after the hearing, and there may not be time for your opinion to be tallied if you wait for the vote to show up on the daily schedule.

I try to avoid partisan sources in this blog, but I haven’t found better source than this partisan list of the cabinet nominees, their positions, and talking points.

General Guidelines for keeping track of Bills in Congress:

Things happen more slowly with bills put before Congress. Let’s look at a current example to walk through the process:

Representative Mike Rogers from Alabama just introduced House Resolution No. 193, American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017.

Sovereignty Restoration is doublespeak for leaving the United Nations. (See the complete text of the law here).

The UN was formed after World War II, in an effort to avoid future world wars. I guess that doesn’t seem like a good idea anymore to certain members of Congress, although it has been remarkably successful for the past seventy years.

You can read more about the history of the UN here. Before the United Nations, we had two World Wars in short succession. After World War I (1914-1918), the League of Nations tried to do the same but was unsuccessful. World War II (1937-1945) cost an estimated sixty million lives, most of them civilians. It was the most destructive war ever.

Numerous historians have warned that the increase in nationalism in the last few years should be taken very seriously. Many suggest that this could lead to a similar cycle of nationalistic wars.

Timothy Snyder, one of the top historians of World War II in Europe, recently posted on Facebook:

Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

And then listed 20 points for living under authoritarianism. This man knows of what he speaks; we would do well to listen.

Tobias Stone traced out one possible future after Brexit (Britain’s decision to leave the European Union) in July, called “History Tells Us What Will Happen Next.” He’s been right so far.

Simon Schama spoke out immediately after the American election, saying this is not a time for calm.

We should listen to historians — they have studied how the world went wrong in the past, and we are no different than those people. It could happen again. Don’t think it can’t.

Back to the Alabama Congressman’s plan to exit the UN. Why did the League of Nations fail? Why were we unable to prevent World War II so soon after the horror of World War I? One of many reasons: the US was not at the table, having decided not to join the League of Nations.

No historian would suggest it is a good time to back away from the table.

So, are we worried about this particular bill, H.R. 193? Probably not – GovTrack says it has a 2 percent chance of success.

However, let’s use this odious bill as a recap of how bills become laws.

You could watch the School House Rock t.v. Advertisement from the 1970s, which will at least explain to you why those of us who watched Saturday morning t.v. in the 70s think we have such a good understanding of politics.

Back to the bill:

First, a bill originates in either the House or the Senate. In this case, it came from the House of Representatives, and it’s called H.R. 193, which is the 193rd resolution of the House in this session, also called the 115th Congress. (Be careful when searching, because the last session also had its H.R. 193.) It was introduced on January 3, 2017, which, incidentally, was the first day of the 115th Congress. They did a lot of work that day.

Looking at the Congress.gov site for a given bill will give you lots of information – a summary of the bill, its actual text, how it will progress through the system, its cosponsors, if there any amendments, and so on. GovTrack doesn’t have quite as much detail, but it will send you email alerts as things progress.

The next step is Committee. The Quit the UN Bill (officially, American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017) is now with the Foreign Affairs Committee. You can go back to www.congress.gov/committees to get a complete list, and then wade through the individual websites to see who’s one the committee, but the easiest thing is to do is maintain a list (see directions above) of the committees your representatives belong to — these are the committees who will hear your voice.

The Committee reads the bill, discusses it, proposes amendments if it chooses, and may or may not introduce it to the Floor, for a vote by the entire House (in the case of House Resolutions) or Senate (in the case of Senate Resolutions).

These votes can be tracked online at https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes

If it passes a vote on the floor, it will then go to the other house of Congress, go into Committee, perhaps have amendments, go to the floor, be voted on and so on. It may go back and forth several times, because both houses of Congress have to offer the bill with the exact same wording.

If it passes both the House and the Senate, it will then go to the President, who has four choices:

  • Sign: if the president signs it, it will become a law.
  • Veto: Refuse to Sign. It goes back to Congress. If both the House and the Senate pass it again by a 2/3 margin (of those present), it will become a law, overriding the President’s veto.
  • Do Nothing for 10 days (Congress in Session): It will become a law, despite not having the President’s signature. This is used to indicate the president’s disapproval, but ultimate consent. (Sundays aren’t counted in the ten days.)
  • Do Nothing for 10 days (Congress not in Session): This is called a Pocket Veto, because the President essentially puts the bill in his/her pocket and does nothing, and it will not become a law, because Congress is not in Session.

So, Quit the UN is in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. If your Representative is on that Committee, please call or email to tell him or her that Quitting the UN is a terrible idea, and that you are grateful to the UN for keeping us out of World War III for the last seventy years. Tell them to vote NO on House Resolution 193, the American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017. Hopefully it will stop there.

In general, you should try to reach out to your Senators and Congressperson a week or so before the votes. Keep an eye on https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/#docket to see what bills are coming up in the next week or so. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/#hot tells you which bills other people are watching closely.

This is important for both those of you with Republican representatives and Democratic representatives – the Republicans need to hear your voice and the Democrats need your support. Please call even the unwavering Republicans — otherwise you’re giving them a free pass and allowing them the delusion that everyone in their state agrees with them.

Here’s a whole section of Congress.gov dedicated to explaining the legislative process if you would like to learn more.

Concurrent Resolutions

So what about all the news that Congress had repealed the Affordable Care Act and stripped away protections for children, pre-existing conditions, and so on?

This was not a law; it was a Concurrent Resolution (S.Con.3). It reflects the budget goals for the year, but did not go through the process described above. It does not have to be signed by the president (so it was unaffected by the fact Obama was still the president at the time). It does not have the force of law, but instead reflects on things that the two houses of Congress agree on. The Budget resolution at the beginning of the each session of Congress is probably the most important Concurrent Resolution. They can also be used for things like congratulating another country or setting up rules or schedules for both houses of Congress.

When a Concurrent Resolution passes through both houses of Congress, it is not the end of the line. You can still comment and voice your opinion before any elements of it are enshrined by law.

How are Laws Repealed?

Repealing a law requires the same steps as creating one: committee discussion, floor debate, vote, passing to the other house, and finally sending to the president.

It only needs a simple majority to pass any law, but the other side can filibuster.  This means Senators can simply stand up and keep talking (usually about something completely unrelated to the law under discussion), and prevent the vote from taking place. Only a 2/3 majority (67 votes) can shut them down and force a vote. (In the House, there is no opportunity for filibuster.) The current record holder is Strom Thurmond from South Carolina who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes trying to prevent the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

In the case of repeal, calls of support are likely to be very effective.

Keep Calling. Put Your Representatives on Speed Dial.

Image (c) By Martin Falbisoner (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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