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Glossary of Legislative Terms

Many of these terms are relevant to the legislative process used at both the federal and state levels (i.e., Congress and state legislatures).

Amendment—A proposal to change the language or provisions of a bill, resolution, another amendment, procedural motion or treaty. Amendments are usually offered in committee and on the House and Senate floor. They are debated, amended and voted on in a similar manner as bills.

Appropriations bill—A bill that gives legal authority to departments and agencies of the federal government to spend money. These bills are debated, amended and voted on in the same manner as are other bills. In a typical budget year, Congress passes 12 appropriations bills. Each one outlines funding levels for programs within a different part of the federal government. In contrast, on the state level, most states pass one bill that outlines all state government spending. This bill is typically referred to as a budget bill.

Appropriations committee—Each chamber of Congress—the House and Senate—has an appropriations committee. These committees are responsible for determining how much funding is spent on various federal government agencies, departments and programs. The full House and Senate determine the total amount of federal money that can be spent during the upcoming fiscal year. The appropriations committees divide that amount into 12 categories, or jurisdictions. A subcommittee in each jurisdiction identifies how much money will be spent for the departments, agencies and programs within that jurisdiction. Members of Congress who hold seats on appropriations committees have a more prominent role in deciding how federal funds are spent than do other members of Congress who don’t serve on these committees. Find out if the members of Congress who represent you serve on the House Appropriations Committee or Senate Appropriations Committee.

Bill—A legislative proposal offered by a representative or senator. Bills are generally designated “HR” or “HB” if they originate in the House and “S” or “SB” if they originate in the Senate. They are assigned a number in the order in which they are introduced during the legislative session (with some exceptions). Bills are introduced, debated, amended and voted on by the House and Senate. Bills that are approved by both chambers with identical language are sent to the chief executive (president or governor) for signature or veto. Once bills are signed by the chief executive, they become law.

Budget resolution—A legislative proposal that establishes the total amount that Congress is allowed to spend to fund federal government activities within a given fiscal year. Passing a budget resolution is typically the first step that Congress takes in its budget process each year. Most state legislatures skip this step. That’s because most states are bound by their state constitutions to spend only what the state collects in revenues each year. Thus, the upper limit on federal spending established by the budget resolution is determined by an analysis of estimated revenues at the state level.

Chairman (or Chairwoman)—The presiding officer of a committee (or subcommittee) of a legislative body, such as Congress or a state legislature. The chairman sets the agenda for the committee, including what bills are heard and when (or if) votes are taken on those bills. The chairman is always a member of the political party that has a majority of members in that chamber. Who becomes a committee chairman depends on the rules and traditions of the chamber. However, chairmen are typically more senior members of the party (i.e., those who have served longer).

Chamber—A term used to describe either the House or Senate. For example, the U.S. House of Representatives is a chamber of the U.S. Congress.

Cloture—The process that ends a filibuster in the U.S. Senate (see filibuster). Invoking cloture limits debate on a bill to 30 hours, establishing an end to the period for debate and clearing the way for a vote on the bill. It takes three-fifths of the Senate (60 out of 100 senators) to pass a cloture motion.

Committee (or subcommittee)—An appointed group of legislators tasked with examining legislation within a particular jurisdiction or focus area. For example, the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee is responsible for considering all legislative proposals introduced in the U.S. Senate that affect health, education, labor issues or pensions. Some committees are also divided into subcommittees that focus on a portion of the committee’s jurisdiction. For example, one subcommittee of the Senate HELP Committee is the Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging.

Concurrent resolution—A legislative proposal generally used to address the sentiments of both chambers or to deal with issues or matters affecting both chambers. These legislative proposals are typically designated "S Con Res" in the Senate and “H Con Res" in the House. Because concurrent resolutions are not submitted to the chief executive (president or governor) for signature or veto, they do not have the force of law.

Conference committee—A group of legislators temporarily appointed to resolve differences in legislation that has passed both chambers. Conference committees are usually needed to reconcile major or controversial legislation. If the committee works out the differences, the legislation goes back to both chambers for another vote in the form of a conference report, which details the agreement worked out by the conference committee. The vote is taken to approve or reject the conference report. If the committee fails to agree or either chamber rejects the conference report, the legislation fails to become law.

Congressional Record (or Journal)—A record of the daily proceedings on the floors of the U.S. Senate and House. It’s compiled for each day the Senate or House is in session. State legislatures have a similar record of their activities, often called a Journal.

Constituent—This is you! A constituent is a person who is represented by a designated government official or officeholder. For example, every person living in the state of Maine is a constituent of both U.S. senators elected from that state—because U.S. senators are elected by a statewide vote. In contrast, U.S. representatives, state senators and state representatives serve portions of a state called districts. Their constituents are the people who live within their district. Who’s constituent are you?

Continuing resolution—A legislative proposal that provides authority for federal agencies, departments and programs to continue operating when Congress fails to complete its regular budget process. The federal budget is passed annually. Each year’s budget provides authority for federal agencies, departments and programs to spend federal dollars during that fiscal year only. Once the fiscal year ends, Congress must grant new authority to spend money or federal agencies, departments and programs must cease operations. This is more commonly known as a “government shutdown.”

Co-sponsor—A joint sponsor of a legislative proposal. Co-sponsoring a bill is a way for members of Congress to show their support for the bill before they have an opportunity to vote on it.

Debt ceiling—The maximum amount of money the United States can borrow. The debt ceiling effectively caps, or puts a limit on, the amount of bonds the United States can issue.

Enacted—Bills that are passed by both chambers of Congress in identical form and signed by the president are considered “enacted into law.” This means they carry the force of law and can be enforced.

Filibuster—An informal term for any attempt to block or delay action in the U.S. Senate on a bill or other matter by debating it at length; offering numerous procedural motions; or any other delaying or obstructive action. Because of the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives, it is not possible to filibuster a bill in the House. A filibuster can be ended by a procedure called cloture (see cloture).

Fiscal year—The accounting period for a government entity. The fiscal year is designated by the calendar year in which it ends. For example, a fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1, 2011, and ending on Sept. 30, 2012, would be the 2012 fiscal year. It is commonly abbreviated as “FY” followed by the year (FY12 or FY 2012).

Floor—Action "on the floor" refers to activities that occur as part of a formal session of the full Senate or House. A senator or representative who has been recognized to speak by the presiding officer of the chamber is said to "have the floor."

Hearing—A meeting of a committee or subcommittee to take testimony in order to gather information and opinions on proposed legislation; conduct an investigation; or review the operation or other aspects of a federal agency or program. Hearings are typically open to the public.

Majority (party)—The political party which holds the most number of seats within the House or the Senate. The majority party oversees all legislative business in the chamber. This business includes deciding when the chamber convenes, which bills get debated, the rules for that debate and who leads (or chairs) committees, among other issues. Thus, the party in charge of the chamber can have a significant impact on what types of legislative proposals are debated and passed in that chamber.

Minority (party)—The political party that does not hold the most number of seats within the House or the Senate. While the minority party does not control what bills are heard or when, there are rules in place that enable the minority party to make its voice heard and influence some aspects of legislative activity in the chamber.

President’s budget—A document submitted annually by the president to Congress. It provides the administration's recommendations for the federal budget in the upcoming fiscal year. The president typically submits a budget to Congress by the first Monday in February. This budget proposal does not carry the force of law and is generally used by the administration to outline the president’s budget priorities to the public. In some states, the governor produces a budget that serves the same purpose for the state.

Sponsor—A legislator who proposes a bill.

Veto—A procedure that allows the president (or a governor) to decline to sign a bill into law. When the president vetoes a bill, it gets sent back to Congress. In order to become law, the bill must pass both the House and the Senate by a two-thirds majority, which is called a veto override. If the bill fails to get a two-thirds majority in either chamber, it does not become law. If the president declines to sign a bill and Congress has already adjourned, the bill fails to become law. This is called a “pocket veto.” The veto process works in generally the same way at the state level (with some differences by state).

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