If you come to Capitol Hill for a policy meeting, you will most likely meet with a legislative assistant. Legislative assistants are what most people think of as typical congressional staffers. They write bills for legislators and push them through Congress. Their boss takes their opinions seriously and trusts them to make important policy decisions. Legislative assistants are senior staffers. Becoming a legislative assistant is a long-term goal for many interns. Their work is social and collaborative. It takes a village to do all their work, and as more people with disabilities become legislative assistants, I am confident that our voices will become more prominent in public policy. Here, we will discuss some of the responsibilities of legislative assistants and the impact the disability experience can have on their work. Their key responsibilities include the following:
Legislative assistants write bills. Writing bills is a process. Legislative assistants ask people with lived experience, lobbyists, the Congressional Research Service, and others for feedback throughout the bill drafting process. Legislative assistants take this information and create an outline for their bill. This outline is called “bill specs”. Legislative counsel turns these bill specs into bill text. The bill text usually goes through several drafts before a final draft is introduced.
Move Policy Through Congress
Introducing a bill is only the beginning. The goal of introducing a bill is almost always to pass the bill. Legislative assistants work with other offices to solicit support in the form of cosponsorships and commitments to vote for the bill. If a bill receives enough support, it will go through markup in Committee and then go to the floor for a vote. Moving policy is a long and precarious process. A million things could threaten a bill’s chance of becoming law. Relentless optimism is essential.
Outside groups and constituents can help move policy through Congress. Legislators want to know that their constituents support the bills they cosponsor and vote for. If you support a bill, let your Congressional Senators and Representative know about it. The most important thing anyone has is their story. Share your story with legislators. You may be surprised by how large of an impact it has on public policy.
Some problems do not need legislative solutions. Some problems require oversight, investigation, or a nudge in the right direction. Being a Congressional Senator or Representative ensures that a legislator’s voice will be taken seriously. If legislators see a problem with a federal agency or another actor, they can write an official letter to ask for more information and recommend action. Legislative assistants, and sometimes others in the office, draft these letters on behalf of legislators. Inspiration for these letters can come from outside groups and constituents. Like bill drafting, this can be a collaborative process, and the disability community can have an impact.
Meet with Constituents
Legislative assistants take policy meetings with constituents. These meetings typically last thirty minutes. The legislative assistant will probably spend most of the meeting listening to group members share their stories and perspectives. The group will typically have an “ask”, something they want the legislator to do. Examples of asks include signing onto bills, joining Dear Colleague letters, and voting a certain way. After the meeting, the legislative assistant will recommend a decision to their boss about the ask. The legislative assistant’s opinion carries tremendous weight here.
As more people with disabilities work on Capitol Hill, I am confident that our voices will take a more prominent place in federal policy. When policymakers meet with constituents, draft bills, and make important policy recommendations to legislators, it is vital that disability is considered. One way to make that happen is to hire more people with disabilities to work on Capitol Hill as policymakers.