Legislation Begins With You

Often I am asked, "How does a law originate?" That’s a good question. Recently in Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to author a bill that became law in June of 2001. The law (Act 64 of 2001) prohibits tranportation of horses in multi-level vehicles (The Horse of September 2001, article #2839).

Act 64 was not my idea. Although I like horses and ride them, I have never owned one and was totally unfamiliar with the situation of horse transportation. Folks in the horse industry who saw a need for a change raised the concern to me. In a meeting with several people representing several organizations, I agreed that a problem existed, and thus the process began.

Rarely are the ideas that become laws the creation of the legislators. We rely heavily on those who are much more knowledgeable of their industries than we are. It is often said that an elected official quickly becomes a jack-of-all-trades and master of none in an effort to understand the myriad of issues that face us today.

If you have a concern or recommendation you believe merits legislation, then you need to communicate with your legislators. First you should try to determine whether your issue is something that must be addressed by the federal, state, or local government.

There aren’t any simple guidelines to follow, unless you want to dig out a copy of the U.S. Constitution and your state’s constitution. So if you’re not sure where your idea falls, call your state or federal lawmaker’s office first and ask the staff to help you before you meet with a lawmaker. Their office phone numbers should be listed in the government pages of your local telephone book. The Internet is also a good place to find contact information for your state and federal lawmakers.

Once you’ve identified the appropriate level of government to approach, try to set up a face-to-face meeting with the lawmaker. A phone conversation or personalized letter can also work, but it’s always more effective to speak face-to-face.

Please remember that brevity is the key to effective communication. Don’t bring piles of information and dump it on the legislator’s desk. Keep it simple and to the point -- too much information will weaken your message. There is always time for more background and supporting information later if it is needed to build support for the idea among other lawmakers.

Even when a legislator takes up your cause, don’t expect miracles. The legislative process can be a lengthy one. Act 64 took me four years, and there are many bills out there that have been debated even longer. Even when you believe your concern is paramount, I assure you there will be those who oppose it.

State governments vary slightly in size and practice, so I’ll use Pennsylvania as an example. If I introduce a bill based on your idea, the first thing I do is try to get as many co-sponsors on the bill as possible to show support for the measure. Once the bill is introduced, it is referred to a committee. Often, a bill never moves any further than that. To get a bill considered by the committee usually requires getting the support of the committee chairman.

If I am fortunate enough to get the bill approved by the committee, I then have to persuade a majority of the 203 members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to approve it as well. As you can imagine, the men and women who serve in Pennsylvania (or any other) state government have many different priorities and ideas. Building consensus on an issue is possible, but it’s a slow and sometimes painful process.

If I can get the bill approved by the House, I then need the support of a majority of the 50 members of the state Senate. Finally, the governor needs to sign it before it becomes law.

The legislative process is complex, so be patient with your legislators, and trust them to do the right thing. Don’t hit the airwaves with phone calls, press releases, letters, or e-mails until your legislator says the timing is right. Ill-timed correspondence can be a negative rather than a positive influence in a controversial issue.

In summary, if you believe you have an issue that merits legislative attention, adhere to the following steps:

  • Arrange for a face-to-face meeting with your legislator.
  • Be precise and to the point -- do not bring volumes of material to the meeting.
  • Be a resource, not an antagonist, as the process develops.
  • Be patient and with some luck and hard work, your efforts will be rewarded.

About the Author

Rep. Jim Lynch

Rep. Jim Lynch represented northwestern Pennsylvania in the state House of Representatives from 1993-2004. He represents all of Warren and Forest Counties and portions of McKean County.

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