Not long ago, a study was released showing that states passed 171 immigration laws last year. It provided a sharp contrast to the record in Congress.
That got us to thinking about how much action takes place in the state capitals versus on Capitol Hill, so we turned to CQ Roll Call data for some answers. And the numbers might surprise you.
The 113th Congress passed 352 bills and resolutions in 2013 and 2014, according to CQ Roll Call data. That represents legislation cleared by both chambers – sometimes in different forms – and not all was signed into law.
By contrast, the legislative bodies in all 50 states and Washington DC passed a whopping 45,564 bills and resolutions in that same period, according to data drawn from CQ Roll Call’s StateTrack. (See the chart below for specifics.)
Indeed, fully 38 states and the District of Columbia passed more legislation than Congress did last session.
Here’s another measure. Congress passed about 4 percent of the bills that were introduced by lawmakers, while states passed an average of 25 percent. Seen through this prism, every state in the nation was more productive than Congress. In fact, states were six times more productive.
Whatever numbers you choose, the point is made: there’s a whole lot of lawmaking going on in the states — far more than in Congress — and many associations and advocacy groups should be tracking the action.
State Advocacy Matters
Of course, the number of bills passed is a crude measure of productivity, because it does not capture the difficulty of reaching consensus on any given issue or the idea that a single piece of legislation by itself can have massive impact. Congress also passes omnibus bills, which can impact these numbers.
But it is still an indicator. The idea that state legislatures passed 129 times more bills and resolutions than Congress could be a message to advocacy groups about where to train their attention in the year ahead.
“Congress hasn’t been very productive, but that’s just not the case in the states,” said Max Behlke, manager of state and federal relations at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “States don’t have the flexibility to kick the can down the road. They have balanced budget amendments and things they actually have to address.”
You don’t have to tell Jackie Whiffin, legislative director at Jackson Vaughn Public Strategies. From her office in Arlington, Texas, she monitors state legislation for companies and associations in the financial services industry, and has tracked state action for 16 years.
She said tracking state legislation is absolutely vital to her clients, who want to be heard by state lawmakers before a bill comes up for a vote.
“One bill can put you out of business,” she said. “You expose yourself. If you don’t watch it, you can’t be on top of it.”
The ‘Rocket Docket’
Professionals who track state legislation say that the raw number of bills to watch takes some adjustment, especially to those who are used to the pace in Congress.
“Right now, I’m tracking one federal bill and 100 state bills,” Whiffin said. “And we’re not even a month into it.” She expects to track 1,000 bills over the course of the year.
Speed is also a factor at the state level. Bob Carragher, senior state affairs advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management, calls it the “rocket docket.” In some states, officials have only a few months to get a bill through both chambers and the governor’s office, which means they have to move fast — much faster than in Washington.
“It’s like drinking through a fire hose,” Carragher said. “I started here nine years ago and my hair was jet black. Now, its pretty much white.”
Tracking State Advocacy
Pros who track state legislation say there are a few tricks, one of which is to choose a good state legislative tracking tool. You could try to get by with free public resources, Whiffin said, but she does not recommend it.
“You could,” she said. “But it would be so time consuming that you wouldn’t have time to sleep, eat or do anything else.”
There are several professional applications available on the market — including CQ Roll Call’s StateTrack (we are naturally partial to this one) — that follow and categorize bills and regulations, making it easier to focus on what is important and prune out what is not.
Solid news sources — focused both on states and on issues — are also vital, Carragher said. His job is to stay aware of human resources issues nationwide. At present, that means tracking 18 to 20 topics, from paid medical leave to immigration. To do that, he relies on a mix of news sources, issue-based websites and organizations like the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“You pick up trends,” he said. “One state will pick up a piece of legislation, and then more and more will take it up as well.”
Here too there are a variety of professional tools available, that carry extremely current state-level news on topics like health care, taxation and energy, which are important to many different organizations.
Whatever tools you choose, it is vital to know exactly which issues you want to track, and at what level of detail. This may sound simple, but that’s not always the case. More than 180,000 bills and resolutions were introduced in the states during 2013 and 2014 — and that’s not counting regulations. The more specific you get, the more manageable the job becomes.
Whiffin recounts one instance in which she was forced to cast a wide net, searching only on the word “arbitration,” and found herself with 13,000 documents to examine in a single day. “I wanted to cry,” she said.
Analysts also have to understand what they are reading when they examine bills and summaries, and here is where the pros say that experience counts. There’s no substitute for time on the job. “It takes awhile to learn what you are looking at,” Whiffin said, noting that she can now comb through 100 bills in about two hours.
“In the beginning, it can be very frustrating,” she said. “But if you keep on doing it, it will all click.”
Tom Boyer, Stacey Goers and Cheryl Robins contributed to this report.