GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Choose one of the categories below to narrow your choiceLaw Making
The president and agencies of the Executive Branch.
The president is responsible for carrying out laws passed by Congress. This is done through various agencies - referred to collectively as the administration. The president appoints the head of each organization (Senate approval is required). Virtually everyone else working for these agencies is a career professional who maintains their position from one president's administration to the next.
Appropriations & Authorizations
Congress determines how Public Money is spent by the federal government. It is a two-step process.
First, Congress must pass an appropriation bill to specify the maximum amount that an agency or program can receive.
To actually spend the money, Congress must pass an authorization that directs ways in which the money should or should not be used.
The United States is not a strict Democracy. As defined by the Constitution, public policies typically are enacted by people we vote to represent our interests, rather than by a direct vote of people.
This is similar at every level of government - federal, state, and local.
Ballot measures are a way of circumventing the process defined by Constitution and providing citizens the power to affect public policy by a direct vote.
Types of ballot measures include...
A proposal for a new law. Examples of a bill might be...
For the most part, a bill can be first proposed in either house of Congress (the Constitution stipulates that bills allocating money must originate in the House of Representatives)
If both houses of Congress approve identical versions of a bill, it then is up to the president to decide whether to allow it to actually become a law. The president can approve it by signing it, or reject it by vetoing it.
An identifier for each piece of legislation proposed by Congress.
Bill numbers are comprised of a letter code followed by a sequential number.
Bill of Rights
The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. They provide citizens with basic protections from the federal government.
An informal, non-binding Senate custom that allows senators from a state to block the confirmation of federal judges from that state.
They are actual blue pieces of paper.
For more on how blue slips work and how the Democratic and Republican parties have dealt with them, read the Washington Post story.
A special type of bill that can be passed in the Senate with a simple majority - it is not subject to filibuster.
As the name implies, this type of bill is used on legislation that affects spending or revenue (taxes).
The way it works is Congress creates a resolution - a budget plan for in an area such as health care, education, or the military. The resolution can direct related committees to create legislation that conforms to the budget requirements contained in the resolution. This legislation must conform to the Byrd Rule.
Once the House and Senate agree on the exact language, debate in the Senate is limited and can be passed with a simple majority vote.
For more, read the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report.
Click here for a more detailed description of how the Byrd Rule works.
A Senate procedure to end debate on a bill. It takes three-fifths of all senators (60 votes if there are no vacancies) to invoke cloture.
In recent years, the Senate has allowed for merely the threat of a filibuster to serve as a filibuster. Because of this, a bill cannot even be considered unless there would be enough votes to end the (threatened) filibuster. So in a twisted sense of the procedure, it now takes 60 votes to even begin discussion of a bill.
Click here to read our discussion on the filibuster.
Before a bill can be sent to the President to sign into law, the House of Representatives and the Senate each must pass identical versions of the bill. If the bills contain different provisions, a small group of Representatives and Senators meet to agree to changes that both houses can agree to, so that identical versions can be passed.
This group of Representatives and Senators is called a Conference Committee.
The group of elected representatives who create federal laws and public policy, as defined in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution.
Congress is made up of two separate entities, referred to as houses.
o The House of Representatives.
o The Senate.
Although the House of Representatives and the Senate act independently from each other, legislation cannot become law unless both houses of Congress agree on identical wording for the legislation. That single bill then is sent to the president to be signed into law.
Congress: House of Representatives
The House of Representatives is one of two bodies of elected officials that comprise Congress (the other is the Senate). It is comprised of 435 voting members, divided among the states based on each state's population. A state has a minimum of 1 representative. With 53 representatives (each representing a congressional district), California has the most.
Representatives (also referred to as congressmen) are elected to a term of 2 years. Every 2 years, each House seat is up for re-election.
To create a law, each of these Houses of Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives) must approve identical bills (although most bills can originate in either House, the Constitution stipulates that bills involving appropriations must originate in the house). The bill then must be signed by the president to actually become a law.
The House of Representatives is the most personal representation you have in our government. Your representative represents you and the Congressional District you live in - approximately 700,000 people. Compare that to your senator, who represents your entire state. The president and Supreme Court represent the entire country.
The Senate is one of two bodies of elected officials that comprise Congress (the other is the House of Representatives). It is comprised of 100 members - 2 senators from each state.
Senators are elected to a term of 6 years. The terms are staggered every 2 years, so that every 2 years one-third of the Senate seats will be up for re-election.
To create a law, each of these Houses of Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives) must approve identical bills. The bill then must be signed by the president to actually become a law.
There are 435 voting members of the House of Representatives. As specified in the Constitution, each state is given one representative by default. The remaining 385 representatives are nearly equally divided among the U.S. citizens.
States that have more than one representative (all except the smallest ones) divide their state into congressional districts - each represented by a representative. Districts within a state must have approximately equal numbers of citizens. However, there are no geographical restrictions set on congressional districts, and state legislatures typically try to create districts that favor the majority party's chances to maintain that majority. There is a saying that, if elections are the process through which voters choose their representatives, then redistricting is the process through which representatives choose their voters (see gerrymander.
Note: Congress determines the total number of representatives that will be distributed among the states - within the limits specified in the Constitution. Congress set that number to 435 in 1911, and it has remained at that number since.
Each 2-year Congressional term consists of two annual sessions.
A term of Congress begins on January 3 of odd years - following November elections which take place in even years. This is specified in the 20th Amendment of the Constitution.
The 20th Amendment allows Congress to change that date.
Congressional terms are numbered starting from the time the Constitution was enacted. The 114th Congress began on Jan 6, 2015, because the 113th Congress changed the date.
Each term is divided into two annual sessions.
Click here to view a history of recent Congressional terms.
Another name for a Representative.
Declaration of Independence
The document that declared that the United States was its own country - no longer a part of England.
Its final wording was agreed on July 4, 1776 - which traditionally is considered to be the birthday of the United States. A more accurate birthday, however, is two days earlier - when the Second Continental Congress voted to declare independence.
You can read the Declaration of Independence at that National Archives.
A petition in the House of Representatives to force the House to consider a bill that has not been passed by a committee - even against the will of the House Speaker.
If 218 representatives (a majority of voting representatives) sign the petition, the bill becomes "discharged" from the committee and can be discussed and voted on by the full House.
Earmark / Pork-Barrell
Money designated to be spent for a specific project.
Although earmarks are used by representatives to funnel money to their state, the projects may be worthwhile and provide benefits to a large number of people.
A type of earmark that does not fit into that category is known as a pork-barrel spending, or just pork. One feature of pork-barrel spending is that it typically benefits just a small number of people, even though it is paid for by the nation as a whole.
Earmarks often are included as part of an unrelated, must-pass bill, as presidents are constitutionally prohibited from issuing line-item vetoes. Though Congress officially outlawed them in 2011, they still find their way into legislation.
For more on pork-barrel legislation, read the Investopedia explanation.
An instruction by the president on how the federal government should operate - including how federal agencies should enforce laws.
They are published in the Federal Register.
Executive orders are similar to laws passed by the Congress in that they are fully enforceable and can be challenged for their constitutionality. They differ from laws passed by Congress in that they can be nullified or changed by a future president.
A special status the Senate can assign to to bills in order to speed their passage.
Though the rules for fast-track status can vary for a bill, they often include disallowing amendments and limiting discussion time.
For more, read the Congressional Research Service report
Senate rules allow for a senator to speak for as long as he or she wants when debating a bill. When a senator (or group of senators) knows they are a minority in opposiing a bill, they can utilize this rule to kill the bill by speaking indefinitely. This tactic is called a filibuster.
A filibuster can be ended if three-fifths of all senators vote to end it - known as invoking cloture.
That is how filibusters used to work. Today, modern Senate rules allow a senator to merely threaten to filibuster (silent filibuster), rather than forcing him to actually speak (talking filibuster). In order for a bill to proceed under a silent filibuster, three-fifths of all senators then must agree to allow the bill to continue.
This means that it effectively takes 60 senators (out of 100) for any legislation to proceed.
For a deeper understanding, read our discussion of the filibuster.
While there is no similar procedure in the House of Representatives, House rules allow for the Speaker, majority leader, and minority leader to speak for unlimited amounts of time.
Related terms: Senate, Cloture
As with private companies, work done in government agencies is performed by employees who need to get paid.
The public money to pay government employees must be allocated yearly by Congress (though a continuing resolution can extend that).
Unless that money is appropriated (either by a budget or a continuing resolution), there would be no money available to pay government employees. Therefore, most would not be allowed to work.
What could happen during a government shutdown?
What likely would not happen?
A way in which citizens (usually at a state-level) can make laws that their elected representatives would not.
A typical process for an initiative is for a petition to collect enough signatures to place it on the ballot for an election. Citizens then vote for or against it. If the initiative passes, it becomes law.
A legislature is a group with the power to make laws. In the United States, this can be Congress, or each house (Senate or House of Representatives) individually. At the state level, it can be state senates, assemblies, etc.
Legislation is a law that is passed by a legislature.
Motion to Proceed to Consider
Usually called a motion to proceed, it is a proposal in the Senate to bring a bill up for consideration when there is opposition to the bill.
Because the motion to proceed is itself open to debate, it can be subject to a filibuster.
A bill that if not passed will result in a significantly detrimental situation. These bills usually are those that fund large programs or agencies, so that if the bill does not pass funding for these programs or agencies would stop once the existing funding expired.
Often Congress will attach a rider to a must-pass bill as a way to enact a controversial provision that either would not pass Congress or be signed by the president on its own.
National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)
Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM)
A notice that announces the intent of a federal agency to implement a new rule or regulation. The notice typically includes the opportunity for public comment.
NPRMs are published in the Federal Register. However, a simpler way to learn about them - as well as provide your comments during the allowed comment period - can be found at www.Regulations.gov.
If an agency decides to make significant changes to a rule before it becomes final, it will issue a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rule Making (SNPRM). This will require an additional comment period.
Senate rules normally require 60 votes (out of 100 senators) to overcome a filibuster.
Senate rules also, however, can be changed with a simple majority vote. Therefore, one way the Senate can overcome a filibuster without the required 60 votes is to simply change the rules to require only 50 votes to overcome it.
This has become known as the nuclear option.
Although the rules change has been referred to as the nuclear option, it is a legal option that has been used several times in the past - including to eliminate the filibuster from the House of Representatives. Click here to read a detailed (yet easily readable) report that discusses both the tactics and how they have been used in the past.
To read more about the real consequences to American citizens from obstructing legislation and presidential appointments, read this report from the Center for American Progress.
A bill that deals with several subjects and programs.
An official advisor to a governing body who interprets the rules of that body to ensure they are followed.
The parliamentarians of the Senate and House of Representatives are non-partisan. They act in an advisory role only, and can be overruled.
Click here to visit the official website of the House of Representatives Parliamentarian.
For more on the role of the House and Senate parliamentarians, read this Congressional Research Service report.
Pro Forma Session
A session of Congress in which no business is conducted.
One of the more controversial uses of pro forma sessions has been their use by the Senate, during what otherwise would be a recess, to prevent a president from making a recess appointment.
Public Comment Period
Before a government agency implements proposed rules or regulations, members of the public are given the opportunity to tell the agency their thoughts about the new rules.
Comments can come from both organizations and individuals. The amount of time allowed for comments (typically 90 days) is called the public comment period.
For more about regulations and how you can provide comments, visit www.Regulations.gov.
Regulation (or Rule)
After the president signs a bill into law, federal agencies create regulations on how the law should be implemented.
Creating a regulation is a lengthy and detailed process specified in the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) and other laws.
Among other requirements, proposed rules must be published in the Federal Register and a public comment period must be provided.
An elected member of the House of Representatives.
The House of Representatives consists of 435 representatives - from all 50 states plus U.S. territories. You are represented by the representative elected by your Congressional District.
Representatives are elected to two-year terms.
An action by a house of Congress that affects whichever house passed it - such as an internal rule or to express a sentiment of that house.
Resolution - Concurrent
A Congressional action that usually affects Congress itself - such as a the rules of Congress or to express a sentiment of Congress.
As with a bill, identical versions must be passed by both houses of Congress in order for it to take effect. It does not require the president's signature and it does not carry the force of law.
Resolution - Continuing (CR)
Legislation that extends the funding of government functions and services for a limited period of time. Funding typically remains at the current levels.
Because federal money cannot be spent without first being budgeted, Continuing Resolutions keep the government running when both houses of Congress and/or the president cannot agree on a budget either at the end of a fiscal year or the expiration of the previous Continuing Resolution.
Resolution - Joint
The procedure for passing a joint resolution is virtually identical to that for passing a bill. Identical versions must be passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and it must be signed by the president.
An additional provision of a bill that usually has nothing to do with the purpose of the bill.
Once a bill is approved by both houses of Congress, the president must either sign or veto the bill as an entirety. The Constitution does not allow for line-item vetoes. Therefore, riders generally are added to bills for two opposite reasons...
A Congressional committee for a specific purpose - such as to consider a possible law or investigate a matter.
It usually is created via a resolution which describes the committee's mission and how members will be appointed.
An elected member of the Senate.
The Senate consists of 100 senators - two from each of the 50 states. The senators from each state often are referred to as the senior senator (the one who has been in the Senate the longest) and the junior senator. However, the Constitution makes no such distinction, and both Senators are considered to be equals.
Senators are elected to six-year terms.
A term used to describe an adjournment of Congress when no day is specified to reconvene.
The most common use is when Congress adjourns for the last time in a year to end a Congressional session.
The name sine die is Latin for "without a day".
For more on the effects of a sine die adjournment, read the Congressional Institute report.
Speaker of the House
The leader of the House of Representatives.
The House Speaker is elected by representatives each Congressional term. Because each member of the House has a vote, the Speaker effectively is guaranteed to be of the same political party as the majority of members.
The 1947 Presidential Succession Act specifies that if both the president and vice president become unable to serve, the Speaker of the House will become the president (assuming he or she is able to serve).
One interesting note. Although the Speaker of the House always has been a member of the House of Representatives, the Constitution does not require that.
To defeat an item (i.e. bill, resolution, or amendment) in the Senate.
A motion to table an item is not debatable, and only a simple majority is required to table the item. It therefore is used to quickly dispose of an item.
A law that limits the number of terms a representative can serve in an elected office.
The Constitution's 22nd Amendment limits the president to two terms. There are no limits to the number of terms representatives or senators can serve.
The laws of the United States.
When a bill becomes a law, it becomes part of the U.S. Code. The law might add a completely new section to the U.S. Code, or it might change an existing law.
The U.S. Code is organized into titles...
For more, visit www.govinfo.gov.
Once Congress passes a bill, it then is up to the president as to whether it actually becomes a law. He can sign the bill, making it an official law. Or he can reject it by vetoing it.
Though that is the essence of how a bill becomes a law (or doesn't become one), there are a few variations that can come into play...
The White House (which really is white), is the official residence and office of the president.
The term also is used as a general way to refer to the president's administration. For example, "The White House announced that..."