just-a-billHave you ever been knee-deep in paperwork or bills and found yourself kvetching that “there ought to be a law…” ?

Well, when it come to regulations dealing with credit card companies and your credit score, you may be right.

The most recent overhaul to the rules governing credit card agencies came back in 2009, when President Obama signed the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act — oh-so-cleverly known as the CARD Act — into law. These changes prevent credit card companies from taking advantage of young cardholders and hiding extra fees in the fine print.

That law is unarguably a good thing for consumers, but if you’re looking for more, you should know how to lobby for it.

How Laws Get Made

Let’s take a quick detour back to middle school civics class for a minute. If you want to get a law passed, you need to know how the whole system works.

First, someone has to write a bill, which is basically the rough draft of a law. Anyone can do it: the President, a member of Congress or even a group of concerned citizens (that’s you). Usually, it helps if the bill is drafted by a lawyer-type who understands legal language, but it’s not a requirement.

Next, the bill is introduced to either the House of Representatives or the Senate. An actual congressperson has to do this, so you have to get the bill to a sympathetic legislator. Once it’s introduced, it gets sent to committee, where a smaller group of legislators decide what to do with it. They can make changes, kill it, or decide to send it back for a vote.

Once the bill gets through the right committee and the rules committee, lawmakers can debate it for a certain period of time. They also get a chance to introduce amendments and changes. Finally, there’s a vote.
If the bill passes, it gets sent to the other chamber, and the whole committee process is repeated. If it gets through committee, it’s again debated on the floor, and again, amendments can be made. And again, there’s a vote.

If the bill passes but changes have been made, it’s time for both houses of Congress to compromise. A conference committee with members of the House and Senate work out the details. Once they agree, the bill is voted on again in both houses.

If the bill passes both chambers again, it’s sent to the President to sign. The President can sign the bill into law or veto it. If it’s vetoed, legislators can vote one last time to override that veto. It takes a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate to override a veto and make the bill a law.

How Hard Is It to Pass a Law?

Even in the best of times — that is, when political parties aren’t at each other’s throats and lawmakers can compromise to work together — passing a law is pretty difficult. There are just so many pitfalls along the way. Finding a sponsor to bring the bill to the floor is hard enough, but then the bill has to get through all those committees and votes. Even if it makes it, there could be so many changes and compromises made that the law that’s voted on doesn’t look much like the original bill at all.

All told, only four percent of bills ever make it onto the books as full-grown laws.

Still, if you’re in favor of making changes to the laws about credit ratings and passing legislation to tamp down on credit card company shenanigans, you can lobby your lawmakers to do their jobs and pass some laws.
How to Contact Your Legislators

It’s always best to start with your own senators and representatives. They are, after all, your voice in Congress, and their job is to listen to their own constituents above all else. You have three representatives in Congress: two Senators and on Representative from your Congressional district. If you’re not sure who they are, you can easily look them up on USA.gov. Here you’ll find their email addresses as well as a phone number and snail mail address.

Though it’s tempting to just fire off an email because it’s so convenient, the inside scoop from former staffers is that phone calls have the biggest impact. Call the local office in your state instead of the D.C. office for the best odds of reaching a human. Once you talk to someone, you need to be specific about your idea, so it’s helpful to have some notes jotted down on an index card to stay organized.

Even better, try to get some face time. Ask when the next town hall meeting will be in your area when your Senator or Rep are back in town. You can also try scheduling a meeting in person to have your ideas and opinions heard.

How to Amplify Your Voice

Of course, getting that meeting can be tricky. You’ll have better luck making an impact if you work with a group of like-minded people. After all, legislators prioritize their time to try to keep as many people happy as possible. If it looks like your issue is important to a lot of people — not just you! — they’ll be more likely to spend time on it.

You can make the most of your ideas and your time by getting involved in an advocacy group. These groups work to keep in touch with lawmakers about their concerns. They often raise money to fund lobbying efforts, but it’s the contacts and the old-fashioned time and effort that make the difference. Advocacy groups can be small and local — you and a bunch of fellow constituents — or they can be national and very well funded, like the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

If you’re interested in joining an existing group to see how you can help push along changes to credit laws, try getting in touch with Consumer Action or Americans for Financial Reform. If these don’t feel quite right and you’re a real go-getter, you can always start your own grassroots advocacy group to push for the specific change you’re looking for.

Whether you plan to make a simple phone call or get involved in lobbying and advocacy, you’ll never regret getting involved in standing up for a cause you believe in. And who knows? Maybe you’ll even be inspired to run for office yourself.

Do you plan to lobby your representatives for changes to credit laws? What new legislation would you propose?

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