The Legislative Process and Your Role In It
(Or How a Bill Becomes a Law in Massachusetts)
There are two bodies that make up the legislature – the House and the Senate. The state is divided into various districts, with districts being represented by an elected member in the House and an elected member in the Senate. They are called state representatives and state senators. This is similar to the federal government.
The legislature’s committee system is an important part of the lawmaking process. In Massachusetts there are three types of committees: Senate, House and Joint. All committees are bipartisan, meaning they consist of members representing all the various parties in the legislature: Democrats, Republicans, Independents or a member of another political party. Joint Committees are made up of members from both the House and Senate. Each committee has a specific jurisdiction, usually defined by topics such as health care, economic development or transportation. These committees, most of which are joint committees, review proposed legislation within their jurisdiction. Joint committees have both a Senate and House Chair.
Bills, Hearings, and Committee Vote
A bill is filed by a legislator and may have many co-sponsors. The bill is then assigned to the appropriate committee depending on the topic. Each committee then announces a hearing date for those bills assigned to it. There is only one public hearing for a bill. The legislature is not required to give much notice before the hearings take place. Usually there is a week’s notice or less. Everyone is welcome to testify. You may choose to testify in person, in which case we strongly suggest you review our Guidelines for Preparing and Giving Testimony. If you are able to testify in person, you can answer questions by committee members and generally get your point across more effectively. In addition, anyone can submit written testimony by email to the chair(s) of the committee during the week of the hearing. MCFL will send out an email with information detailing who you should email your testimony to. The chair will share your testimony with the other members of the committee. This is one of the few times when it doesn’t matter if you are a constituent of the chair or one of the members of the committee. Any interested party can send in written testimony to the chairs and committee members.
Once testimony is heard, the committee may vote the same day but usually does not vote for a period of time. When they do vote, they can vote to send the bill to the floor of the legislative body (House or Senate) where it originated to be voted on. They can also vote to table, send to study, etc or they may not vote at all. Any action other than sending it to the floor for a vote generally means the bill is dead for that session.
The Influence You Have as a Constituent
A constituent is a person who lives in the district of the legislator or official. You are a constituent of your State Representative, your State Senator, your U. S. Congressman, etc. from the President down to your local town officials.
As a constituent, you are very important in the legislative process; perhaps more important than you realize. You carry a lot of clout! You have a right to meet with your legislators and to have them pay attention to your views. Unfortunately, many people do not take advantage of the influence they have in the running of our government. It has been said that if as few as five to ten constituents contact their legislator on a particular issue, they can influence their vote.
There are a variety of ways that you can contact your legislator. A personal meeting is the most influential. Most legislators spend some regular time in their district in meetings with their constituents, which offers you the opportunity to meet them. You might also be able to visit with them at the State House office, but we advise you call ahead first to make sure they will be in. Other ways of contacting your state representative or state senator are by letter, phone call, or by email. A letter is more effective than a phone call, which is more effective than an email. On occasion we have asked our members to call the legislative committee members even before the hearings. We did that with the hearings on doctor-prescribed suicide in 2013, because we wanted to influence the way the legislators heard the testimony. Any type of form correspondence i.e. letter, postcard or email sent en masse by a group of individuals, does not have great influence.
Constituents of committee members are extremely important and have a place which no one else does. Once the hearings are over, it is up to constituents of committee members to work with their legislators –- support those who are with us, educate the undecided, and inundate the ones who oppose our position about why the bill should or should not go the floor for a vote. Just before that vote of the committee, it is appropriate for the general public to call the chairs. If a bill does get to the floor, all pro-life people in the state should attempt to meet with their own Representative and Senator. If that is not possible, the least they must do is call to urge support or defeat.
All the information you will need about your legislator’s contact information and the information on why we support or oppose particular bills may be found in the annual list of our legislative agenda.
We send out email updates with specific information and suggestions for the most effective action. We also telephone people in particularly sensitive districts. If you do not currently receive emails and calls from Mass Citizens, please sign up for our email list. Even better, become a member of MCFL, providing the financial support that allows us to lead the pro-life efforts in our Commonwealth. That is how you exercise your influence for life!
As always, the most vulnerable in our society are wholly dependent on your efforts and mine. Let’s be as effective as possible!