As the government body most responsible for shaping laws, engaging Congress remains an integral part of a successful public affairs strategy. However, the complex mechanics of the congressional process can prove overwhelming for those unfamiliar with how this branch of government works.

For students, political enthusiasts and those with a simple curiosity about our government's inner workings, this guide offers detailed navigation through the complexities of Congress in 2024.

 

Table of Contents

Understanding the Basics of Congress

The Structure of Congress: Senate and House of Representatives

The Structure of Congressional Offices

The Legislative Process in Congress

Understanding Policy Reports

The Influence of Lobbying on Legislation

Conclusion

 

Understanding the Basics of Congress

The main responsibilities of Congress involve creating legislation that guides the country and advocating for the concerns of American citizens. This process involves introducing bills, engaging in debates, making amendments and ultimately passing legislation.

However, Congress is not limited to lawmaking. It also plays a crucial role in overseeing the U.S. executive branch. Through its committees and hearings, Congress ensures accountability and transparency in the actions of the president and the various federal agencies. This oversight function is essential for maintaining the balance of power and preventing any abuse of authority.

The country's finances, regulation of commerce and declaration of war all fall under Congress' direct control. These additional functions significantly shape the nation's direction and policies, thus establishing Congress as an indispensable institution within the democratic process.

 

 

The Structure of Congress: Senate and House of Representatives

The U.S. Congress features a bicameral structure made up of two chambers or houses: The Senate and The House of Representatives. Reflecting the Founding Fathers' vision for a balanced, representative government, each chamber possesses unique characteristics and responsibilities.

Two senators from each state constitute the Senate, totaling 100 members; this equal representation, irrespective of a state's size or population, guarantees an equivalent voice for every state. The Senate's composition permits a more deliberative and cautious approach to lawmaking: senators enjoy lengthier terms, thereby diminishing their susceptibility to popular pressure.

The vice president of the United States technically assumes the role of the Senate's president; he or she oversees deliberations and casts the decisive vote in a tie.

Members of the Senate elect the Senate president pro tempore as their presiding officer when the vice president is unavailable; this occurs at the onset of each new Congress or upon a vacancy in that position. Seniority typically determines who assumes this role, but it does not guarantee election to it.

The House of Representatives bases its membership on each state's population; it totals 435 members. This composition facilitates a more dynamic and responsive approach to lawmaking: people elect their representatives directly every two years.

At the commencement of a new Congress, or upon vacancy in the role, House members nominate an individual to assume both leadership positions: one as the Speaker of the House and the other as leader for their majority party. To take up this position requires nominees to secure a majority vote from every voting member within The House.

The speaker, in their pursuit to advance the policy objectives of their party, wields an outsized influence over the House’s legislative priorities. Additionally, they are tasked with appointing committee members, overseeing adherence to House rules and engaging with the Senate through negotiation processes.

In addition to leadership positions, both the majority and minority parties feature a whip system. This involves empowering a party member as a whip to maintain discipline and ensure that all members vote to support the party’s political agenda.

 

Congressional Offices

Each member of Congress has associated congressional offices to carry out legislative duties and constituent services.

These offices are manned by congressional staff, who work to research policy issues, draft bills and communicate with constituents. Additionally, committee staff are assigned to support the work of specific committees.

While various staffing models exist, congressional offices generally break down into four teams:

  • Legislative
  • Communications
  • Operations
  • Constituent Services

This structured division of labor enables congressional offices to navigate the complexities of governance with efficiency and effectiveness.

 

Legislative Team

On the legislative side, the legislative director, sometimes known as the policy director, guides and manages the office’s legislative agenda. The policy director serves as a key adviser to the elected official, providing insights on the potential impact of proposed policies and ensuring alignment with the representative's values and priorities.

The legislative director is aided by legislative assistants who track and analyze legislation and sometimes even craft legislation themselves.

Legislative correspondents serve as the bridge between the legislative team and constituents, tasked with maintaining communication with constituents. Due to the sheer volume of correspondence, an emphasis is placed on creating templates for email and hard copy communication to be sent after a constituent's correspondence has been categorized properly.

 

Communications Team

A congressional staff’s communications team plays a crucial role in crafting and conveying the representative's narrative to the public, media and other stakeholders. The team might include a communications director, press secretary, social media director and press assistant. However, given the relatively small budgets of House staff, these functions are typically combined to a degree.

Communication team members often work on drafting press releases, speeches and official statements, ensuring that the representative's message is clear, consistent and aligned with their policy priorities. They also engage with the media to coordinate interviews, respond to inquiries and proactively promote the representative's agenda.

Additionally, the communications team may oversee the management of the official website and social media channels, using these platforms to connect with constituents and keep them informed about the representative's activities.

 

Operations Team

The operations team in a congressional office handles administrative and logistical tasks to help facilitate the smooth functioning of the office. This team is responsible for managing day-to-day operations, coordinating schedules and ensuring the efficient use of resources.

Members of the operations team often handle tasks such as managing the office budget, overseeing personnel matters and coordinating logistics for events and meetings. Additionally, the operations team may manage office supplies, technology infrastructure, and other essential resources to support the work of the legislative and communications teams.

An important member of the operations team is the scheduler, who serves as the gateway to the congressmember and, in the House, often serves as the D.C. office manager. Another role includes the systems administrator, a tech-savvy team member who oversees all issues related to technology.

 

Constituent Service Team

The constituent services team bridges the gap between elected representatives and the diverse needs of the communities they serve. By offering assistance in navigating federal agencies, addressing individual concerns and providing information on government programs, constituent service teams ensure that the benefits and protections of the federal government are accessible to all citizens.

Some examples of constituent services include:

  • Assistance with federal agencies
  • Navigating bureaucratic processes
  • Veterans Affairs (VA)
  • Social Security Issues
  • Immigration Services
  • Housing Assistance
  • Small Business Support
  • Consumer Protection
  • Community Development

Additionally, the constituent services team may organize and attend community events, town hall meetings and outreach programs to stay connected with the local community and understand the specific needs of constituents.

 

The Legislative Process in Congress

Crafting legislation into law is an arduous and intricate path that demands meticulous guidance and contemplation.

Supportive members in either the House of Representatives or the Senate take on the authorship and cosponsorship of a bill, marking the commencement of its journey. This critical first step is frequently preceded by thorough investigation, cooperation and consideration of public feedback.

 

The Role of Committees in Legislation

Members possessing expertise and knowledge in their respective policy areas compose committees. Legislative committees are led by a chairperson, who is appointed by the leadership of the majority party. The role of the chairperson can be determined by seniority or be put to a vote by committee members. In some committees, the chairperson is a revolving role, where different members have the opportunity to take control of a committee.  

Committee review is often necessary to resolve dissimilarities between the House and Senate. This process entails the gathering of legislative committees to scrutinize and deliberate on proposed legislation before it is presented to the entire chamber for voting. Typically, this includes conducting legislative hearings and making adjustments to determine which aspects of the legislation require revision.

After passing committee review, the bill advances to floor debate where legislators engage in deliberations and present their positions either in favor or against the proposed legislation.

 

The Voting Process

Following the discussion on the floor, the bill advances to the voting stage. Approval from both chambers is necessary for it to progress in order to guarantee widespread acceptance among legislators and secure its status as a proposed law.

Occasionally, legislation may incorporate riders or amendments annexed to a bill that does not inherently correspond with the primary intent of the legislation. Riders are employed as concessions to allure committee members who otherwise might not elect to promote the bill.

Congress can also utilize riders to confront contentious matters that may not be approved as a single bill, such as merging a firearms regulation addendum with healthcare legislation.

After the House and Senate have approved a bill, it is sent to the president for either approval or veto. If he chooses to sign, the legislation becomes law. However, should the president exercise his power of veto, Congress can assert its authority by overriding with a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber, potentially resulting in the same bill becoming law.

 

Understanding Policy Reports

Policy reports refer to a diverse range of documents and materials produced by or for the U.S. Congress. Their multifaceted purposes range from informing legislators to documenting legislative activities and disseminating public information. Congressional publications commonly take on these types:

  • The Congressional Record captures verbatim the debates and proceedings on the floor of both the House of Representatives and Senate.
  • House and Senate Reports offer in-depth elucidations of a bill's purpose and provisions, along with recommendations from the respective committee.
  • Committee Prints are generated by congressional committees to furnish supplementary information concerning legislative activities.
  • Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports evaluate congressional policies and activities, including investigating fraud and waste in federal programs.
  • Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports provide cost estimates to project the budgetary impact of proposed legislation. 
  • Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports offer non-partisan policy and legal analysis to aid Congress in legislative decision-making.

These publications play an important role in documenting legislative processes, facilitating transparency and preserving the official record of the United States Congress for historical and informational purposes. They are often accessible to the public through government websites, libraries and other repositories.

Additionally, the executive branch weighs in on legislation with its own reports, including the following:

  • Statements of Administration are official documents issued by the executive branch to express the current administration’s position on a piece of legislation under consideration by Congress.
  • Executive Orders are official directives issued by the president of the United States to manage operations of the federal government. These orders have the force of law, though they are subject to legal and constitutional constraints.

 

The Influence of Lobbying on Legislation

To comprehend Congress's navigation of conflicting interests and policy decision balances, one must understand the crucial role and impact lobbying holds in the legislative process.

Interest groups actively lobby to influence legislation: they champion their causes and engage with lawmakers. Through direct advocacy such as meeting legislators, offering research and data and presenting compelling arguments in support of their positions, these groups promote impactful change at the policy level.

Lobbyists have a significant impact on orchestrating grassroots advocacy campaigns and increasing awareness about particular policy matters. In coordination with various sectors, such as business, labor unions, environmental organizations and civil rights groups, lobbyists develop a government relations strategy to advance their client’s policy objectives. This encompasses monitoring relevant legislation and fostering connections with policymakers and other influential parties.

Detractors do exist in the practice of lobbying; critics contend that well-funded interest groups might wield disproportionate influence, potentially skewing the legislative process and favoring specific policy outcomes. To foster transparency and accountability within these activities, Congress has enacted a series of regulations, as well as disclosure requirements.

We advise organizations intending to lobby policymakers and conduct thorough research into the available lobbying firms—this ensures that your selected lobbyists adhere strictly to the law. To aid in this process, public affairs software provides a valuable resource; it enables advocates not only to scrutinize expense reports but also FARA and domestic filings—it even highlights trends within the lobbying industry, all instrumental elements for effectively vetting an appropriate lobbying firm on behalf of your organization.

 

Conclusion

Anyone seeking to impact legislation and create policy changes must navigate the complex workings of Congress. This comprehensive guide equips you with a thorough understanding by delving into its role, functions, legislative process, relationship with the federal government and effects of elections on representation.

If you're a public affairs professional looking to navigate the complex world of Congress, you might find public affairs software like LegiStorm a valuable resource. It can help you identify congressional staff, monitor activity on Capitol Hill and engage effectively with members and their teams.

 

Originally published December 28, 2023, updated April 5, 2024

 

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