politics 101

Start here for a quick understanding of politics and advocating for the world’s poor.


What you’ll learn:

  • Which political leaders to focus on.
  • Who your Members of Congress are and how to contact them.
  • What legislation The Borgen Project is focused on.
  • If your leader has cosponsored these bills.
  • Helpful lingo.


1. What politicians should I focus on? The three Members of Congress who represent your area. Specifically, the two U.S. Senators and one U.S. Representative who serve you back in D.C. For The Borgen Project, it’s all about Congress. The White House is certainly important, but Members of Congress determine funding levels (control the purse), pass legislation and are more accessible than the President. Read more about the role of Congress.


2. Who are my members of Congress and how can I contact them? Every U.S. citizen (and anyone living in the U.S.) is represented by two U.S. Senators and one Member of the House of Representatives (aka. Congressmen/Congresswomen/Representative). Click the link button to find your leaders.


3. What poverty-reduction legislation is The Borgen Project working on? The legislation page (also accessible on the website menu under ‘Act Now’) lists key bills and issues on which The Borgen Project is advocating. Congress operates in two-year cycles.


4. How long does it take for a bill to pass? Any legislation that doesn’t pass in a cycle ‘dies’ and must be reintroduced in the next cycle. We’ve worked on bills that have passed within a year and others that took five.


5. What is a cosponsor? When a leader ‘cosponsors’ a bill, they are essentially endorsing it. In order to get a bill scheduled for a vote in committee, our job is to pressure and mobilize Members of Congress to cosponsor the legislation. Most of your advocacy will focus on asking your leaders to cosponsor key bills.


6. How do I know if my Congressional leader has cosponsored these poverty-reduction bills?

  • Below each bill on The Borgen Project’s legislation page, there is a link to view cosponsors based on each chamber (House of Representatives v. Senate). Click on those links to see if your leaders have cosponsored yet.
  • If they haven’t cosponsored a specific bill, start mobilizing people to email the Member of Congress. There’s no magic number, but we often see Members of Congress cosponsoring a bill after emails from just six or seven people in their district.
  • Use the Success Tracker and search bills that The Borgen Project has supported in past years on Congress.gov (Search ‘All Congresses’). See if your representatives have been supporters in the past by clicking on the bill itself and then on the ‘Cosponsors’ tab.


7. Is my leader on a key Committee or Target Group? Engaging every Member of Congress is important, especially for increasing cosponsors. However, some Members of Congress are in a better position to greatly help (or hurt) the world’s poor. If you have a Member of Congress on one of the following committees or groups, make darn sure that you are mobilizing lots of people to contact them in support of poverty-reduction bills.

  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee: Most bills on which The Borgen Project works are handled by these committees and must pass these committees in order to move through Congress.
  • Senate Appropriations Committee and House Appropriations Committee: These committees determine how much funding goes to various government agencies and programs.
  • Senate Leadership and House Leadership: These individuals ‘have the power’. They have tremendous influence over all aspects of Congress, including determining if and when a bill is brought up for a vote.
  • Tea Party/House Freedom Caucus: Just a reminder that The Borgen Project is nonpartisan, and takes great pride in being a movement where Democrats and Republicans come together to right wrongs and improve the lives of people who are barely surviving. With that disclaimer out of the way, Members of Congress who align with the Tea Party and/or the House Freedom Caucus tend to oppose efforts to provide aid and assistance to the world’s poor. That said, we’ve seen some amazing advocacy done where newly-elected Members of Congress opposed foreign aid but through meetings and constituent outreach, came to see the value of the U.S. helping the world’s poor, and became allies of The Borgen Project.

8. Are you a ‘Dual Constituent’?
Okay so we totally just made up the term ‘Dual Constituent,’ but we’re trying to find a way to describe people with ties to multiple Congressional Districts. For example, many people go to college in a different Congressional District than where they grew up and where their parents live. Just because you went off to college, doesn’t mean Rep. Jones doesn’t still consider you a member of her district and certainly Rep. Franz views all students attending college in his district to be constituents. If you are lucky enough to be a Dual Constituent… take advantage of it! Multiply your impact by contacting leaders in all districts to which you have ties.

9. How does my 30-second phone call or email to my Congressional leaders help pass legislation?
Congressional offices tally every issue that people in their district contact them about. It’s not uncommon for a leader to support a poverty-reduction bill after as few as 7-10 people contact them in support of it.


10. How can I influence my leaders to support legislation that improves living conditions for millions of people? You’ve come to the right place! The big four:

  • Email and call Congress in support of key bills. With access to 90% of the Senate, The Borgen Project has seen first-hand just how influential a handful of emails and calls can be in getting a leader to support a key bill. It only takes a few seconds but through this level of outreach, you are putting key issues on the radars of your Members of Congress that might not have otherwise been there. Emailing and calling Congress is a huge part of The Borgen Project’s success, and it starts at the individual level (meaning Y-O-U)!
  • Mobilize others to contact Congress. Be a force-multiplier. One email is good but 10 is better. We frequently see leaders support a bill after one person in their district mobilizes a handful of people to contact the leader.
  • Lobby. Be a voice for the voiceless. You don’t have to be an expert or politically savvy to meet with your elected officials. The majority of meetings staffers and leaders have are with nervous constituents who don’t know anything about politics. However, the idea is to communicate your passion as an advocate for the world’s poor and a few key points on the bill you’re presenting. If you forget something, that’s fine; when you send a thank you email after the meeting you can always include this information.
  • Utilize social media. Congressional staffers and leaders monitor what issues constituents are tweeting or Facebooking them in support of.


Congress in a Nutshell


  • 535 people serve in Congress… 100 in the Senate… 435 in the House of Representatives.
  • Members in the House of Representatives serve two-year terms. Senators serve six-year terms.
  • Everyone in the U.S. is represented by two Senators and one Representative (also called Congresswomen/Congressmen).
  • Every state has two Senators. The number of Representatives in a state are based on the population distribution. For example, Wyoming only has one Representative while New York has 27. Representatives serve approximately 700,000 people per district.
  • When it comes to advocacy, Members of Congress only want to hear from people they represent (people living in their district). If you live in Texas and send an advocacy email to a Senator in Kansas, they will either ignore it or forward it to your Texas Senators. If you send the same email to your leader, their staff will log it and it will be tallied in constituent reports sent to the leader and key staffers.


Helpful Tidbits & Lingo

  • S. vs. H.R.  When a bill is introduced in the Senate, the bill number begins with an ‘S’. For example, ‘S.1911 – Reach Every Mother and Child Act’. The same bill was called ‘H.R. 3706 – Reach Every Mother and Child Act’ in the House of Representatives.
  • Bill Number – The bill number represents the order in which it was introduced in that two-year session of Congress. For example, the first bill introduced in the Senate would be S.1, the second S.2, etc. When you lobby, staffers will often ask you for the bill number, so it’s good to be prepared with this information.
  • CBO Score – An amazing resource for Congress and citizens alike is the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). It is the nonpartisan government agency tasked with determining how much various pieces of legislation could cost if enacted as law. Not all bills have CBO scores but for those that do, this information is extremely useful.
  • Online Resources – Make use of the Library of Congress website and GovTrack to learn glossary terms and track key legislation.