Glossary of Legislative Terms

Glossary of Legislative Terms

Advocacy: The support or defense of a cause and the act of pleading on behalf of another person or issue.

Amendment: A proposal to change a piece of legislation.

Appropriations: Provides the legal authority needed to spend U.S. Treasury funds.US-congress-logo

Authorization: Provides the authority for a program or agency to exist and determines its policy.

Beltway: An interstate highway encircling Washington, D.C. “Inside the Beltway” suggests that an issue is of interest or relevant to only Washington-area residents and workers.

Bill: A legislative proposal that becomes law if it passes both the House and Senate in identical fashion and receives Presidential approval. Bills are introduced as “H.R.” in the House, and “S.” in the Senate with consecutive numbering in each chamber (e.g., H.R. 631 = House bill #631).

Budget Resolution: Details the spending and revenue levels set by Congress each year. It may also instruct committees to change current law in order to save or spend money.

Capitol Hill: The area encompassing the U.S. Capitol building.

Caucus: An informal group of members sharing an interest in the same policy issues.

Chairman: The presiding officer of a committee and/or subcommittee; a member of congress of the majority party in the chamber.

Cloture: A procedure used in the Senate to end debate and bring legislation to a vote. Cloture can be invoked by agreement between the Majority and Minority leaders or by the approval by 60 Members of the Senate voting to invoke cloture.

Demonstration Project: A project funded by the federal government to test new technology or policies.

Discretionary Spending: Refers to spending set by the annual appropriation levels and decided by Congress. This spending is optional, in contrast to entitlement programs (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security), for which funding is mandatory.

Earmarks: Provisions that set aside funding for specific programs or purposes.

Entitlement Spending: Funds for programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Funding levels are automatically set by the number of eligible recipients, not at the discretion of Congress.

Executive Order: A Presidential directive with the force of law that does not need congressional approval.

Filibuster: The term used for an extended debate in the Senate which has the effect of preventing a vote. Senate rules contain no motion to force a vote. A vote occurs only when debate ends or when cloture is obtained defining a period of time for the vote to occur.

Fiscal Year: The federal government’s budget year, which begins on October 1 and ends on September 30 of the following calendar year.

GAO: The Government Accountability Office audits federal agencies and programs for Congress.

GOP: Stands for “Grand Old Party” and is used to refer to the Republican Party.

Hearing: A formal meeting of a committee or subcommittee to review legislation or explore a
topic. Hearings also may be called to investigate a matter or conduct oversight of existing programs. Witnesses are usually called to deliver testimony and answer questions.

Joint Resolution: A measure used to appropriate funding, pose constitutional amendments, or fix technical errors. Joint resolutions become law if adopted by both the House and Senate and, where relevant, approved by the President. Constitutional amendments must be approved by three-fourths of the states.

Lame Duck: Member of Congress who will not return in the next Congress but who is finishing out her/his current term.

Lame Duck Session: The period of time when Congress meets after an election and before adjournment of that session of Congress. Members who will not be returning or who have not been re-elected can still cast votes during this period of time.

Majority Leader: A person elected by the majority party members in the House or Senate to lead them, to promote passage of the party’s priorities, and to coordinate legislative efforts with the Minority Leader, the other chamber and the White House.

Mandatory Spending: Required funding that now accounts for two-thirds of the federal budget. These funds are not controlled by current decisions by Congress but are automatically obliged by virtue of previously enacted laws. For example, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and Social Security are entitlement programs; funding for them all falls under mandatory spending.

Mark-up: Refers to the meeting of a committee held to review a bill before reporting it out to the full chamber, or floor, for consideration. Committee members offer and vote on proposed changes (amendments) to the bill’s language. Most mark-ups end with a vote to send the revised version of the bill to the floor for final consideration and approval.

Minority Leader: A person elected by the minority members in the House or Senate to lead them, to promote passage of the party’s issue priorities, and to coordinate legislative efforts with the Majority Leader, the other chamber and the White House.

OMB: The Office of Management and Budget is the federal agency that prepares the President’s budget submission to Congress and develops associated economic forecasts.

Override: The vote taken to pass a bill again, after it has been vetoed by the President. It takes a two-thirds vote in each chamber, or 290 in the House and 67 in the Senate, if all are present and voting. If the veto is overridden in both chambers, the bill becomes law, despite the objection of the President.

Oversight: The term used for congressional review of federal agencies, government programs and performance.

Pocket Veto: A passive veto when the President neither signs nor returns a bill within the 10 days allowed by the Constitution. Congress must be in session in order for a pocket veto to take effect.

Pork Barrel Legislation: Implies the legislation is loaded with special projects (earmarks) for members of Congress to distribute to their constituents back home. The term suggests the project funding is frivolous and unnecessary.

Power of the Purse: Refers to the constitutional power given Congress to raise and spend money.

President’s Budget: A document sent to Congress each year by the White House, usually during the first week of February. It outlines the President’s spending priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.

Quorum: The number of members who must be present before business can be conducted. In the full House, 218 representatives make a quorum. In the Senate, 51 senators are needed for a quorum.

Ranking Member: The minority-party member of a committee or with the most seniority. He or she has the highest ranking on the committee after the chairman.

Recess: A brief, same-day break in the session. Can also refer to longer breaks over several days, such as holiday periods, which are approved by vote.

Recorded Vote: A specific type of vote held on the record. It links the name of each member with his/her voting position.

Refer: Following introduction, to send a bill to the appropriate committee for initial examination.

Reporting Out: The vote of a committee to send a bill to the full House or Senate for review.

Rider: An amendment attached to a bill, usually unrelated to the subject of the underlying bill.

Roll Call Vote: The same as a recorded vote. The name of the member and her/his voting position are noted together.

Special Interest: Any group of people organized around a specific shared topic or policy.

Whip: A leadership position; a member who is elected by her/his party to count potential votes and promote party unity in voting.

Yeas & Nays: A specific type of recorded vote. Members call out “yea” or “nay” when their name is called, or signal the clerk with a thumb up or down.

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