How Many Federal and State Legislators Do I Have?
Most Americans elect a total of five people to represent their interests in federal and state legislatures—three on the federal level, and two on the state level.
If you are a U.S. citizen of one of the 50 states, you are represented by three legislators in the United States Congress, which is the legislative branch of our federal government. Every two years, your region (district) within your state elects one person to the House of Representatives. This is your U.S. representative. You also have two elected officials, your U.S. senators, who represent your entire state in the United States Senate. They serve six-year terms. Senate elections are staggered—we elect about one-third of our senators every two years. This system was set up so that the entire Senate won't be campaigning or replaced at the same time.
The District of Columbia and U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam have no voting representation in Congress. However, they do have non-voting delegates in the House of Representatives who have the right to speak on the Floor as one means of serving their constituencies.
All states have their own legislatures to govern state matters. Excluding Nebraska, which is the sole state to have a unicameral (and nonpartisan) legislature, state legislatures resemble Congress in that they are bi-cameral, meaning they consist of two bodies. As with Congress, the upper body is called the Senate, but the names of the lower bodies vary from state to state—the most common names are House of Representatives and Assembly.
People usually have one state representative/assemblyperson and one state senator—however, in some states, one individual may have as many as two senators and three representatives.
Most state representatives are elected for two-year terms and most state senators serve four-year terms. State elections occur in even-numbered years (except for state elections in Louisiana, Virginia and New Jersey). In addition, term limits have been enacted in many states that limit how many times an individual may hold a specific office.
Please make sure you are registered to vote.
I Want a Law Created—Which Level of Government Should I Contact?
Laws can be passed on the federal, state or local level. So if you want a new law enacted, how do you know which government you should target?
Issues that affect international and interstate commerce (trade with other countries and between the states), programs that receive federal funding—such as public housing and many research facilities—and practices that require uniformity in regulation, enforcement and compliance, such as transportation of animals or testing, call for federal laws.
State & Local
Laws that make certain acts illegal (like animal cruelty), or that regulate and license facilities that house or sell animals within the state, such as pet stores, generally are state laws. In most cases, the states can also enact laws that regulate industries that are already regulated by the federal government, as long as the state laws are at least as stringent as the federal law. For example, many states have laws that regulate puppy mills, even though the federal Animal Welfare Act regulates the industry. If the state laws are less stringent than the federal laws, they are void and federal law prevails. Sometimes the federal government “preempts” an entire field by expressly stating that the states may not enact legislation on an issue that is already regulated federally.
Likewise, local governments/municipalities often enact separate, more stringent ordinances that address specific problems in their communities. For example, New York State law requires dogs to get their first rabies vaccination by four months of age. However, New York City's Department of Health says dogs must be vaccinated against rabies by three months of age. The result is that city dogs have one less month to get the vaccine than do dogs in the rest of the state (barring any similar regulations in other NY communities, of course).
Before considering a meeting with an elected representative, be sure to do your homework—which includes determining whether there is already a law or ordinance on the issue that concerns you. Legislators have very tight schedules, and if they or a staff member are willing to make time to see you, that time needs to be well-spent. You should be prepared to explain the problem, its affect on the community, why it should concern your legislator, the lack of laws that address the problem and the need to remedy the issue. Review our article Working With Your Elected Officials before deciding whether you should reach out to your legislator.
What Is a Sponsor?
A sponsor is the legislator who introduces a bill to his or her legislative body for consideration and action. Introduction of a bill is the first step toward it becoming a law. A bill may have one sponsor or several.
Which Legislator Will Make a Good Sponsor for My Bill?
To give a bill the best chance of succeeding, it helps if the “sponsor” is in the “majority party” of the body he or she serves in, whether that's the Republican or Democratic Party.
It can also prove helpful for the sponsor to be a member—or even better, the chairperson—of the committee in which the bill is introduced. In Congress, most companion and farm animal protection bills are assigned to the Agriculture Committee, while legislation that affects wildlife is referred to the Environmental Conservation or Natural Resource Committee. Of course, committee referral is determined on a case-by-case basis and some animal-related bills are referred elsewhere because of their content.
Lastly, the best sponsor will be strongly committed to the issue. A sponsor's genuine dedication to a bill can only help it become a law faster.
You may wish to get in touch with the ASPCA Government Relations Department to get a better sense of the current political climate and whether introduction of a bill on the issue concerning you would be politically and economically feasible at the present time. Timing in politics is everything, and while your issue may be a very valid one, it may not fit into legislators' agendas for the current session.
What Is a Cosponsor?
Cosponsors are legislators who sign on to a bill to indicate their support while the bill is still moving through the legislative process. Bills are often referred to several committees based on subject matter and other factors, such as whether they impose criminal penalties or will cost the government money. Having a legislator from each of these committees as a cosponsor—and therefore a “spokesperson” for the bill—may be helpful. The right cosponsors can help speed a bill's movement through the legislative process and on to final votes.
What Happens Once a Bill Is Introduced?
When a bill is introduced, it is assigned a number and referred to the appropriate committee based on subject matter. This type of legislation is usually referred to as a “stand alone” bill.
Alternatively, the substance of a bill may be attached, in the form of an amendment, to a larger bill on a similar topic. There are advantages and disadvantages to your bill becoming part of another bill, because its fate is tied to the rest of the legislation.
There are many rules governing bill movement, and they differ between legislatures. However, in general, a bill passes from a committee (or subcommittee) after the members hold a hearing. At that time, a “mark-up” may occur. This is when changes—also known as amendments—are made to the bill before it is voted on. It is crucial that a bill be carefully analyzed each step of the way, because the changes or compromises that can occur during mark-ups may turn a good bill into a less effective or even harmful, unwanted measure.
If the legislation is passed by a majority vote of the committee, it will then be sent to the next committee, and so on and so on, until it is ready to be voted on by the entire legislative body at once. If and when it reaches this point, the resulting vote is called a “floor” vote.
While a bill may be voted out of all relevant committees, whether it ever reaches the floor is based heavily on internal politics and which legislators are controlling the voting agenda.
What Is a Companion Bill?
In a bi-cameral legislature, bills must pass both houses to become law. Passing only the House or only the Senate is not enough. So during or after the process explained above, a similar process usually occurs in the other house with a “companion,” or identical bill. By the time a bill has passed both houses, there often are differences in the versions each house has approved. These differences must ultimately be ironed out in “conference” to create one bill that is approved by a majority in each house. Once that has been accomplished, it will be sent to the governor (if it is state legislation) or to the president (if it is federal legislation).
How Long Does it Take to Pass a Bill?
Most proposals never pass, and those that do often required repeated introductions (over more than one legislative session) to succeed. Do not become discouraged if a bill you support does not pass on its first try—this is normal and to be expected. However, the better the planning and preparation, the better the chances of a bill eventually getting passed and becoming law.
Do you want to take a more active role in the legislative process? Become a member of the ASPCA's Advocacy Brigade.