One of the most important things you can do to protect your rights is to understand the legislative process and make sure that your elected officials know that your rights are important to you.
How Bills Become Laws
At the federal level, before a bill can become a law, it must be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and the President. The complete federal legislative process can be found here.
Tennessee’s legislative branch of government is called the Tennessee General Assembly, or TGA. The TGA consists of two bodies: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate has 33 members, who serve four-year terms, and the House has 99 members, who serve two-year terms.
Every General Assembly meets in Nashville for a total of 90 session days over two years. Each legislative session generally lasts from mid-January through late April or May.
To become law, bills filed in the Tennessee General Assembly must be approved by a majority vote in both the Tennessee House of Representatives and the Tennessee Senate, and then be sent to the governor. When a bill comes to the governor’s desk, he or she can choose to a) sign it; b) let it become law without his or her signature; or c) veto it. The complete Tennessee legislative process can be found here.
The Tennessee attorney general issues written legal opinions about legislation upon request by certain state officials. Tennessee attorney general opinions can be found here.
Contacting Your Elected Officials
Your voice is vital to protecting our freedoms and advancing fairness and justice because legislators take feedback from their constituents seriously. In fact, they often file legislation and shape their policy positions according to the visits, letters and phone calls they receive from the people who elect them to office. Sometimes hearing from even a handful of concerned residents will cause a senator or representative to pay attention to a particular issue and persuade him or her to vote to protect civil liberties and civil rights.
In general, the more personal your lobbying contact is, the more effective it will be. While a personal discussion with a member of the Tennessee General Assembly is most effective, a meeting or telephone conversation with one of his or her assistants is also a good way to share your opinion. Also know that a personal letter or email is much more effective than a form letter or postcard.
You do not need to be an expert on the issue to call or write your elected officials. All you need to do is communicate that you want the legislator to support or oppose a particular measure. When you contact the legislator’s office, give your name and address and ask whomever takes your call to let the legislator know that you favor or oppose the pending legislation. Be sure to give the bill number, not just the general topic.
It is very important that you lobby your elected officials whether or not they support your position. Lobbying can change votes, so it is critically important that you lobby those who disagree with you. At the same time, lobbying elected officials who generally share your positions is important too—it provides them with evidence of constituent support and allows them to be more vocal in support of their position.
Always follow up: thank those legislators who voted the way you asked them to and express disappointment with your legislators who voted against civil liberties and civil rights.