Now that you know you can and should use advocacy to end homelessness, we are going to focus the next few Advocacy How-To posts on how to get involved. We will start with the basics so you can have a good foundation for understanding when things get a little wonky later on in this series. (A lot of this information and much, much more can be found in our Advocacy Toolkit so check it out!)
There are two main types of legislation (bills) in Congress: appropriations bills and authorizing bills
The main difference between these bills is that appropriations bills fund federal programs for the fiscal year, and authorizing bills create new programs or modify existing ones. Basically, the authorizing bill creates a program and the appropriations bill funds that program!
Today, we are going to discuss how an authorizing bill becomes a law. This is important because there are certain points in this process where your work can have a greater impact. As a rule, the best time to influence legislation is when it is being considered by the appropriate legislative committee. After a bill leaves committee, advocates and even Members of Congress themselves may not be able to change it very easily.
To give you a real example, we have outlined how the HEARTH Act became law under each step in italics. The HEARTH Act is the bill that updated HUD’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program.
So, how does an authorizing bill become federal policy?
THE BILL IS INTRODUCED
A bill is introduced by a Member of Congress in either the House or Senate, where it receives a reference number and is referred to the relevant congressional committee.
ON TO COMMITTEE
The committee and subcommittee hold hearings (called mark-ups) where they make revisions, additions, and debate the bill.
The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Development Committee passed the HEARTH Act in the fall of 2007.
THE BILL IS DEBATED ON THE FLOOR
Once a committee has approved a bill, it is sent to the floor for debate and a vote by all Members of that chamber.
THE PROCESS BEGINS AGAIN
If the bill manages to pass one chamber, it is sent to the other chamber, and the process starts over. If the original bill was introduced in the House, for example, the bill now has to undergo the same process in the Senate. The bill would then receive a reference number specific to the Senate and is referred to a Senate committee and subcommittee. If the bill passes out of committee, it is sent to the Senate floor for debate and a vote by all Members.
TWO BILLS COME TOGETHER
If the bill passes the second chamber, versions from both chambers go to a conference committee and the differences between the two bills are reconciled.
The House and Senate worked out the differences between the respective versions of the HEARTH Act.
This final version goes to both chambers for one last vote.
Both chambers of Congress finally passed a compromise version of the HEARTH Act in May 2009.
ON THE DESK OF THE PRESIDENT
If it passes both chambers, it is sent to the President, who can either sign it into law or veto it.
President Obama signed the HEARTH Act into law in May 2009.
FINALLY, A LAW
The final law goes to the relevant federal department or agency, which is responsible for enforcing it and developing regulations to fill in missing details not specifically spelled out in the law.
This step is still in flux. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to release in the coming months additional details about how precisely the HEARTH Act will be implemented.
This is just a general overview. Because of the complex rules governing this process, there are many exceptions, bypasses, and differences in the passage of each piece of legislation. But as you can see this complicated process can have very real effects on efforts to end homelessness.
Your participation is the key to the effect: when you reach out to your elected officials during this deliberation process, they take into account your thoughts and ideas. Making sure that you capitalize on this process is one crucial step towards becoming an effective advocate.