by Karim Doumar and Cynthia Gordy Giwa | ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Here’s a refresher how the lawmakers we elect are supposed to make laws.
- A senator or representative introduces a bill.
- The bill goes to a committee for hearings and approval.
- It is debated and voted on from the House and Senate floors.
- Often, a compromise version is worked out.
- The resulting bill is voted on.
- If it passes and the president signs it, it becomes a law.
But most of the time — as Derek Willis, former ProPublica reporter and current professor at University of Maryland’s journalism school (who’s been helping on this project), has taught me — that’s not how it works at all.
Here’s a more realistic look at lawmaking:
Congress does pass a lot of bills through the legislative process. But these are mostly noncontroversial bills that do things like bestow honors, rename a post office or erect statues. There’s no debate and no deliberative, committee-driven process required.
When it comes to the legislation you do hear about — big, politically contentious things like the Inflation Reduction Act or the American Rescue Plan, both of which passed, or the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which did not — the process doesn’t always work as planned.
OK, How Does Congress Really Work?
One reason for the gridlock is that, these days, bills addressing big, national issues are written under the supervision of the Senate majority leader and the House speaker. (Currently, that’s Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, respectively.) They often receive guidance from only a small group of other congressional power brokers rather than the rank-and-file lawmakers who used to contribute to the process by working on legislation in committees.
For example: The recent Inflation Reduction Act was mostly hammered out in secret by Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin. After it became public, lawmakers made just a couple of changes to get other senators on board, and it passed.
This has been slowly changing since the mid-2000s and has intensified during the past decade, according to a 2018 deep dive from ProPublica and The Washington Post. But the current Congress has been one of the most productive in years.
How Do I Know if My Representative Is Doing Their Job?
To evaluate your lawmakers in this new reality, you can look at what they are doing and which issues they’re spending their time on, either through lawmaking (on those topics that don’t necessarily grab headlines) or in public position statements.
1: Lawmaking: Is Your Rep Getting Things Done?
One of the ways you can find out what representatives are up to is by checking out what bills they have sponsored. This is all public information, and ProPublica’s Represent app can help you navigate to the parts that matter to you.
To understand your representative through their bills, you want to look for three things:
- What the bill is about.
- How far it got.
- Who else is supporting the bill.
What the bill is about: Think about the things that matter to you and your community, and ask yourself:
- Is your representative sponsoring bills on those topics?
- If your lawmaker seems to be ignoring your issues, why is that?
How far it got: Every bill that gets introduced is automatically referred to a committee. Many measures never get past this stage and were never intended to — because they are mostly meant to let lawmakers go to town halls and say, “I introduced an important bill.” But this type of posturing is not enough for those of us who want to see things get done. That’s why our site lets you focus on recent bills that made it beyond the introduction stage.
Who else is supporting the bill: Pay attention to who co-sponsored the bill — does it have bipartisan support? Maybe you want a lawmaker who’s willing to compromise, or maybe you see compromise as giving in, but either way, bipartisan support can mean that your representative has done some work to shop the bill around and help get it passed.
2: What They Say: Is Your Rep Speaking Out on Issues You Care About?
Legislation isn’t the only way to compare representatives’ concerns against your own. There’s also the stuff they talk about. On Represent, you can see what your representative focuses on in their press releases, as well as what topics they discuss more than other members of Congress.
Since your representative is the person in the federal government who’s closest to you, the more specific issues they’re discussing should, ideally, sound familiar to you. Do they?
Now that you’re familiar with the basics of using ProPublica’s Represent database, take some time to look up the legislative work of your lawmakers in the Senate, too. What does it tell you about what they’re doing in your name?