ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
- You can find your congressional representatives at any time by using ProPublica’s Represent database.
- In recent years, congress has not been working the way it’s supposed to, which results in gridlock.
- To see how effective your members of Congress are, evaluate both what they’ve done and what they’ve said.
How Is Congress Supposed to Work?
You probably learned what Congress does back in elementary school social studies — maybe you’re old enough to remember the “Schoolhouse Rock” video on the subject.
As a refresher, here’s how the process is supposed to work:
- 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.
- A compromise version is worked out.
- The resulting bill is voted on to become a law.
While this process makes sense in theory, these days, that’s not how it works most of the time.
How Congress Actually Works in 2020
Congress does pass a lot of bills through the standard legislative process. But these are mostly noncontroversial bills to congratulate someone, rename a post office or designate a national week. There’s no debate and no deliberative, committee-driven process required.
One reason for the gridlock is that, these days, bills on big, national issues are written under the supervision of the Senate majority leader and the House speaker (currently Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Nancy Pelosi). They 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.
The resulting legislation, crafted behind closed doors, is presented to lawmakers as a “take it or leave it” deal when it’s voted on by everyone else. Faced with legislation on which they’ve had no real input, many members opt for “leave it” — and the bills get stuck in legislative limbo, without enough support to pass a divided Congress.
This change has been happening since the mid-2000s and has intensified during the past decade, according to reporting by ProPublica and The Washington Post.
How to Evaluate Your Member of Congress
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 their public position statements.
1: By What They’re Doing:
One of the ways you can find out what your representative is up to is by checking out the bills they’ve sponsored. This is all public information, and ProPublica’s Represent app can help you navigate to the information that matters 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.”
Who else is supporting the bill: When it comes to bill co-sponsors, pay attention to whether or not it has bipartisan support. Whether you want a lawmaker who’s willing to compromise with the other side, or whether you object to compromise as a sign of giving in to the other side, bipartisan support can mean that your representative has done some work to shop their bill around and help get it passed.
You can see more info about the bills your congressperson has sponsored on Represent.
2: By What They Say:
Legislation isn’t the only way to compare your representative’s 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 the distinctive topics they discuss more than other members of Congress.
As the person in the federal government closest to you, these more specific issues should, ideally, sound familiar to you. Do they?
While You Vote, Help Us Report on the Election
Voting isn’t the only way you can participate in 2020. When you’re casting your vote, be it for a congressperson or the president, keep an eye out for any obstacles you encounter and share them with us.
Electionland is a coalition of newsrooms across the country that have banded together to help report on issues keeping people from voting in the election. From now through Election Day, you can tell us about voting problems in your area.
Get personalized voting information sent to your inbox by signing up for ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy.