• September 1, 2022
  • Capitol Canary

State Legislature vs. Congress: 3 Main Differences

In the United States, laws and policies are debated and set at the local, state, and national levels. Understanding the differences between state legislature and Congress is key to advocate for–and advance–local, state, and federal goals. Here we will highlight the three key differences between state legislature and Congress so you can better target your advocacy efforts for each.

How Do State Legislatures Work?

State legislatures form the law-making bodies of each of the 50 states. Though it goes by different titles, ranging from “Legislature” to “General Assembly” depending upon the state, the primary functions are the same. In most states, the legislature is bicameral and made up of a smaller Senate and a larger House of Representatives, though Nebraska is an exception.

Both members of the Senate and the House of Representatives are elected by citizens. House members often serve for two-year terms while Senate members may serve for two or four years at a time, depending upon the state. Together with the state governor and judicial system, the state legislature is part of a system of checks and balances that ensures a fair distribution of power.

In many states, legislators balance their duties with their regular careers, while in other states elected officials perform their law-making duties as a full-time job. Legislative sessions–the time periods over which legislators meet and decide policy–vary significantly from state to state both in terms of length, frequency, and time of year.

The process by which laws are made at the state level typically follows the following sequence:

  1. A legislator or the governor drafts a prospective law and introduces it to either the House or the Senate.
  2. The bill is read and assigned a reference number and committee.
  3. The committee analyzes the bill and makes changes (amendments) as deemed appropriate.
  4. Once the bill passes the committee, it returns to the House or Senate for a second read and a vote.
  5. The bill may be debated and subject to additional amendments.
  6. If the bill receives a majority vote, it is then passed along to the other chamber. (If it started in the Senate, it moves to the House, and vice versa.)
  7. The bill may undergo additional debate and amendments before voting.
  8. If the bill is passed by the other chamber unaltered, it then goes to the governor for final approval. If it is altered before being passed, then it goes back to its chamber of origin for another vote until both the House and the Senate agree on its final form or kill it altogether.
  9. Once a bill approved by the House and Senate makes it to the governor, the governor may either sign it into law, veto it, send it back to the legislature with recommendations for additional changes, or leave it unsigned, in which case it may become law after a period of time.

What Legislature is Congress?

Congress refers to the legislative branch of the federal government. Like most state legislatures, it is also bicameral and composed of a smaller Senate and a larger House of Representatives. Each state elects two senators and a population-based number of representatives to represent its interest in Congress. Senators serve a 6-year term, while representatives serve for 2 years.

The number of representatives varies significantly from state to state, with smaller states like Delaware only having one representative and the most populous state, California, having 53.
The total number of House members from all states combined is 435.

A new congressional session begins each year on January 3rd, but the exact days and duration of meetings varies. According to Ballotpedia, between 2001 to 2021, the Senate was in session for an average of 164 days per year while the House was in session for an average of 149 days. These sessions take place in the U.S. capitol building in Washington, D.C. Both senators and representatives earn a full-time salary for their roles.

The process by which a bill becomes law at the national level is very similar to the process at the state level with the U.S. President taking on the role that Governors do at the state level. Laws passed by Congress and approved by the president take effect nation-wide.


3 Key Differences for State Legislature vs. Congress

In order to make sure your advocacy efforts are reaching the right politicians, it’s important to understand the key differences between state legislature and Congress.

1. State Legislating is Often Not a Full-Time Job

At the state level, senators and representatives often balance public and private careers alongside their legislative duties. In only ten states are legislators expected to work full time and offered a full-time salary. In all other states, law-making is a part-time gig and pay varies wildly. New Mexico offers no pay to its legislators while other states offer a nominal or substantial part time salary, or they pay per day in session.

2. Legislation Moves Faster at the State Level

Congress may deliberate a topic or law for years. State legislatures must act more efficiently, with a limit on the number of bills per legislative session and frequent deadlines. This has led to increased efficiency at the state level with bills moving faster through the process. 

3. Legislation is More Likely to Pass at the State Level

Legislation at the state level is also more likely to pass and become law. Though the numbers vary from state to state, typical bill-to-law pass rates average about 20 percent with some states, such as Utah, having pass rates of over 60 percent. In contrast, the congressional bill-to-law pass rate hovers below 5 percent on average.


How Software Can Optimize Government Affairs Team Outreach

Understanding legislative procedures, calendars, and practices at the state and federal level can help advocates optimize their strategies when it comes to lobbying and attempting to influence legislative outcomes. But each state is different and even at the national level, it can be difficult to track when new bills are introduced and when lawmakers are meeting and debating.

Fortunately, Capitol Canary has devised software and tools that can help. Our State and Local Intelligence offering makes it easy to stay on top of developments within your State legislature so that you can influence local policy before anyone else even knows it’s being discussed. With real-time alerts that matter to you, you’ll never miss an update.

Capitol Canary also offers Federal Intelligence Software that helps keep track of bills in Congress, providing the details needed to give you an edge, spot trends, send personalized messages, and even uncover relationships between officials and stakeholders. Together with our all-in-one platform, you’ll have everything you need to maintain your campaign lifecycle, collaborate with constituents, organize, and create tactical plans. Schedule a demo today to learn more.