How to Pass a Law

There Ought to Be a Law - page 2

Lobbying your Bill

You've found a committed sponsor, you've conferred with an attorney, you've drafted a bill, your sponsor has filed it, and you've held a press conference. Congratulations! Now the hard work starts.

Find the most comfortable shoes in the world because you'll really need them as you begin to do "Halls and Walls."

Halls and Walls is the process of visiting all the elected officials and/or their staff who will be voting on your bill. And by all, we do mean ALL. You will need to reach out to everyone, even those you know in advance who will oppose your efforts.

Information Packets

The first step is to assemble lobbying packets. The packets should be short and concise. A one page fact sheet that lays out the arguments for your position and helps to dispel myths is always helpful.  Include in your packet any news articles, editorials, or op-ed pieces which support your bill or position. Op-ed pieces or letters to the editor are particularly influential with elected officials. As one very powerful U.S. Senator stated, "I skip the newspaper's editorials and go directly to the letters section. I already know what the paper thinks, I want to know what my constituents think!"

Be prepared to counter arguments from your opposition. In some cases, you may want to include their arguments in your written material and give your rebuttal as well. In other cases, it's best not to raise the opposition's stand but to be ready to rebut it once the argument is raised.

Meetings with Elected Officials

Call in advance to arrange a meeting with elected officials or their staff.  A prearranged meeting gives you more time to discuss the issue than the chance meeting in the hall or a "drop-by" meeting.

During meetings, remember to always be polite. Even if the legislator is opposed to your bill, politely explain your points and listen to his/her opposition. You may find that you aren't that far apart on the issue.

Arrange to see the members of the committee that will hear your bill first. Try to get a personal appointment. If that is not possible, leave an information packet and follow through with a phone call to see if he/she has any questions.

After your meeting, send a thank you note to the legislator or staff for their time and attention to your issue.  Remember to send any additional information or data they requested.

During your meetings, do not lie, exaggerate or make up information.  If you don't know the answer to question, say so. You can always get back to them with the correct information at a later date.

Lobbying Through the Media and Membership

Time for more press releases! Now you can add the bill's number and sponsors name as well as any new coalition members you may have picked up along the way. But don't send out a press release with your sponsor's name on until you have cleared it with his office. Run a draft through the media person or whoever handles press for your sponsor.  Once you've received the go ahead, make sure you send him the final press release as well as copies of articles picked up by the media.

Send out another round of legislative alerts to your members. Inform them of the bill's number, sponsor, and status and let them know what they can do to help the bill along. Leave extra copies of the alert out on the counter of your shelter or in information racks in public areas of your office. Everyone interested in this issue needs to be a lobbyist for the bill. Educate members and supporters through any avenue you have available.

Voting on the Bill

The names used for the hearing at which legislators vote can vary quite a bit. Congress refers to it as "marking up a bill." Some state bodies call it an "Executive Session." Others refer to it as simply "a vote." Whatever the name, the process is usually standard.

The time for voting on a bill varies from state to state and from municipality to municipality. Be sure you know the schedule and rules governing the particular legislative body that is handling your bill.  However, when a vote is finally scheduled, make sure you attend. 

In most committee hearings in which a vote is taken, the public is not allowed to comment. Discussion may sometimes take place among the committee members and questions may be asked for which your sponsor doesn't readily have the answer. Work with the sponsor and his staff to anticipate questions and try to develop a system of getting the correct information to your sponsor as the questions are asked.

Take notes on the questions asked and get back to the questioners with current information on the subject. Check with your sponsor or other supportive committee members to see what concerns haven't been addressed and how you might accommodate those concerns.

If your bill survives the markup and gets a favorable vote, go celebrate. The vast majority of bills are killed in committee, either outright or by referral to another committee or to a study. Few bills ever survive a study committee.

Fiscal Review Committees

Bills that have any sort of financial impact on a governmental body are usually destined for yet another committee.  As mentioned earlier, it is very important for you to know the fiscal impact of your bill and to follow through with the correct cost figures if an incorrect amount has been assigned to your bill.

Once the bill goes to the fiscal review committee, check to see that the correct cost figures go with it. Be ready to defend the cost to administer your bill and substantiate the revenue you anticipate from its passage. If you are not providing a new revenue source for the administration of your bill, give creative, but realistic, suggestions as to where the money may come from. Work with all members of the fiscal review committee to substantiate the need for your bill and why funds should be taken from another programs to pay for yours. 

Other Committees

Many governments have additional committees that review bills in the legislative process. Some of these committees look at the bill to make sure they are constitutional and reference the correct section of law. Other committees schedule bills for a vote. Be sure to become familiar with the legislative process in your area. Work with your sponsor to insure the bill doesn't become lost in the myriad of committees it may have to pass through prior to passage.

On the Floor

Your bill has survived all the committees, withstood the fiscal review, and is now on its way to the floor of the chamber in which it was introduced. Pat yourself on the back, and get back to lobbying. You must now reach every member of the chamber who will vote on your bill. Try to arrange personal appointments with each member. If that is not possible, try to meet with the staff member. In any case, you need to drop off an information packet with a personal note telling the members that you appreciate their busy schedule but hope they will take a minute to look over your material. Invite them to contact you if they have questions. If you know the date of the hearing, include it in the information packet, and ask for their votes on that day.

Day of the Vote

When the bill does come up for a vote on the chamber floor, be there. It's always comforting for your sponsor to know that you care enough about the bill to follow it all the way through the process. It also lets other legislators know that you are monitoring the voting on your bill.

A bill can be stalled on the floor as well as voted up or down. Watch for parliamentary moves that send your bill into never-never land. It isn't necessary to memorize Robert Rules of Order but it is helpful to know at least a few of the key parliamentary moves used by legislators to delay bills.

Regardless of what happens to your bill, try to remain calm. Even if the bill is voted down, it may not mean the death knell for your issue.  Confer with your sponsor and ask his advice on what to do next.

If your bill passes, be a gracious winner, and remember that you will have to repeat the process in another chamber if your bill is on the state level. Savor your victory, and rest up for the lobbying of the other chamber.

The Art of Compromise

Few bills are ever passed into law with the original language still in tact. When initially drafting the bill, you should consider which issues are negotiable and which ones aren't. Have a clear bottom line and let your sponsor know what that is.

Following your bill throughout the process gives you the ability to track any change which may be detrimental. Often, you can negotiate with the sponsor of an amendment to rewrite it in such a way that you both still win.


Let's say you wrote a bill that would substantially increase the penalty for cruelty to animals.  The current statute makes cruelty a misdemeanor with a 30 day jail term and/or a maximum fine of $100, regardless of the severity of the crime. You want to change the law to make it a felony provision and a fine of up to $5000 and/or five years in prison.

Many legislators shy away from increased penalties for cruelty to animals when they can't even move their bills on stiffer penalties for child abuse or spouse abuse. Negotiating a compromise on this issue might mean defining which acts of cruelty fall under a misdemeanor provision and which would be considered a felony under the porposed bill.

If a legislator wants to exempt a certain industry or some species of animals from the law in order to pass your bill, draw the line. Adding any sort of exemption to a law where none currently exists would drastically reduce any gains you make by increasing the penalty

Surviving a Conference Committee

The two chambers of your state Legislature have passed a version of your bill.

Unfortunately, they are not the same. One chamber passed it the way you wrote it. The other added three weakening amendments, including one that moves the effective date back one year.

What Do You Do Now?

Don't panic. Your sponsor can help you smooth out the problems, particularly if he sits on the conference committee. Again, you need to let him or her know your bottom line. You might be able to live with a delayed effective date if he or she can manage to delete the industry exemption amendment.

Find out who sits on the conference committee and lobby them to support your bill with whatever amendments you can live with.  Spell out the detrimental effect any amendments would have, and ask for their support to override the amendments.  Thank them for past support and provide them with any additional information they may need to maintain their support of your bill.

If the conference committee issues a report that would drastically change the intent of your bill and your prospects for overriding the report in either chamber look dim, its time to consider pulling your bill. Discuss with your sponsor the realistic prospects of salvaging the bill and whether

Lobbying the Governor

If you never thought of lobbying the governor, shame on you. Think of all the blood, sweat, and tears you just wasted if you left out the single most important vote.

Get the governor on your side early in the game. He and his key staff should receive your newsletter and, once the bill has been filed, a brief notice on your bill, its number, and a description of what it does. You may want to send the governor's office a fact sheet on the bill.

Once the bill has passed the legislature, write a letter to the governor outlining what your bill does and who its supporters are. Let him know of the broad based support for your bill. Address any continuing opposition up front, and let him or her know you are available to answer any questions he/she or his/her staff may have. Ask him or her to sign your bill into law.

If the governor does sign your bill, be sure to thank him or her both personally and publicly. Send out a press release that recognizes your sponsor, the governor, and all of the supporters of your bill.

Parting Notes

Never hang your heart or your hat on a bill. Few bills ever pass the first or the second time around.

Even the most seasoned veteran of the legislature has watched his favorite bill go down to defeat. If you are easily discouraged by defeat or have little stamina, you might want to consider staying out of the legislative arena.

Don't forget that there is always next year. You may find that when you try again, you have your facts more substantiated and there are more supporters for your position. 

Minding Your Manners

Say "thank you" to any and all individuals who worked with you on your bill. Remember to do this regardless of the outcome. You will need them again in the future, so even if you lose, you want them to know that you appreciate their support and work on the bill. Thank you messages should be extended to everyone who worked on your bill. This list includes legislative staff, media, other organizations, your own volunteers, and members as well as elected officials.

More information:

Lobbying on a Shoestring by Judith Meredith.  Available from MCLE.