We've spent quality time assessing the lead-in and results of the 2010 US midterm elections, and now that we're on the cusp of the 112th Congressional Session, I'd like to turn our attention to another level of civic participation: contact with our representatives and senators. After all, we are all someone's constituent, whether they received our vote or not. But more than finding resources to their phone numbers and email addresses, let's take a look at how to keep on top of the Congress schedule.
The House of Representatives manages a "contact your rep" website, that also has some friendly (if not a bit dry) links to other things like which days Congress will be out of session, House rules, and educational resources for teachers. This website will list the rep's DC office's information and give a link to her or his congressional website. If we look at my representative's site—Cathy McMorris-Rogers for the eastern half of Washington state—we'll see that here are still more links to requesting a visit with her, either in her district or in DC, how to invite her to a party, and how to make a "flag request." Other congresspersons have similar websites.
For the US Senate, there is a similar process, although one will notice that the group of 100 present a much stuffier, less down-home face to their contact sheets and resource sites. They're also in a simple list with link to their sites. Again, for Washington, I'll pick newly reelected Patty Murray. She also lists a link to a request for a US Capitol tour. Yes, by contacting your senator a few months in advance of visiting DC, you can get tickets to the Capitol and possibly see the Congress in session. I've taken the tour, and I will attest that it illuminates our history and political process. Wear comfortable shoes; there's a lot of hard, marble flooring.
To see what is on schedule for the floor of the House and Senate, THOMAS is the web-based extension of the Library of Congress' collection on all things legislative. Live streams of the floors, when in session, are also broadcast here, in addition to C-SPAN's coverage, and the Congressional Record, which is a transcript of everything that is said while in session, is linked here as well, going back to the 101st Congress. To look for a bill before the House or Senate, the language of a bill that changed as it came into its final version for signature, committee reports, treaties, and bills expected to reach the floor are all available here. Presented without any spin, they are important for contextualizing the brief snippets news outlets use in reporting.
But if one is looking for analysis and advocacy, there are several feminist organizations which watch for developments related to progressive issues on the Hill, including:
- Women's Policy, Inc.
- NGLTF—The Task Force
- People for the American Way
- Feminist Majority Foundation
- National Mental Health Association
For an enormous list of policy organizations of every bent and subject area, go to C-SPAN's list. We may have heard of these organizations already, or volunteered for them, or have opinions about how much they've done for feminist causes recently, but that aside, they do know what is coming up in Congress, who is lining up votes on a particular bill, and these and other organizations are helpful in gathering information more directly than say, the send ups on The Daily Show or page A14 of the local paper. Yes, I've relied on both of those, too. And Facebook, and Twitter, and all of the rest. But to put it bluntly, reading articles about politics online, when they're from mainstream US news sources, only provides a narrow slice of the conversation on many of these topics. A regular read-through of Hill debates, results from markup sessions, what a given policy-focused organization says it will be working on next—all of these proactive habits help fill in the gaps in news coverage. I'm sure there are plenty more helpful voices out there; if so, add links in the comments. An informed resident is a good thing. And I know my Congresswoman doesn't agree with me on the vast majority of issue areas that get taken up in a typical session, but she knows I'm out there, because I advocate for my position. Maybe I should invite her over for coffee sometime.