This set of directions was tailored for me because ProPublica has my zip code. If you sign up with your zip code, ProPublica will tell you what your member of Congress is doing.


A User’s Guide to Democracy

Hi there,

Today, we’re going to talk about the biggest job Congress has: lawmaking.

Made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate (which together are theoretically co-equal to the presidency), Congress is tasked with making laws on our behalf. I learned what Congress does back in elementary school social studies (supplemented with Saturday morning “Schoolhouse Rock”). In an ideal world, here is how the system should work:

  1. A senator or representative introduces a bill.
  2. The bill goes to a committee for hearings and approval.
  3. It is debated and voted on from the House and Senate floors.
  4. A compromise version is worked out.
  5. The resulting bill is voted on to become a law.


These days, that’s not how it works most of the time.

Congress does pass a lot of bills through the 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.

When it comes to the legislation you do hear about — big, politically contentious things like immigration, health care and taxes — the process hasn’t been working as planned.

Why does Congress seem so stuck?

One reason for the gridlock is that, these days, bills on big, national issues are written under the supervision of party leadership: the Senate majority leader and the House speaker. 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.

Most bills, in fact, move under a process that bars amendments and debate — meaning that the average member of Congress is sitting around waiting for his or her party leadership to emerge from behind closed doors and instruct them how to vote.

That legislation is then presented as a “take it or leave it” deal when it’s voted on by the full Congress, and, faced with bills on which they’ve had no real input, many members opt for “leave it.” Without enough support to pass a nearly evenly divided Congress, these bills get stuck in legislative limbo. For example, immigration is one of the biggest flashpoints in domestic politics, but over the past several years Congress has held only a couple days of debate on destined-to-fail proposals. None of the bills offered in the Senate could gain the 60 votes needed to advance because the proposals mainly appealed to one party, and there was little room to amend them to make them more palatable.

Where does your lawmaker fit into all of this?

One of the ways you can find out what Rep. Velázquez is up to is by checking out the bills she has sponsored. This is all public information, and ProPublica’s Represent app can help you navigate to the information that matters to you.

Fun fact: Representatives who sit on the Appropriations Committee, which determines government spending, tend to have fewer bills than other lawmakers. That’s because this committee tends to produce bills as a group project, with only the committee chair (currently Rep. Nina Lowey) named as a main sponsor.

To understand your representative through their bills, you want to look for three things:

1. 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?

2. 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 virtue signaling is not enough for those of us who want to see things get done. That’s why we’re looking only at recent bills that made it beyond the introduction stage. Of the 49 bills she has sponsored, 11 of them have made progress beyond the first step.

3. 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 her bill around and help get it passed.

Here’s what Rep. Velázquez has been up to.

Dig in and take a look at the bills she has sponsored during this term. (I’ll wait.)

Bill Cosponsors [R/D/I] Latest Action
HELLPP Act (H.R.2235) 98 [28/70/0] (2019-04-10) Referred to the Subcommittee on Health.
Gun Violence Prevention Research Act of 2019 (H.R.674) 98 [1/97/0] (2019-01-25) Referred to the Subcommittee on Health.
Horse Transportation Safety Act of 2019 (H.R.1400) 97 [4/93/0] (2019-02-28) Referred to the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.
Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. (H.RES.109) 97 [0/97/0] (2019-02-12) Referred to the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
Fairness for Federal Contractors Act of 2019 (H.R.824) 96 [6/90/0] (2019-01-28) Referred to the Committee on Appropriations, and in addition to the Committee on Oversight and Reform, for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker, in each case for consideration of such provisions as fall within the jurisdiction of the committee concerned.


Now that you’re familiar with the basics of using ProPublica’s Represent database, this week’s assignment is 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?

And to learn more about the radically altered mechanics of Capitol Hill, read the ProPublica and Washington Post piece, “How Congress Stopped Working.

That’s all for this time. Thanks for rocking with me, and I’ll see you soon!

Cynthia Gordy Giwa
Proud ProPublican

P.S. Remember to tell me what you find by replying to this email or on Twitter at @CynthiaGiwa, and encourage your friends to sign up, too!