How well do you know S. 491 (114th)? Use this study guide to find out.
You can find answers to most of the questions below here on GovTrack.us, including on the overview, summary, details, and text tabs for this bill at the top of this page.
What would this bill do?
- In a few words, what would you say is the subject of this bill?
- This bill is only 4 pages long. Are you able to understand it? Does being short make the bill less significant?
- There is a summary available for this bill. Does it help you understand what the bill would do?
- Who is this bill likely to impact? Is this bill important?
This question is asking you to determine what areas of policy this bill is meant to impact. Doing so is an important first step in analyzing the intentions behind the policy and its possible effects. To start, look at the bill’s title and see if it helps.
At the top of the details tab, you can find the committee assignments of this bill. Those will likely give a clue about the substance of the policy in the bill, as committees usually only look at bills within a certain jurisdiction.
The Library of Congress provides us with bill subject areas listed at the bottom of the details tab. When in doubt, refer to these.
If you can understand the bill from reading it, bravo! If not, don’t worry. Even a short bill can be challenging to understand.
Try your best to read the text of the bill to get a sense of how it is written, and take note of what is easier or harder to understand. Don’t feel bad if the actual policy is unclear; sometimes it’s better to rely on analysis from legal experts to know what a bill would do. It may also be helpful to revisit the text after reading a summary or a press release.
The goal of this study guide is to help you understand the bill well enough that you could write your own summary. Try using the summaries available as reference. You can find them under the summary tab.
These questions are related. Be sure to answer the first question before you answer the second. Even if you think this bill looks boring, is there anyone who would say otherwise?
Participating in a democracy isn’t just about representing your own interests; it’s also about understanding and empathizing with the interests of your peers. When you look at a bill before Congress you should consider who it will impact and how. Then you can make a judgment about whether the bill matters and whether you support it.
Try coming up with a list of who will be affected by this bill and how. When you think you’re done with your list, ask yourself one more time: Is this bill important?
What else do you know about this bill?
- What do you know about the sponsor? Is this the kind of bill you would expect from them? Why or why not?
- Some Members of Congress have made statements about this bill. What do those statements tell you about the bill? Do the statements agree about what the bill would do?
- Step away from GovTrack for a moment. Is anyone talking about this bill? How does their perspective help you understand the bill?
- What kind of expert would be able to tell you more about the policies this bill would impact?
The bill’s primary sponsor is displayed at the top of the overview tab. The sponsor's GovTrack page provides information about their history and recent actions in Congress. Similarly, you’ll find a list of cosponsors at the top of the details tab.
The most immediate thing you might notice about the sponsor is their party. Here are some other factors to consider when thinking about the bill’s sponsor, all of which can be found on the sponsor’s page:
Where do they represent? Is this bill uniquely important to the sponsor’s constituents?
What committees are they on? If they are on a committee this bill was assigned to, they will have greater influence over its passage.
Where do they fall on the GovTrack Ideology-Leadership Chart? We publish an analysis of members’ cosponsorships to give an idea of where each member falls on the political spectrum, and how much influence they have in Congress. This information could be helpful context for understanding the bill.
These are only a few of the factors at play when a member chooses to sponsor legislation. What wasn’t on this list that should be?
One way to learn more about a bill is to look at what members of Congress say about it. You can find press releases about this bill made by members of Congress in the position statements section of the overview tab, or at ProPublica Represent.
When a member makes a press release about a bill they signal that the bill is important, and often include their argument in support or opposition of it. Understanding those arguments is informative for understanding the bill itself.
It’s important to compare information from various sources. What other resources could you use to put the information on GovTrack into context? Has anyone else written about the bill? Try putting the name of the bill into your favorite search engine to see what comes up. You might find there is already a conversation going on around the bill, or perhaps this bill isn’t getting much attention.
If you can, you should look at multiple sources with varying perspectives. Don’t take what any news article or organization says for granted without comparing it to a few other sources.
Congress often calls in expert witnesses to explain nuanced policy issues. Members of Congress on whichever committee has been assigned to review the bill will seek out these experts depending on the legislative topic. For example, legislation about nuclear power plants might be referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Since most of the representatives who serve on that committee are likely not nuclear scientist, they will call in those scientists to explain important details about nuclear energy.
By now you should have an idea of the policies, or at least areas of policy, in this bill. Given that knowledge, what type of experts would you want to hear from to learn more about this bill? Try to get as specific as you can.
What can you do about this bill?
- How can you impact your government?
- What can your Member of Congress do to impact this bill? (Hint: Are your representative or senators on a committee this bill was assigned to?)
- What organizations are working to impact the passage of this bill?
Start with the basics. What are some of the tools available for Americans to interact with their government? How would you apply those tools to this bill?
Keep in mind that bills sometimes get reintroduced to multiple sessions of Congress before ever getting a vote. Odds are good that a given bill won’t get passed, but maybe there are ways you can help give it another shot. If you think this bill is not likely to pass in the current session of Congress, how might you try to get it reintroduced in the next one?
In our representative democracy, each member of Congress has an obligation to their constituents. That means your representatives are the most likely to be responsive to your concerns, since they care about your vote. What can you ask of them?
At a minimum, they can vote for a bill if the chance comes up. But maybe they have more power than that. Is your representative on a committee this bill was assigned to? If so, they can push for the bill to get a floor vote. Is your representative in a leadership position? Maybe they can trade favors with another Member of Congress to help advance this bill.
If you aren’t sure who your representatives are, you can find them by entering your address here. Then try looking at their GovTrack pages to see information such as their committee positions, leadership scores, and frequent cosponsors to get a sense of what they can do.
The best way to impact a bill is to get help. It’s nigh impossible for one person to make a significant change in a democracy, but as a group you can make a difference. Advocacy organizations, think tanks, caucuses and other legislative stakeholders are constantly working to influence whether a bill passes. Are there any organizations interested in this bill? Try using your favorite search engine to find out.
If there are, and you agree with their positions and methods, you may want to join or support that organization. You can help that organization accomplish its goals by volunteering for them or donating some money.
If there isn’t an organization you like, maybe you need to do the next best thing: Make one! Grassroots movements form all the time when many people care about an issue that isn’t getting enough attention. Do you know many other people who care as much about this bill as you do? Starting a grassroots movement is a challenging task, but if there are a lot of people who care about this issue who aren’t being heard, it can be worth the effort.
Each bill’s study guide is a little different — we automatically choose which questions to include based on the information we have available about the bill. Bill study guides are a new feature to GovTrack. You can help us improve them by filling out this survey or by sending your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.