Government 101 - Glossary of Terms
Below is a list of commonly used legislative terms. Be sure to brush up on your jargon!
Advocacy: Speaking out on issues of concern. This can mean sitting down to speak with your legislator, engaging in efforts to change laws or policies, or even something as simple as telling your neighbor about the impact of a law
Ally Development: Cultivation of a partnership between two individuals or organizations based on shared values or goals, in order to advocate effectively for or against an issue.
Amendment: A change to a bill or motion, sometimes replacing the entire bill (called a "substitution"). An amendment is debated and voted on in the same manner as a bill.
Appropriations: A fancy word for funding. A legislature's appropriations committee will craft a bill that lays out how the government's money should be spent for a given time period (usually a fiscal year), which is then voted on by the legislature and signed into law by the president or governor.
Appropriations Bills: Appropriations bills fund each major department of government, and often one bill will include funding for several related departments. There are 13 appropriations bills that keep the government running and must be passed each year before October 1. Appropriations bills must originate in the House of Representatives.
Authorization: Legislation that formally establishes a program or activity and sets its funding limit. Authorizations are often for a limited time, and programs must be periodically "re-authorized," sometimes with changes.
Bill: Legislation drafted for consideration by the legislature. Typically, bills must be formally filed with the legislature's clerk and given an identifying number (H.R. 7, for example, is the seventh bill filed in the House of Representatives this session). Coalition-Building: Gathering like-minded individuals or organizations who share a common goal or policy focus, in order to successfully support or defeat a legislative initiative.
Committee: A formally established group of legislators in the House and Senate that develops legislation on specific topics (veterans’ affairs, for example), and has jurisdiction over all legislation and other matters (e.g., investigations) that deal with those topics. Generally, legislation must pass in a committee before the entire legislative body can vote on it. Committees often schedule public hearings to discuss legislative issues. Most action takes place at the subcommittee level.
Congressional Record: The official transcript of federal House and Senate proceedings. Often includes statements by members that are added directly into the record, and not fully read on the floor in the interest of time and staying awake.
Conference Committee: Legislation must pass both the U.S. House and Senate in identical form before it is sent to the President for signature or veto. When there are differences between the bills passed in each chamber, the legislation is referred to a conference committee, which is made up of members chosen from relevant House and Senate committees to reconcile the differences. The function of a Conference Committee can vary greatly at the state level.
Continuing Resolution: If an appropriations bill has not passed at the federal level by October 1, a temporary spending bill, or continuing resolution (CR), keeps the government running.
Cosponsor: When a legislator supports a bill, but is not the person who introduced the bill, they may sign their name onto the bill as a cosponsor to show their support. Legislation can sometimes have hundreds of cosponsors. In some states the legislator is the “author” and those signing can be “co-authors”.
Dear Colleague Letter: A “Dear Colleague” refers to a letter sent by one Member of Congress to fellow members. "Dear Colleagues" usually ask for cosponsors or for a Member's vote on an issue. A large number of signatories on a “Dear Colleague” letter is considered a good indication of support for the issue.
District Meeting: Meeting with a legislator at their office in their district. Each legislator also has an office in the capitol. Earned Media: Any print or broadcast coverage—such as letters to the editor (LTE), editorials, opinion editorials (op-eds), news stories, radio/TV/Internet interviews—that generate media coverage of positions, events, organizations, etc. and are “earned” rather than purchased (as in advertising).
Filibuster: Delaying tactic used in the U.S. Senate by the minority in an effort to prevent the passage of a bill or amendment. The Senate's rules allow for unlimited debate (discussion) in some situations, unless 60 votes are cast to end it. This vote to end debate is known as “cloture.” A filibuster results when one or more Senators continue "debating" for as long as possible (sometimes for days), because there has not been a successful “cloture” vote.
Grassroots: Activists or members of an organization who participate on policy issues. Grassroots make it happen and are the sustaining force of activism.
Grasstops: Activists or members of an organization or geographic area who have a high profile and can raise public attention or influence decision-makers through established connections; e.g., an organization’s board members and founders, community leaders, nationally-recognized individuals (including elected officials, actors, etc.). Grasstops can reinforce grassroots action or move an issue independently.
Hearing: A meeting in which evidence supporting particular points of view is presented to a committee. Hearings are usually convened in conjunction with the consideration of a specific bill and can include experts on a specific topic, or members of the public who would be affected by the bill or issue at hand.
House: The lower body of the Congress and most state legislatures. House members are elected to represent a geographic district. The US House (with 435 voting members and six nonvoting delegates) is much larger than the Senate (with 100 voting members), as is the case in most states.
Jurisdiction: The extent or range of legal, judicial, or oversight authority. This term is often used in reference to the power of committees in Congress.
Letters to the Editor (LTE): Letters written to editors of newspapers or other publications that are used to comment on specific issues or actions, thank elected officials for their support of a piece of legislation, raise awareness of events, or respond to news coverage, other LTEs, editorials, or op-eds. LTEs should be brief, generally limited to 150 words.
Letter-Writing: Engaging activists to send letters with uniform, targeted messages to key decision makers at strategic times. Lobby Day/ Day on the Hill: An organized effort at a state capitol or the U.S. Capitol to meet with elected officials/staff in order to gain their support for a selected issue.
Mark Up: Another term for a legislative session held so that a committee can amend and vote on a bill. When a committee considers a bill, members analyze it line by line. Committee members can offer amendments which, if successful, are incorporated into the language of a particular bill. This process is called “marking up” the bill. Legislation may be drastically changed during mark up.
Majority Leader: The leader of the majority party in the Senate, elected by members of his or her party. In the House, the Majority Leader is the second in command after the Speaker of the House and is also elected to that post by his/her peers.
Minority Leader: Leader of the minority party in the House and Senate, elected by members of his or her party. Omnibus Bill: A bill related to a specific area that covers many issues or topics. Often, the federal budget is an omnibus bill that deals with many agency budgets at once.
Op-Ed: An opinion editorial printed in a newspaper that is the expressed view of a particular opinion leader, such as a regular columnist or an influential individual, such as the chairman of a local hospital, board chair/president, current or former elected official. Typically, an organization writes the op-ed and requests that an individual lend his or her name. Op-eds are generally limited to about 650 words.
Paid Media: Airtime on radio or television or banner ads on the Internet that are purchased to promote a policy position or event.
Petitions: The collection of signatures (and contact information) to demonstrate widespread popular support for an issue or action to be potentially taken. In addition, petitions are an excellent mechanism to build organizational lists and capture names to generate a broader base of support.
Public Law: After a bill passes both the House and the Senate and is signed by the President, it becomes a public law.
Quorum: The minimum number of legislators necessary to conduct business in the House or Senate.
Reauthorization: The passage of an original act is often approved for a certain number of years. After the time is up for the original bill, Congress will re-examine the law and make changes or reauthorize the bill to reflect new issues of concern.
Regulation: A rule or order that originates from the executive branch (usually from a regulatory agency --- like the FDA, DHHS, EPA), and deals with the specifics of a program. Congress, for example, may instruct EPA to reduce automotive emissions by 5%, but the EPA must develop regulations to reach this goal. With certain exceptions, a regulation can essentially have the force of law.
Roll Call: A formal vote on a bill or amendment taken by each legislator announcing "yes", "no", or "present" as their name is read by the clerk.
Senate: The upper body of the Congress and most state legislatures. Each state is represented by two US Senators, elected at-large, to serve six-year terms. One-third of the seats are up for re-election every two years. In state legislatures, Senators usually represent larger geographic areas than House members.
Session: The period of time when the Congress or a state legislature are conducting legislative business. Some state legislatures are only in session for a couple of months per year. The U.S. Congress is in session for most of the year with a break in August and a number of district work periods throughout the year.
Sign-On Letter: An organizing tool, used to broaden support for an issue and indicate widespread support for an issue to decision-makers from specific groups of individuals or organizations. It is a letter or statement to a specific decision-maker signed onto by individuals and/or organizations. It can be one of the first steps in coalition-building.
Speaker of the House: The "leader" of the House of Representatives, elected by members of the majority party. The speaker controls the calendar and other aspects of the House's activities.
Sponsor: One or more legislators who are the primary writers of a bill. All bills must have at least one sponsor, but many have more than one primary sponsor, as well as a number of cosponsors. In some states, the legislator is the “author” and those signing can be “co-authors.”
Subcommittee: A part of a committee that deals with a specific issue within the committee's jurisdiction (such as the Veterans’ Benefits Subcommittee of the Veteran's Affairs committee). Most legislation is first developed and voted on at this level, as a full committee will usually not consider legislation until it has passed its subcommittee.
Target: A strategically selected individual (a Member of Congress, the President, a Cabinet member, etc.) who is designated as the recipient of grassroots/grasstops action because he or she can leverage influence in support of a goal.
Town Hall Meeting: A community-based meeting, generally held by an elected official or civic group during a legislative break/recess, to attract attention to a specific issue(s).
Whip: Senator or House Representative who serves as an internal lobbyist for the Republican or Democratic Party to persuade legislators to support their party’s position, and who counts votes for the leadership in advance of floor votes. While the Whip is an official position, there may be other members who act as a whip for specific legislation or issues.