Do you ever feel like legislation just abruptly sneaks up on you, with no warning until bam, suddenly it’s on the floor and people are voting? Do you ever feel like you only hear about executive orders after the fact? Well, I’ve got news for you: It doesn’t have to be that way, and there are some tools that will help you keep a handle on what’s going on, who is responsible, and where it is happening.
Known as bills while under development and legislation or laws when passed, legislation consists of policy documents drafted and voted upon by bodies of (usually) elected officials, like Congress, your state house, and your city council or board of supervisors. There are a series of required steps that must be followed before a bill can become a law, with the specifics varying depending on the legislative body, but typically they include introduction, referral to committee, reintroduction, voting, and a final signature by a president, governor, or other official.
As a member of the public, you have a right to know what is happening, and you don’t have to wait for advocacy groups to tell you about upcoming legislation, though they can be helpful for filtering through the chaff and showing you what you should definitely care about.
On the federal level, GovTrack is an incredibly valuable tool for seeing what has been introduced and seeing how far it’s gone along the pathway to becoming a law. You can also check the House calendar and Senate calendar to find out when bills are introduced and track committee hearings and debate.
On the state level, your state house website should also have calendars along with lists of introduced legislation and information about the status of given bills. If you’re having trouble finding that info, contact a local advocacy group or your representative.
On the county/parish and/or city level, it’s common for even small towns to have a website, but you can also go to their offices. You can request copies of agendas as well as the text of ordinances under consideration.
Also known as rules, these are drafted by state, local, and federal agencies. Regulations may be written to comply with a law directing an agency to do so, or in response to prompting from the president or governor, a lawsuit, requests from the public, or internal review. Regulations tend to be meticulously constructed and fine-grained, covering the details that broader laws do not. For example, the Endangered Species Act empowers several federal agencies to draft regulations that will identify and protect endangered species.
As with laws, regulations are open to public comment. That means you have a right to review not just the text, but also any evidentiary support, including documentation, meetings of minutes and hearings, and more. It can be a lot to slog through, which is a good reason to let advocacy groups do the heavy lifting, but there’s no reason you can’t do it on your own.
On the federal level, Regulations.gov allows you to pore through regulations under consideration and file comments on them if you’d like to weigh in. In some cases you may need to mail or call the agency involved to file a comment.
Your state may maintain a similar database. Try searching for ‘[state] regulatory notice register’ and you should be able to find a clearinghouse of regulations, including information on how to comment. If you can’t find one, you may need to look up specific state agencies. You can also contact advocacy groups and lawmakers for advice.
On a local level, the process for regulations is highly variable. Your city or county clerk can explain the regulatory process to you and point you in the direction of finding rules developed by local agencies, if they’re empowered to do so and participate in the rulemaking process.
You may think of executive orders as purely presidential, since presidential EOs tend to get a lot of press. However, other executives, like governors, can also issue EOs. Unfortunately, they aren’t subject to public review and input like laws and regulations, which means that draft versions often aren’t published where you can see them — unless they’ve been leaked to the media.
On a state basis, you’ll need to search your governor’s website for the section on executive orders. If it’s not readily visible, contact the governor’s office to ask. While your input isn’t accepted while they’re under development (unless you’ve been brought on as a consultant), they are public governance documents and you have a right to see them.
Some agencies and legislatures are eager to be transparent and provide you with information on what they’re doing. Others are not, but it’s important to remember that whether you are a citizen or a resident, the government is supposed to be working for you, and that you pay the government’s wages, and are therefore entitled to see what it’s up to and to offer your thoughts on the matter. When the government attempts to ram regulations and laws throughout without opportunities for public involvement, that’s wrong (and sometimes illegal) and definitely doesn’t further the existence of a healthy, vibrant democracy. Don’t be afraid to lead on elected or appointed officials to demand more transparency and honesty in the processes of governance.
Image: Congress, Paul Seventy, Flickr