Sources of Legislative Proposals: A Descriptive Introduction

Sources of Legislative Proposals:
A Descriptive Introduction
Judy Schneider
Specialist on the Congress
Government and Finance Division
Ideas for legislation come from individual Members of Congress, congressional
committees and subcommittees, informal groups of Members, the executive and judicial
branches, state and local governments, foreign governments, constituents, advocacy and
lobby groups, and the press.
Individual Members. When Members are elected to Congress, they usually come
to Washington to legislate on promises made during their campaign. They have ideas on
what their district or state needs and what is best for the nation. Their ideas are frequently
transformed into legislation that appears among the thousands of measures that are
introduced in the first weeks of a new Congress and throughout the two years. Legislation
can also be included in so-called omnibus measures. Members also initiate legislation
following extended visits to their constituents after seeing and assessing needs firsthand.
Committee and Subcommittees. Committees and subcommittees charged by
House or Senate rules with legislating, studying and reviewing, and investigating specific
policy areas make their own legislative proposals. House and Senate committees identify
needs for legislation and are crucial in recommending that such legislation be introduced.
By the time of the bill’s introduction, the appropriate committee is well prepared to
continue its work.
Informal Groups. In addition to the numerous committees and subcommittees,
there is a myriad of informal groups of Members with interests in a particular issue or
region of the country. These groups study issues and lobby for the enactment of specific
policies. For example, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Caucus
for Women’s Issues are active in promoting causes and initiating legislation. Recent
freshman classes have also been recognized as cohesive in their policy pursuits.
Executive Branch. The Constitution of the United States grants to the President
the power to propose legislation. At the beginning of each year, in a televised State of the
Union Message, the President addresses Congress and the nation in the House of

Representatives’ chamber to announce his legislative priorities for that year. Throughout
the year, through executive messages and policy speeches, among other ways, the
President converts the broad concepts from his speech into specific legislative ideas for
congressional consideration. Many proposals grow out of campaign issues and reflect the
policy initiatives that may have led to the President’s election. Many others reflect the
recommendations of his Cabinet and other executive branch policy advisers as they
determine new authority or reforms needed related to existing laws.
State and Local Government. Although autonomous from the national
legislature, state and local governments often look to Congress for assistance in solving
local problems. This aid is often monetary, but occasionally it may take the form of
federal regulations affecting local activities. For example, in the case of the Safe
Drinking Water Act, the needs of the locality are met through legislation providing funds,
but also requiring that certain national standards be met. National legislators attempt to
design such legislation in a fashion that favors conditions in their state or district.
Supreme Court. Constitutionality, the highest court in the nation interprets the
laws Congress passes. Legislation ruled unconstitutional by the court, or policy decisions
or directives made by the Court in its rulings, often find their way back to Congress’s
agenda in the form of new legislative proposals.
Foreign Governments. Congress serves a foreign as well as a domestic policy
function. The Senate is constitutionally charged with advice and consent on appointment
of ambassadors and ratification of treaties with foreign governments. The needs of
individual countries and global regions are addressed in Congress as legislative proposals.
Constituents. Members of Congress serve legislative and representative functions.
As representatives, they seek to address the needs of their constituents through the
legislative process. Constituents’ ideas often find their way into legislation. Pictures of
average citizens, and in some cases, famous actors and actresses, rather than lobbyists and
politicians, testifying about specific legislative needs, or the piles of mail from home
being delivered to Members offices are commonplace. Because reelection is so closely
tied to taking care of constituents, many of their demands are translated into legislation,
especially when they affect many individuals and more than one district or state.
Advocacy and Lobby Groups. It is generally believed among Congress
watchers that there exists an interest group for almost every issue before the Congress.
Many of these groups seek to influence decision making once legislation is introduced;
others seek to influence the legislative agenda itself, including which measures should be
considered and which should be kept off the agenda. In addition to providing legislative
proposals, these groups actively seek action on them.
Press. An internal joke on Capitol Hill says that the day after the television show
60 Minutes is on, or the day after the magazine Readers Digest hits the newsstands, are
the worst days to work in a congressional office, especially as a caseworker or press
secretary. These two outside sources are believed on Capitol Hill to provoke more ideas
for more legislation for more Members than all other sources combined. The press is a
potent watchdog for Congress and an equally potent advocate for the citizenry. Ideas
raised in the media, especially local media, elicit serious consideration by Members.