Glossary of Legislative Terms


A

Act – The term for legislation that has been passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president (or passed by Congress in an override of a presidential veto), thus becoming law.

Administrative Assistant – The top aide in a congressional office; often referred to as chief of staff.

Amendment – Proposal of a member of Congress to alter the language or stipulation in a bill or act. It is usually printed, debated and voted upon in the same manner as a bill.

Appropriation Bill – Legislation permitting the expenditure of the monies approved by an authorization bill, but not necessarily to the total permissible under the authorizing legislation. Appropriation bills originate in the House, as required by the Constitution.

Authorization Bill – Legislation setting up or continuing programs; sets general aims and purpose and may set a ceiling for funding. Usually enacted before appropriation bill is passed.

B

Bill – Legislative proposal introduced in either house. Designated H.R. (House of Representatives) or S. (Senate) according to the house in which it originates and by a number assigned in the order in which it was introduced. When introduced, a bill is referred to the committee that had jurisdiction over the subject with which the bill is concerned.

Budget – Document sent to Congress by the President in January of each year estimating revenues and expenditures for the ensuing fiscal year.

By Request – A phrase used when a Senator or Representative introduces a bill at the request of an executive agency or private organization but does not necessarily endorse the legislation.

C

Caucus – A group of Members with a common interest. The most powerful are the Democratic and Republican caucuses or conferences in each chamber. There are at least 100 caucuses representing interests from sugar growers to the Democratic Task Force on Hunger.

Chairman’s Mark – The draft of a bill that the chairman/chairwoman of a committee or subcommittee uses as the starting point in a mark-up.

Closed Rule (House) – Prohibits the offering of amendments, this requiring that the bill be accepted or rejected as reported by committee.

Cloture – A process by which debate can be ended in the Senate. A motion for cloture requires 16 Senator’s signatures for introduction and the support of two-thirds of those present and voting.

Committee – A subdivision of the House or Senate that prepares legislation for action by the parent chamber. There are several types of committees. Most standing committees are divided into subcommittees, which study legislation, hold hearings and report their recommendations to the full committee. Only full committees can report legislation for action by the House or Senate.

Committee of the Whole – When the House sits as one committee to consider legislation reported by a standing committee before it goes to the floor, the committee debates and amends legislation; requires only 100 members for a quorum.

Conference Committee – A committee made up of members from both houses. Its purpose is to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill. Members of the conference committee are appointed by the Speaker and the committee must reach agreement on the provisions of the bill (often a compromise) before it can be sent up for final floor action in the form of a “conference report.”

Congressional Record – Daily record of the proceedings and debates of Senate and House; not always a verbatim account of floor debate.

Continuing Resolution – When a fiscal year begins and Congress has not yet enacted all the regular appropriation bills for that year, it usually passes a joint “continuing resolution” that continues appropriations for government agencies at rates generally based on their previous year’s appropriations.

D

District Office – In addition to their Capitol Hill offices, Members usually maintain one or more offices in their congressional districts.

District Work Period – A congressional euphemism for recess.

E

Engrossed Bill – The final copy of a bill that has been passed by one chamber, with the text as amended by floor action and certified by the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate.

Enrolled Bill – The final copy of a bill that has been passed in identical form by both chambers. It is certified by an officer of the House of origin (House Clerk or Senate Secretary) and then sent on for signatures of the House Speaker, the Senate President and the President. An enrolled bill is printed on parchment.

Expenditures – The actual spending of money, as distinguished from the appropriation of it. Expenditures are made by the disbursing officers of the administration; appropriations are made only by Congress. The two are rarely identical in any fiscal year; expenditures may represent money appropriated one, two or more years previously.

F

Filibuster – A time-delaying strategy of debate, amendments, other procedures, and just plain talk, used by those in the minority in an effort to prevent a vote on a bill that probably would pass if brought to a vote. The most common method is to take advantage of the Senate’s rules permitting unlimited debate. Filibusters are more difficult in the House because of stricter rules, but such devices as repeated demands for quorum calls are used from time to time.

Fiscal Year – Financial operations of the government are conducted in a twelve-month fiscal year, beginning October 1 and ending September 30. The fiscal year carries the same number as the calendar year in which it ends.

G

Germane – Pertaining to the subject of the measure at hand. All House amendments must be germane to the bill. The Senate requires that amendments be germane only when they are proposed to general appropriations bills, bills being considered under cloture or often when proceeding under an agreement to limit debate.

H

Hearings – Committee sessions for hearing witnesses. At hearings on legislation, witnesses usually include specialists, government officials and spokespersons for groups affected by the bills under study. Hearings related to special reluctant witnesses. The public and press may attend “open” hearings, but are barred from “closed” or “executive” hearings. The committee announces its hearings from one day to many weeks in advance and may invite certain persons to testify. Persons who request to testify may be turned down by the committee, but most who make a request are either allowed to appear in person or submit a written statement for the record.

J

Joint Committee – A committee composed of a specified number of members of both House and Senate. Usually a joint committee is investigative in nature.

Joint Resolution – A joint resolution, designated HJ Res or SJ Res, requires the approval of both houses and the signature of the President, just as a bill does, and has the force of law if approved. There is no real difference between a bill and a joint resolution. The latter is generally used in dealing with limited matters, such as single appropriation for a specific purpose. Joint resolutions are also used to propose amendments to the Constitution. Resolutions to amend the Constitution do not require Presidential signature, but become a part of the Constitution when three-fourths of the states have ratified them.

L

Law – An Act of Congress that has been signed by the President or passed over his veto by the Congress. Laws are listed numerically by Congress. For example, the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 is Public Law 101 – 445, meaning it was the 445th law passed during the 101st Congress.

Legislative Assistant (LA) – A Member’s aide who is responsible for legislative duties.

Lobby

  • As a noun, it refers to a group seeking to influence the passage or defeat of legislation. Originally the term referred to persons frequenting the lobby of the old Willard Hotel, near the White House, seeking appointive positions. Later, the term evolved to mean those occupying the corridors of legislative chambers in order to speak to lawmakers.
  • As a verb, it includes such activities as: 1) directly contacting members of a legislative body (or their staffs) to propose, support or oppose legislation; 2) grassroots action (urging the public to contact legislators or legislative staffs to propose, support or oppose legislation; and 3) more generally, advocating the adoption or rejection of legislation.

M

Marking up a Bill – Going through a measure, usually in committee, taking it section by section, revising language and penciling in new phrases. If the bill is extensively revised, the new version may be introduced as a separate or “clean” bill, with a new number.

Motion to Recommit – A motion to send a bill back to committee; used to “kill” or delay a bill.

O

Open Rule – In the House, germane amendments are permitted to be proposed on the House floor and adopted by majority vote.

P

Party Leader – Majority and Minority strategist and floor spokesperson for the party; elected by party caucus.

PAC (Political Action Committee) – Federal law prohibits incorporated associations from making campaign contributions to candidates for federal offices. The establishment of a PAC allows individuals with similar interests to combine and direct their individual contributions to political candidates who share those interests.

Q

Quorum – Number of Members who must be present to conduct business. In the House, it is 218, and in the Senate it is 51.

R

Ranking Member – Member of a committee who has more seniority on the committee than any other member of his or her party. Usually used in reference to the most senior minority party member.

Recission – An item in an appropriation bill canceling funds previously appropriated but not spent. Also, the repeal of a previous appropriation by the President to cut spending, if approved by Congress under procedures in the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974.

Report – Both a verb and a noun, as a Congressional term. A committee that has been examining a bill referred to it by the parent chamber “reports” its findings and recommendations to the chamber when the committee returns the measure. The process is called “reporting” a bill. A “report” is the document setting forth the committee’s explanation of its action. House and Senate reports are numbered separately and are designated S. Report or H. Report. Conference reports are numbered and designated in the same way as regular committee reports.

Rider – An amendment proposing substantive legislation attached to another bill.

S

Sessions – Normally, each Congress consists of two sessions, with each usually beginning in January and ending when Congress adjourns for the year.

Standing Committee – Committee whose existence is permanent and continuing from one Congress to the next.

Subcommittee – Smaller subject-matter division of a committee, facilitates specialization and division of labor.

Supplemental Appropriations – Normally, such appropriations are passed after the regular (annual) appropriations bills, but before the end of the fiscal year to which they apply. Also referred to as “deficiencies.”

Suspension of the Rules – In the House, a two-thirds majority may suspend the rules and bring a bill directly to the floor. Often, a voice vote is used to suspend the rules on non-controversial bills.

U

Unanimous Consent – Usual way of conducting business in the Senate. After the morning hour, the Majority Leader asks unanimous consent to consider pending legislation. The practice is used in lieu of a vote on non-controversial measures.

V

Veto – Action by the President. If the President doesn’t approve of a bill or joint resolution, it is returned with the objections to the House of origin, where the bill may be reconsidered. It must receive approval of two-thirds of both chambers to become law. When Congress has adjourned, the President may pocket veto a bill by refusing to sign it.

W

Whip – Chosen by party caucus as an assistant to the floor leader; job is to keep in touch with all members of the party, discover their voting intentions and get them to the floor for a vote.