Working the system: Citizens can exert influence at every step


The Legislature that opens Jan. 13 has just 15 weeks -- 105 days -- in which to deal with roughly 2,000 bills, plus a $2.6 billion deficit. With virtually every activity of state government on the chopping block it is critical that we tell our legislators what we want: cut services again (if so, which ones), raise revenues (if so, how) or order more layoffs.

Happily, we have a remarkably accessible Legislature. They're part-time legislators with other lives, as business people, retired farmers, real estate agents and nurses. So here is a reminder of seventh-grade social studies, along with three easy ways to have an impact.

The legislative process has some complicated parts, but the basics are simple. Every bill is assigned a number, beginning with SB or HB (for Senate Bill or House Bill). Once a bill is introduced, groups and individuals quickly decide to support, oppose or try to change it.

We can influence the process at every step along the way:

  • By offering ideas for bills and amendments.

  • When a bill is discussed in a policy committee.

  • When a bill is discussed in a fiscal committee.

  • When a bill is discussed in the full House and full Senate.

  • When a bill comes out of conference committee with changes.

  • When a bill goes to the governor for signature.

  • Throughout the budget process.

All these opportunities occur within a strict timetable and a process designed to answer three key questions:

First question: Is this bill a good idea? That question is answered in one of the many policy committees -- e.g., the Education Committee, the Commerce Committee, the Agriculture Committee. These committees take testimony from the public, question agency staff and determine how each bill would be implemented. The sessions are public; anyone can sign in at the hearings to testify or to record support or opposition. Throughout, we can influence the process by commenting on changes; conveying positions to the governor and legislative leadership; talking to the media; working to build voter support; and meeting with our legislators in Olympia or at home.

After a committee has taken public testimony, its leaders schedule an equally public executive session when members debate, amend and vote on the bills before them. If a majority -- 51 percent -- of the policy committee approve, the bill moves to the next stage. By about the 50th day of the session, all bills must be dealt with in a policy committee in the body where they originated (House or Senate). Bills not voted on by that point usually die.

Second question: Is this a good use of the taxpayers' money? Can we afford it? There are many good ideas but we cannot afford them all. Every bill that costs $50,000 or more goes to a fiscal committee -- called Appropriations in the House and Ways and Means in the Senate. It's the job of these committees to focus on costs or savings and choose among the many good ideas.

Fiscal committees also take public testimony, hear from agency staff and use executive sessions to debate, amend and vote on the bills. Here too, everything is open to the public and fast-paced: Bills before the fiscal committees must be acted on by about the 60th day of the session or die. (Nearly two-thirds of all bills are dead by this point.) If a majority of the fiscal committee members -- 51 percent -- approve, the bill moves to the next stage.

Third question: Can a majority of the citizens support this? Two-thirds of the way through, that's decided on the floor of the chambers; each of us has one senator and two representatives. Once again our legislators have an opportunity to debate, amend and finally vote on the bill as amended. Even at this stage we have influence. Many legislators bring their laptop computers onto the House and Senate floor, so we can send a brief e-mail or "hot-line" message, saying how we want them to vote. If a majority of the full House or full Senate -- again, 51 percent -- vote "yes," the bill moves to the next stage.

Bills passed by the House shift to the Senate, and vice versa. Ultimately, any differences between the two versions must be resolved in a conference committee because both chambers must pass all bills in identical form.

Finally, every bill passed by the Legislature goes to the governor, who signs it, vetoes it or vetoes sections of it. Bills signed by the governor become law.

Meanwhile, the fiscal committees will also be writing a budget for 2003-2005, a tortuous task given the deficit. Budget writing will dominate the session, especially in the last weeks.

Sending a message to legislators is easy, whether the subject is a bill or a budget item, and they try to respond. Here are three easy steps everyone can take:

1. Get on a good legislative alert list. Whatever you care most about, there is probably an advocacy group monitoring and reporting on it. Pick your top priority and contact the group that best reflects your views on the subject (such as PTA, Chamber of Commerce, Children's Alliance, Sierra Club). Ask to receive the group's legislative alerts. Most alerts go out via fax or e-mail; they're a quick way to learn when your voice is needed.

2. Contact your legislators and the governor. If you don't know your legislators, go to Click on: "Find Who Represents You" and fill in your home address to get the names of your legislators. (That same Web site offers information on bills, committee hearings and more.) You can send a brief e-mail, phone or write a note. Tell them you live in their district, the issue you care about and that you expect to be in touch during the session. The same procedure works for the governor.

3. Use your telephone. When I ask legislators how many calls or letters it takes to get their attention on an issue, they often say "about a dozen." That won't get a bill all the way through the process and signed into law, but it is enough to call attention to an issue.

There is a toll-free hot line to the Legislature: 1-800-562-6000. It offers language translation and TTY for people with hearing difficulties. Plus, it is a quick, low-stress way to send a message. During the session operators take calls from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. They can help identify your legislators and coach you through a message, and they never try to put you on the spot. They won't even ask whether you are registered to vote or a citizen.

A brief, clear hot-line message will be sent via e-mail to your two representatives, senator and, if you choose, the governor; it takes only about two minutes. Unsure what to say? Use the information in the legislative alert you asked for in step one.

If you get a chance to talk with one of your legislators, have a brief (90-second) "speech" ready --one that specifies your issue, the bill or budget item you care about and what you want done. During the session their days are long and everyone wants something -- so it pays to be brief, polite and respectful of the fact that we are asking them to make tough choices.

As this demonstrates, you don't need to be an expert in the process or the bills. You just need to remember two things: Democracy is not a spectator sport, and doing nothing is a political act. Like others before you, you will quickly discover that our representative democracy is an amazing, daunting, enlightening and above all, empowering process -- but only if we get involved.

Nancy Amidei is on the faculty at the University of Washington School of Social Work, where she directs the Civic Engagement Project and produces a weekly POLICY WATCH bulletin during the legislative session;


In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]

Back to Current Edition Citizen Review Archive LINKS Search This Site