Voters don't like Congress. Only about 40 percent of the country approves of the job the president is doing. And, because of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on elections, people feel like their voices don't count as much as a large campaign donation.
That sentiment may explain the question we got from Molly Vladyka of Kyle for our TXDecides project, which asks folks across Texas what questions they have about state government:
I know lawmakers are voted in by us, the voters, but is there any REAL way to influence their decision and make my voice heard?
To answer that question, let’s take a trip to the Capitol for a look at the different ways you can actually talk to lawmakers.
On the east side of the Capitol grounds one morning last week, Cindee Sharp runs back and forth between about six tables set up with hundreds of red tote bags. Sharp is with the Texas Retired Teachers Association. Last week was the group's legislative day at the Capitol. Hundreds of people, all in red shirts, picked up the bags and headed into the Capitol to deliver them to state lawmakers. What's in the bag?
"Oh, we have snacks and we have water,” Sharp said. "But, more importantly, we have some information to give to our legislators about different bills that we’re in favor of. And different ways that they could certainly help our retired teachers this session, especially with their health insurance plan."
Joining an activist organization is one way to go about influencing lawmakers. The group does the heavy lifting, and you can get the benefit of having someone promote your opinion. But even a well-coordinated group of citizen activists are still just visitors. They fight for attention with the professional class at the Capitol.
Lobbyists are often blamed for why politicians don't listen to regular people. And the stereotype – a three-piece suit with money and free lunches to hand out – doesn't help. But longtime lobbyist Beaman Floyd, who is not wearing a suit when I meet him at the Capitol, says lobbyists don't automatically have a monopoly on grabbing lawmakers' attention.
"What I have is institutional knowledge and longevity in the Capitol. That is probably the most important currency for anybody down here,” Floyd said. “What you discover, when you walk around down here, is a lot of citizen activists have the same kind of institutional longevity and institutional knowledge."
And those regular people with institutional knowledge can get just as much time with lawmakers.
If you're not a lobbyist or longtime activist, can your views still be heard at the Capitol? Yes. Just visit a lawmaker's office.
Though, it should be noted, with less than two months left in the legislative session, lawmakers probably won’t be in their offices; they’ll be out doing their job.
Austin Rep. Paul Workman says he thinks hearing from constituents is important.
"For me, it's about learning. There's no way that I can know all the different subject matters,” Workman said. “I had a group in and they were explaining their position on a bill. These we not lobbyists; these were just everyday constituents. And I got an insight from them that I hadn't looked at."
But, if your lawmaker isn't in his or her office, at this point in the session he or she may be holed up in a committee hearing. This is the start of the bill-passing process. Dozens of committees vet the thousands of bills, make changes, and then vote on whether to send a bill to the full Texas House or Senate for a vote.
And, at these hearings, you, the public, have a chance to give your two cents.
You'll only get two or three minutes to talk, but testifying does let you officially register your opinion on legislation.
Sometimes, even if people testify 10 to 1 against it, a bill -- especially high-profile ones -- will pass out of committee anyway. Rep. Workman acknowledges there are bills that lawmakers know how they're voting on before the hearing, and even long before the session even begins.
"If it's something that you've campaigned on and you were successful, then you obviously have a sense that, 'Well I must be right about this, because a majority of the people sent me,'” Workman said.
Once a bill passes out of committee, it's on to the floors of the House and Senate, which are really not good places to make your voice heard, because you’re not allowed to talk to lawmakers while they’re on the floor. If you stand up with signs or yell down to the lawmakers below, you’ll be escorted out of the gallery.
And, by the time a bill has hit the floor, there’s less opportunity for you to make a lawmaker change their mind on a bill. Could it happen? Sure. Does it happen often? No.
You want a lawmaker to be responsive? Let them know they don't have your vote in the 2018 election.