News Article of Senator Crapo
DECIPHERING THE LANGUAGE OF LEGISLATION (Full Length Article)
By Senator Mike Crapo
Contact: Susan Wheeler
A quick look through any article about Congress may wind up confusing many people because of the jargon used. For example, here are a couple of quotes describing legislative activity from a recent congressional news magazine:
“…a clean stop-gap measure.”
“…Senators who have blocked a conference committee on that measure…to prevent it from becoming an earmark-laden omnibus spending package.”
“…leaders have eliminated some of the most promising vehicles for carrying smaller bills to President Bush’s desk.”
This vernacular includes words and phrases like committee mark-up, recess, rider, clean, earmark, continuing resolution, conference committee, floor action, drop a bill, referred to committee, vehicles, sponsor/co-sponsor a bill, original co-sponsor, introduce a bill, omnibus, placing a hold, cloture, filibuster, session and unanimous consent. Like any organization, industry or business, government develops jargon particular to its activities. Some words have meaning outside of that environment; in this case, rider, clean, vehicle and recess mean something different when you are not talking about Congress. Like organizations, industry and business, Congressional lingo reflects the language of the times. These familiar words have been adopted by Members of Congress and their staffs to talk about the business of legislation. At the same time, Congress retains strong vestiges of its 200-year history, complete with the Latin of our Founding Fathers: the Senate adjourns this month sine die; Members of one house are called Senators; the highest ranking Senator is called the President Pro Tempore; and, Congress organizes its floor agenda while in session.
The legislative process can be challenging, even for those who have worked in the system for years. The old joke that compares making sausage to making laws is often true, and deciphering the language of legislation can be equally challenging. Understanding the meaning of some common terms can clear up some of the mystery surrounding the business of government.
• 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.
• Amendment: Language added to a bill during the committee mark-up process or while the bill is being considered for a vote on the floor.
• Appropriations: Legislation that grants each federal agency the permission to spend a prescribed amount of money on operations for a predetermined period of time. Appropriations legislation provides the funds, which have to be authorized before an agency or program can use the money.
• Authorizations: Legislation that set the amounts of money that the federal government is able to provide to each agency for operations for a set period of time. Authorizing legislation does not provide the funds; it only sets the amounts, which must also be appropriated. • Clean: Pertaining to a bill that has no riders or extra amendments.
• Conference committee: When legislation passes the House and the Senate, but the versions of the bill are different, Members from both Houses are selected to serve on a conference committee to work out the differences. Once conference language is agreed upon, the final bill is voted on by both Houses.
• Continuing resolution: A bill that, if passed, funds the government at current appropriations levels until Congress can pass spending (appropriations) bills under consideration.
• Earmark: Item in an appropriations bill that instructs an agency how to spend money that is otherwise spent at the discretion of that agency. Earmarks help ensure that projects particular to a certain state are identified and funded.
• 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.
• Floor action: Term describing when a bill is debated on the floor of the House or the Senate.
• 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.
• 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.
• Mark-up: When a committee meets to discuss and potentially pass a bill so that it is eligible to be considered for passage by the full legislative body.
• Omnibus: Describes a spending bill that includes multiple agency appropriations’ bills.
• Session: The time period during which a House of Congress is actively considering and voting on legislation.
• 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.
• 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.”
• Referred to Committee: Once a bill has been introduced, it is are referred to the committee that has jurisdiction over all or part of the subject matter in that bill. The committee decides whether or not a bill will ever reach the floor of the Senate for a vote and the chance of passage into law. If the committee does not pass the bill or otherwise discharge it, the bill dies in committee.
• Riders: Bills or amendments that are introduced and attached to other bills in hopes of passage. Generally, a bill becomes a rider to another when lawmakers are reasonably certain that the first bill will not pass on its own.
• Roll Call Vote: Standard method of voting on legislation. The Clerk of the House or the Senate calls the last name of every Member three times over the span of time designated for that particular vote. This can vary from 5 to 20 minutes, and allows Members who are not in the Senate or House Chamber time to get to the floor to vote. Throughout the Senate and House office buildings, clocks are programmed with buzzing reminders that occur throughout a vote.
• Unanimous Consent (UC): Often, resolutions and other bills are presented on the floor for passage by UC, eliminating the need for Members to gather in person for a roll call vote. Telephone messages and e-mails are sent to Members and senior staff members alerting everyone of the legislation, that it has been requested to be passed by UC, and to register opposition with their respective cloakrooms (Democrat or Republican). If there is no opposition, the legislation passes.
• Vehicle: A bill that will allow riders or amendments; sometimes the riders or amendments must be germane (pertain to the legislation).
The language of legislation includes many more words and phrases; understanding a few basic terms helps to better understand the process. Understanding leads to more effective and enthusiastic participation in our democracy.
If there are other legislative terms that you find confusing or would like more explanation on, please let me know by emailing me!