In 2020 there were 1003 bills in state legislatures across the country which mentioned prostitution. Most failed, most were unrelated to the work of sex workers advocates, but the most common thread is that they went ignored. Below are some initial steps for when a bill is introduced.
How do I know it’s even been introduced?
The most ideal way is that a staffer lets you know, but you can also set up alerts. Federally, you can set up an alert on Govtrack.us for key terms like “trafficking”, which will tell you every time a bill with that term is introduced or moves. On the state level there are multiple trackers. The most common is BillTrack50. With a free account, you can search for terms like “prostitution” or “trafficking”, but you need a paid account to set up an email alert. Searching regularly can do the trick, though.
What do I look for about the bill?
A few places to begin when trying to understand a bill, and give you keys on where to go next:
- Sponsor: This is the Representative who’s office drafted and is the key point-person on the bill. While they are not in full control over the procedure it goes through, they are the ones putting the effort into it. Depending on the bill and the representative, meeting with them can be incredibly helpful to find out more or slow its movement. You can also look on their website to see what they have said about the bill’s introduction. This will tell you what they intend, how they’re framing it, and can give insight on how to approach.
- Co-sponsors: These are legislators who publicly and officially support the bill. The more co-sponsors, the more likely it will move. If a bill is introduced with no co-sponsors, there’s a good chance even the sponsor doesn’t think it’s going to move but is making a statement.
- Committee: Once a bill is introduced it gets assigned to a Committee by subject matter. These are the first people who will get a crack at changing the bill, the first who will vote on it.
- Summary: Federal bills often end up will a summary, which tells you what the bill does.
What do I do with the bill text?
It takes a day or so for the bill text to make it online, but once it is up, understanding what a bill says can take some work.
- Resolution or Bill? Resolutions are statements from Congress which don’t carry much legal weight. Example: A Resolution Designating June 2019 “Great Outdoors Month.” A bill actually carries the weight of law.
- Findings: Federal bills often begin with a “Findings” section which give the background and context. They do not have legal weight, but provide information on where this bill is coming from conceptually.
- Bill Text: This is where the bill tells you what it does. It might be inventing something entirely new and read like prose, but if it’s adapting existing law, it mine look like an eye chart. This is the time consuming part.
What is redlining?
Red lining is for bills which update existing law or statutes, and will help you make sense of what is on the page. If you open a bill and see this: If your bill text reads like this: (a) In General.—Chapter 110 of title 18, United States Code, is amended— (1) in section 2258A— (A) in subsection (a)— (i) in paragraph (1)(B)(ii), by inserting after “facts or circumstances” the following: “, including any available facts or circumstances sufficient to identify and locate each minor and each involved individual,” that’s probably gibberish.
For these bills, you would have to go to Chapter 110 of title 18, find section 2258A, and then copy/paste the language changes into a new document so it’s clear what you’re looking at. If you redlined the above section it would read as (changed in red): “The actions described in this subparagraph are making a report of such facts or circumstances, including any available facts or circumstances sufficient to identify and locate each minor and each involved individual to the CyberTipline, or any successor to the CyberTipline operated by NCMEC.” This section is about reporting location-specific information when companies make a report to the Child Abuse CyberTipline (from EARN IT, S. 3398 in the 116th Congress).
Understanding the impact the bill can have on a community is a collective process, and there are two important steps:
Bring in a lawyer early who can help work through the language and text. Legal language has differently meanings that our day to day usage. Battery has a legal standard that will be important. Small word changes make a huge difference, and a lawyer or policy person can help assess what the bill actually does.
Note: Not every lawyer has the same expertise. If your client has a spanking fetish, you don’t refer him to a foot model. A civil rights attorney who works in LGBTQ non-discrimination is not the same as an immigration attorney. A First Amendment lawyer does not work in anti-trafficking law.
Sit down with people, especially impacted folks, and talk about the potential outcomes of these changes. Talk about the impact it would have and why it would have that impact.
What are the chances this will pass?
Most bills don’t pass. Most bills don’t even make it out of committee of to a debate on the floor in Congress. Some bills aren’t even meant to, but instead are attempts to float an idea, spur debate, or pressure a company before a hearing. Sometimes from the start, you can tell that a bill isn’t necessarily meant to pass as a stand alone (it might be meant to be attached to something bigger) or even at all, which can help strategize and prioritize. A few quick things to look for:
Does it have a companion bill? A bill has to pass through bought houses of Congress before it’s sent to the President. It there’s no companion bill, it might be struggling in the other chamber, especially if it’s a House bill without a Senate companion.
Is someone leading the bill, or signed onto the bill, on the Committee it’ll be assigned to? The first step of a bill is that it gets assigned to a Committee for review. If no one on the committee is sponsoring the bill, it’s going to have a hard time getting a lot of attention.
Is there something else going on this might be about? In late 2020 there was a flood of bills doing bizarre-o things to Section 230. None of the bills were meant to pass, but they were all meant to look threatening to Facebook – who was about to testify in front of Congress – and put pressure on the company to make changes themselves.
Are there a lot of co-sponsors? If not, it might simply be a member trying to get into the conversation and make a statement.
Does it have a ridiculous price tag not funding defense spending? That’s going nowhere.
Examples in sex worker-led campaigns