DC can be confusing. Here, we keep a running list of terms defined in our weekly posts (special thanks to the Senate and House websites for many of these definitions).

112th Congress – The current meeting of the legislative branch of the government (the House and Senate).  Each Congress last 2 years.  The 112th Congress convened in Washington, D.C. on January 3, 2011, and will end on January 3, 2013.   

Adjourn Sine Die – Literally, “without day,” the term means to adjourn for the last time that session. This happens every two years when a new Congress is elected, based on the two-year election cycle of the House of Representatives.

Administration – Refers to the executive branch under a specific president, ie the Obama Administration or the Bush Administration.

Amendment – A proposal to alter the text of a pending bill or other measure by striking out some of it, by inserting new language, or both. Generally, an amendment can be offered throughout the legislative process. 

Authorization bill – A statutory provision that obligates funding for a program or agency. An authorization may be effective for one year, a fixed number of years, or an indefinite period. An authorization may be for a definite amount of money or for “such sums as may be necessary.” The formal federal spending process consists of two sequential steps: authorization and then appropriation.

Appropriations bill – The provision of funds, through an annual appropriations act or a permanent law, for federal agencies to make payments out of the Treasury for specified purposes. The formal federal spending process consists of two sequential steps: authorization and then appropriation.  Currently, there are 12 appropriations bills that fund the discretionary programs of the federal government. 

Bill – The principal vehicle employed by lawmakers for introducing their proposals (enacting or repealing laws, for example).  A bill originating in the House of Representatives is designated by the letters “H.R.”, signifying “House of Representatives”, followed by a number that it retains throughout all its parliamentary stages. A bill originating in the Senate is designated by the letters “S” followed by a number that it retains through all its parliamentary stages.  Bills are presented to the President for action when approved in identical form by both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

BRAC – BRAC is the commonly used acronym for the formal name of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.   The BRAC Commission was created to provide an objective, thorough, accurate, and non-partisan review and analysis, through a process determined by law, of the list of bases and military installations which the Department of Defense (DoD) has recommended be closed and/or realigned.  The most recent BRAC was in 2005.  The BRAC Commission developed a list which was then sent to the House and Senate for an up or down vote (by law, the list could not be amended or filibustered).  For more, click here

Chairman – The presiding officer of a committee or subcommittee. In the Senate, chairmanship is based on seniority of committee tenure, but a Senator may not chair more than one standing committee (though they often serve on more than one committee). In the House, Chairmen only serve on one committee. 

Chairman’s Mark – Recommendation by committee (or subcommittee) chair of the measure to be considered in a markup, usually drafted as a bill.  It may be amended through the legislative process. 

Cloture – The only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter, and thereby overcome a filibuster. Under the cloture rule (Rule XXII), the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by vote of three-fifths of the full Senate, normally 60 votes.

Committee – Subsidiary organization of the Senate or House established for the purpose of considering legislation, conducting hearings and investigations, or carrying out other assignments as instructed by the parent chamberThe House has 20 standing committees, with different legislative jurisdictions (there are 4 Joint Committees).  The Senate also has 20 committees and 4 joint committees and 4 select committees.

Concurrent Resolutions – Matters affecting the operations of both the House of Representatives and Senate are usually initiated by means of concurrent resolutions. A concurrent resolution originating in the House of Representatives is designated “H.Con.Res.” followed by its individual number (those originating in the Senate are designated “S.Con.Res.”).  On approval by both the House of Representatives and Senate, they are signed by the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate. They are not presented to the President for action.

Conference Committee – A temporary, ad hoc panel composed of House and Senate conferees which is formed for the purpose of reconciling differences in legislation that has passed both chambers. Conference committees are usually convened to resolve bicameral differences on major and controversial legislation.

Conference Report – The compromise product negotiated by the conference committee. The “conference report,” which is printed and available to Senators and Representatives, is submitted to each chamber for its consideration, such as approval or disapproval.

Congress— The bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Depending on the context, it could also mean a particular meeting of the legislature. A Congress covers two years; the current one, the 112th Congress, began on January 3, 2011.

Congressional Budget Office (CBO) — The CBO assists the House and Senate Budget Committees, and the Congress more generally, by preparing reports and analyses. In accordance with the CBO’s mandate to provide objective and impartial analysis, CBO’s reports contain no policy recommendations. In addition, CBO holds its employees to the highest ethical standards; we impose strict rules to prevent conflicts of interest and enforce those rules.  Its website is

Constitution — The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It established the three branches of government (bicameral Congress composed of the House and Senate), executive branch, and judiciary headed by the Supreme Court.  The Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787, by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and ratified by all 13 states (Delaware was the first on December 7, 1787, Rhode Island was the last in May 1790).  The first ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights. The Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times.  To read the Constitution, click here.

Continuing Resolution/Continuing Appropriations – Legislation in the form of a joint resolution enacted by Congress, when the new fiscal year is about to begin or has begun, to provide budget authority for Federal agencies and programs to continue in operation until the regular appropriations acts are enacted.

Debt – The total amount of money that the United States federal government owes to creditors. The federal debt exists as a result of federal government shortfalls, or deficit budgets in which the government’s expenses exceed its revenues. See also Public Debt. 

Deficit spending – The amount by which the government’s spending exceeds income over a particular period of time, also called simply “deficit,” or “budget deficit.”

Discretionary Programs – Discretionary spending is that part of the U.S. Federal Budget that is negotiated between the President and Congress each year as part of the budget process.

District Work Period – See recess.

Dodd-Frank – Officially titled The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the legislation is commonly referred to as Dodd-Frank.  The bill was signed into law in 2010 in response to the financial crisis of 2008.  The legislation made several changes to the US financial services industry. For a summary of the bill, click here.

Earmark – Although somewhat difficult to define, an earmark refers to any element of a spending bill that allocates money for a very specific thing – a given project, or location, or institution.  In some cases, certain tax breaks have been viewed as an earmark.  They are known as congressionally directed spending, Congressional projects, pet projects, and pork.  Historically, earmarks represented a tiny part of federal spending (less than 1 percent) but have been targeted by opponents as the primary cause of “out of control” spending.  In 2011, both the House and Senate issued a moratorium on earmarks, which is still in effect.  Click here for additional information. 

Entitlements – See Mandatory spending.

Executive Branch – The part of the US government that has sole authority and responsibility for the daily administration of the state; usually refers to the President.

Filibuster – From the Dutch word for “pirate,” filibuster describes efforts by Members to prevent a vote on a bill. It was based on the right of Members to speak as long as necessary on a given issue. In 1917, the Senate passed “Rule 22” allowing for debate to be ended with the agreement of two-thirds of the body. This is called “cloture.” The cloture threshold has since been lowered to three-fifths.

Fiscal Year – The fiscal year is the accounting period for the federal government which begins on October 1 and ends on September 30. The fiscal year is designated by the calendar year in which it ends; for example, fiscal year 2006 begins on October 1, 2005 and ends on September 30, 2006. Congress passes appropriations legislation to fund the government for every fiscal year.

Hold – A notification to leadership that a Member will object to a Unanimous Consent request. Reasons for holds vary; often times, a hold is used as leverage to accomplish something else.  This practice is more common in the Senate. 

House of Representatives – The United States House of Representatives is one of the two Houses of the United States Congress (the other being the Senate).  Members are elected to 2 year terms.  The total number of voting representatives is fixed by law at 435 (the number of representative from each state varies depending on the state’s population).  There are also 5 Delegates and 1 Resident Commissioner that do not have voting rights in the House.  Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution sets three qualifications for representatives. Each representative must: (1) be at least twenty-five years old; (2) have been a citizen of the United States for the past seven years; and (3) be (at the time of the election) an inhabitant of the state they represent.

Introduce/drop a bill — Action that a Member of Congress takes to present legislation to a House of Congress. At this time, the bill is given a number (in the Senate, it start with S followed by numbers, in the House, H.R.), then referred to the appropriate committee for consideration. Approximately 10,000 measures are introduced each Congress; only a small percentage actually pass.

Joint Resolutions — Joint resolutions may originate either in the House of Representatives or in the Senate. There is little practical difference between a bill and a joint resolution. Both are subject to the same procedure, except for a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution. On approval of such a resolution by two-thirds of both the House and Senate, it is sent directly to the Administrator of General Services for submission to the individual states for ratification. It is not presented to the President for approval. A joint resolution originating in the House of Representatives is designated “H.J.Res.” followed by its individual number. Joint resolutions become law in the same manner as bills.

Mandatory spending – Refers to spending enacted by law, but not dependent on an annual or periodic appropriation bill. Most mandatory spending consists of entitlement programs such as Social Security benefits, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Markup – The process by which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation.

Motion To Go To Conference – A nonbinding procedural step needed before House and Senate lawmakers can formally get together to hash out differences between two pieces of legislation.

Motion To Instruct Conferees – A motion, which can originate in either the House or Senate, that asks, but cannot require, conferees from the originating chamber, to take a certain negotiating position on a specific bill. 

Motion To Proceed To Consider – Often referred to as “motion to proceed.”  A motion, usually offered by the Majority Leader to bring a bill or other measure up for consideration. The usual way of bringing a measure to the floor when unanimous consent to do so cannot be obtained. For legislative business, the motion is debatable under most circumstances, and therefore may be subject to filibuster.  To be successful, 60 Senators must vote in favor of it. 

Motion to Recommit – After the third reading of a bill (or joint resolution), but before the Speaker orders the vote on final passage of the bill (or joint resolution), a motion to recommit the bill, either with or without instructions, to the committee which originally reported it is in order. (Rule XVI and XVII) This motion is traditionally the right of the Minority and gives them one last chance to amend or kill the bill. Under the Republican changes to the rules of the House incorporated at the beginning of the 104th Congress, the Rules Committee may not report a special rule that denies a motion to recommit with instructions if offered by the Minority Leader or his designee (Rule XI, clause 4(b)). There are two types of motions to recommit under the rules of the House:

  1. If the motion to recommit is without instructions, adoption of the motion has the practical impact of killing the bill without a final vote on its passage. In other words, the House has said, “send it back to the committee from whence it came. We don’t want it as it is.” The motion is not debatable if it does not include instructions.
  2. If the motion to recommit is with instructions, the originating committee to which the bill is returned is bound to follow those instructions. Usually the instruction is for the committee to “report the bill back to the House forthwith with the following amendment.” The text of the amendment is then given in full. In effect, this is a last chance for the Minority to make a germane change in the bill. The motion to recommit with instructions is debatable for 10 minutes, equally divided, but not controlled (which means neither side may yield time) between the proponent and the opponent, although the time may be extended to one hour at the request of the Majority Floor manager. If the bill is recommitted with such “forthwith” instructions, the bill is immediately reported back to the House on the spot with the amendment, the amendment is voted on, and the House proceeds to final passage of the bill. The bill does not disappear into some legislative limbo as some seem to think. It either is killed (by adoption of a straight motion to recommit without instructions) or comes immediately back (by adoption of the “forthwith” motion to recommit with instructions).

The motion to recommit is the prerogative of the Minority party. In order of priority, the Minority leader and then Minority party Members on the committee handling the bill, by seniority, have the right to offer the motion. They “qualify” to offer the motion if they state that they oppose the bill, at least in its current form. The Member who qualifies and offers the motion should also vote against final passage of the bill if the motion to recommit fails.    

Office of Management and Budget (OMB) — The core mission of OMB is to serve the President of the United States in implementing his vision across the Executive Branch.  OMB is the largest component of the Executive Office of the President.  It reports directly to the President and helps a wide range of executive departments and agencies across the Federal Government to implement the commitments and priorities of the President.  For more on its mission, click here.

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – also known as health care reform legislation.  The legislation was signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010.  It overhauled the health care system in the United States.  According to supporters, “gives you better health security by putting in place comprehensive health insurance reforms that hold insurance companies accountable, lower health care costs, guarantee more choice, and enhance the quality of care for all Americans.”  Opponents say that it is an unprecedented power grab by the federal government, including some that say that fining individuals for failing to buy insurance is not within the scope of Congress’s taxing powers.  Others suggest that it violates state sovereignty. Click White House for more information about the bill; click here for the opponents’ position (note: the opposition sited here is only one source and should not be viewed as comprehensive).

Public Debt – Cumulative amounts borrowed by the Treasury Department or the Federal Financing Bank from the public or from another fund or account. The public debt does not include agency debt (amounts borrowed by other agencies of the Federal Government). The total public debt is subject to a statutory limit.  See also Debt.

President – is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces.  Article II of the U.S. Constitution vests the executive power of the United States in the president and charges him with the execution of federal law, alongside the responsibility of appointing federal executive, diplomatic, regulatory, and judicial officers, and concluding treaties with foreign powers, with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the Constitution sets the principal qualifications one must meet to be eligible to the office of president. A president must: be a natural born citizen of the United States; be at least thirty-five years old; have been a permanent resident in the United States for at least fourteen years.

Pro Forma Session – A brief meeting (sometimes only several seconds) of the Senate in which no business is conducted. It is held usually to satisfy the constitutional obligation that neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other.

Ranking Minority Member – The highest ranking (and usually longest serving) minority member of a committee or subcommittee.

Recess – By definition a “temporary cessation of the customary activities of an engagement, occupation or pursuit,” a Congressional recess is sometimes portrayed inaccurately as “a vacation.” During recess, Members usually spend their time in their home states for meetings and other events there. While Members do periodically take personal time during recess, it is not correct to claim every recess is a vacation break. Often, a Member’s schedule is as busy during recess as when Congress is in session. A more accurate term is “state work period” for Senators or “District Work Period” for House Members.

Reconciliation Instruction – A provision in a budget resolution directing one or more committees to report (or submit to the Budget Committee) legislation changing existing law in order to bring spending, revenues, or the debt-limit into conformity with the budget resolution. The instructions specify the committees to which they apply, indicate the appropriate dollar changes to be achieved, and usually provide a deadline by which the legislation is to be reported or submitted.

Redistricting – The process of redrawing state legislative and congressional district boundaries every 10 years by state legislatures following the decennial U.S. Census.

Report Senate committees usually publish a committee report to accompany the legislation they have voted out. These reports are numbered consecutively in the order in which they are filed in the Senate. Committee reports discuss and explain the purpose of measures and contain other, related information. The term may also refer to the action taken by a committee (“report the legislation”) to submit its recommendations to the Senate.

Roll Call Vote – Standard method of voting on legislation.

Rule – Technically called a special rule, but usually referred to as a Rule, it provides the terms and conditions of debate on a measure or matter, consideration of which constitutes the bulk of the work of the Rules Committee.  Rules are traditionally referred to along a spectrum, where on one end they are open and the other they are closed. While there is wide variation in the middle, there are certain standard kinds of rules.  Open rules permit the offering of any amendment that otherwise complies with House rules, and allows debate under the 5-minute rule.  Modified-Open rules operate much like an open rule, but have some restriction on the “universe” of amendments, either through a pre-printing requirement or an overall time limit on consideration of amendments.  Structured rules specify that only certain amendments may be considered and specify the time for debate.  Closed rules effectively eliminate the opportunity to consider amendments, other than those reported by the committee reporting the bill.

Senate – The Senate is one of the two Houses of the United States Congress (the other being the House of Representatives).  Members are elected to 6 year terms.  The total number of senators is 100 (two from each state).  Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution sets three qualifications for senators: 1) each senator must be at least 30 years old, 2) must have been a citizen of the United States for at least the past nine years, and 3) must be (at the time of the election) an inhabitant of the state he or she seeks to represent.

Sequestration  – The mechanism through which automatic, across-the-board spending cuts will be made under the Budget Control Act of 2011.  Sequestration is the result of the Super Committee failing to reach an agreement about how to find $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction.

Session — The time period during which a House of Congress is actively considering and voting on legislation.  Each Congress is divided into two sessions which generally follow the calendar year.  For example, 2012 is the second session of the 112th Congress; 2013 will be the first session of the 113th Congress.

Simple Resolutions – A matter concerning the operation of either the House of Representatives or Senate alone is initiated by a simple resolution. A resolution affecting the House of Representatives is designated “H.Res.” followed by its number (for the Senate, they would be designated “S.Res.”). They are not presented to the President for action.

Sponsor/Co-sponsor/Original Co-sponsor – The Member or Members who create a bill are the bill’s sponsors. Prior to the bill being introduced, members who agree to sign onto the bill are called original co-sponsors. Once a bill has been introduced, but before it is voted on and passed, Members who agree to sign on to a bill are called co-sponsors.

State of the Union – Article II, Section 3, Clause 1 of the Constitution states that the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”  This requirement is often referred to as the State of the Union address.  For more information about the State of the Union speech, click here

Statements of Administration Policy – Usually referred to as “SAP.”  These statements let Congress know the White House’s official position on proposed legislation.

Supercommittee – Technically titled the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.  It is a joint select committee of the United States Congress, created on August 2, 2011. The committee comprised twelve members of Congress, six from the House and six from the Senate, with each delegation evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.  The committee was charged with issuing a recommendation by November 23, 2011 for at least $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction steps to be undertaken over a ten‐year period.  Possible areas to be examined by the committee included: revenue increases, including raising taxes; tax reforms; military spending cuts; and measures to reform and slow the growth of entitlement programs.  The committee’s recommendations were to have been put to a simple up or down vote by Congress by December 23, 2011.  The vote would not have been subject to amendments and could not be filibustered.  A “trigger mechanism” was included in the bill to enact $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts in the event that the committee could not agree on a recommendation or the full Congress failed to pass it.  This automatic second installment of deficit reduction measures will be split between the national security and domestic arenas, but the biggest entitlement programs would be excluded from these automatic cuts.  On November 21, the committee concluded its work, issuing a statement that began with the following: “After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline.” 

Surplus – The amount by which the government’s income exceeds its spending over a particular period of time, usually the fiscal year (at this point, a completely hypothetical situation).

Suspension of the rules — is a procedure that the House of Representatives often uses on the floor to act expeditiously on relatively noncontroversial legislation.  When a bill or some other matter is considered “under suspension,” floor debate is limited (usually 40 minutes), all floor amendments are prohibited, and a two-thirds vote is required for final passage. To read more about the suspension procedure, click here

Unanimous Consent – From its beginning, the Senate has transacted much of its business by unanimous consent. The Senate’s small size, few rules, and informality encouraged the rise of this practice. A single objection (“I object”) blocks a unanimous consent request. Even several of the Senate’s early rules incorporated unanimous consent provisions to speed the Senate’s routine business.

Two types of unanimous consent are prevalent in today’s Senate. Simple unanimous consent requests deal with noncontroversial matters, such as senators asking unanimous consent to dispense with the reading of amendments. Complex unanimous consent agreements establish a tailor-made procedure for considering virtually any kind of business that the Senate takes up. They are commonly brokered by the parties’ floor leaders and managers. Two fundamental objectives of these accords are to limit debate and to structure the amendment process. As two Senate parliamentarians wrote in the Senate’s volume of precedents: “Whereas Senate Rules permit virtually unlimited debate, and very few restrictions on the right to offer amendments, these [unanimous consent] agreements usually limit debate and the right of Senators to offer amendments.”

Veto – The procedure established under the Constitution by which the President refuses to approve a bill or joint resolution and thus prevents its enactment into law.  Congress can override the veto if two-thirds majority in each house vote in favor of the bill (after the President vetoes it).

Whip — A whip is an official in a political party whose primary purpose is to ensure party discipline in a legislature.  The Republican Whip assists the Republican leadership in managing the party’s legislative program on the House floor. The Whip keeps track of all legislation and ensures that all party members are present when important measures are to be voted upon. Democratic Whip is charged with mobilizing the party vote on important legislation, acting as a liaison between Members and the Democratic Leadership, and coordinating strategy within the Caucus. Democrats are currently the minority party in the House, so the Whip is involved in planning opposition to the majority.


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