Congressional Definitions


Accuracy in the Media (AIM):

Accuracy In Media is a non-profit, grassroots citizens watchdog of the news media that critiques botched and bungled news stories and sets the record straight on important issues that have received slanted coverage.

American Legion:

The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic, mutual-help, war-time veterans organization. A community-service organization which now numbers nearly 3 million members -- men and women -- in nearly 15,000 American Legion Posts worldwide. These Posts are organized into 55 Departments -- one each for the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, France, Mexico, and the Philippines.


The act of dividing into just proportions or shares. The apportionment of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives is based on the population of each state.

Appropriations bill

An act of Congress that actually funds programs within limits established by authorization bills. Appropriations usually cover one year.

Articles of Confederation

The first constitution of the United States, adopted by Congress in 1777 and enacted in 1781. The Articles established a national legislature, the Continental Congress, but most authority rested with the state legislatures.


An organized body of people who have an interest, an activity, or a purpose in common; a society.


A statistical sampling or testing error caused by systematically favoring some outcomes over others.

Composed of two legislative bodies, or houses, through which all bills must pass. Congress is a bicameral legislature, as are most state legislatures.

A draft of a proposed law presented for approval to a legislative body.

Bill of Attainder

The Constitution prohibits Congress from passing any law that strips an individual of civil rights or property.

Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, drafted in response to some of the Anti-Federalist concerns. These amendments define such basic liberties as freedom of religion, speech, and press, and offer protections against arbitrary searches by the police and being held without talking to a lawyer.


This word means "two party". If a bill has bipartisan support, it means that both major political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats support it.


Helping constituents as individuals; cutting through bureaucratic red tape to get people what they think they have a right to get. See also pork barrel.


An informal group of Members sharing an interest in the same policy issues. Every member of Congress is automatically a member of his or her party caucus.


An offical count of the population of a district, state, or nation, including statistics such as age, sex, occupation, property owned, etc. In the U.S., a census is held at the end of every ten years.

A division of the membership of the House or Senate, which prepares legislation for action or makes, requested investigations. The committee system is the way Congress organizes itself to handle legislation and investigations. The committees may be divided into subcommittees, each of which handles part of the work of the full committee.
Conference committees

Congressional committees formed when the Senate and the House pass a particular bill in different forms. Party leadership appoints members from each house who iron out the differences and report back a single bill. See also standing committees, joint committees, and select committees.


The national legislative body of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The two-year session of this legislature between elections of the House of Representatives. The six- year session of this legislature between elections of the Senate.


A member of the House from Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, or Washington, D.C. The Constitution prohibits delegates from voting on the House floor but allows them to vote in committee.
Discharge Rule
Method used by a majority vote of the House membership to force a bill out of committee and on to the floor.
Dissenting Opinion

A dissenting opinion disagrees with the majority opinion because of the reasoning and/or the principles of law on which the decision is based.

The geographical area in a state represented by a House member. Each congressional district contains about 600,000 citizens.
Dividing the nation/ states into districts of areas to best represent their interests.

District courts

The ninety-one federal courts of original jurisdiction. They are the only federal courts in which no trials are held and in which juries may be empaneled. Compare courts of appeal.

Federalist Papers

A collection of eighty-five articles written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the name "Publius" to defend the Constitution in detail. Collectively, these papers are second only to the U.S. Constitution in characterizing the framers' intents.


A filibuster is a delaying tactic used in the Senate to prevent a vote on a bill or resolution. The Senate, unlike the House of Representatives, has a tradition of unlimited debate. The Senate has great difficulty stopping debate as long as at least one Senator objects to cutting off the debate. Therefore, a Senator, or a small group of Senators, could delay the business of the Senate for days, weeks, or months by keeping control of the floor in endless debate. The procedure used to cut off debate and end a filibuster is known as cloture. During Senate consideration of a civil rights bill in 1957, for example, Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina opposed the bill and filibustered it by holding the floor of the Senate for 24 hours and 18 minutes. During the long filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Senate stayed in session around the clock, forcing Senators to eat and sleep near the Senate chamber.
Relevant. Amendments are said to be germane or non-germane to a bill. The House requires germaneness of amendments at all time unless an exception is made by special rule. In most cases, the Senate does not require germaneness. Senate tradition allows Senators to offer amendments on any subject even if unrelated to the bill's topic.
Drawing of a strangely shaped congressional district to give an advantage to a particular party, faction, or race.
The House of Representatives
House of Representatives, popularly referred to as the lower house, is the larger of the two houses of Congress. It has a unique place in the structure of government as the first branch or the people's branch of government, since it the part closest to the people because its members are elected every two years by a direct vote of citizens in districts and each state.
House Rules Committee
The House Committee on Rules can claim to be one of the oldest House committees, dating back to a select committee of eleven members on April 2, 1789. Over the past two centuries the committee's role has evolved considerably. This important committee controls the flow of all bills to the floor of the House and often determines whether the bills, once on the floor, can be amended or not. During the years of the civil rights movement the chairman of the House Rules Committee was a conservative southern Democrat from Virginia, Howard W. Smith, who did everything in his power to block civil rights legislation.

House Ways and Means Committee

The House of Representatives committee that, along with the Senate Finance Committee, writes the tax codes, subject to the approval of Congress as a whole.

Impeachment is a two-step process. The House has the sole power to indict or formally charge a federal official (including the President of the United States) with official wrongdoing. Once the House has charged an official with a crime (See Article II, section 4) it is up to the Senate to try the charges brought by the House. If the president is impeached, the Chief Justice of the United States presides over the Senate during the trial. In order to convict on a charge of impeachment, the Senate must muster a two-thirds vote. The House of Representative ever impeached only two presidents of the United States: Andrew Johnson in 1867, and William Jefferson Clinton in 1998. When the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds necessary for conviction, Johnson was acquitted of the impeachment charges and remained in office. Similarly, Clinton was not convicted after a Senate trial early in 1999. In the case of President Richard Nixon, the House voted in the House Judiciary Committee to recommend that the House impeach him. But before final House action could take place, the President resigned from office on August 9, 1974.
Implied Powers
Powers necessary for Congress to carry out its expressed or enumerated powers
A current member of Congress running for re-election.
One who does not belong to either of the two major political parties in the United States?

Independent Regulatory Commissions:

Independant Regulatory Commisions regulate business and economy,
partially independant of presidential control.
FCC - Federal Communications Commission
The FCC encourages competition and protects public interest in communication markets.
FRB - Federal Reserve Board FTC - Federal Trade Commision NLRB - National Labor Relations Board NRC - Nuclear Regulatory Commision SEC - Securities and Exchange Commision

Interest group

A group that lobbies for the interests of its members. This activity is protected by the First Amendment, "the right of the people peacably to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances." Interest groups mediate between individuals and the state. They may promote their interests by working to elect officials who are sympathetic to their cause. They may make donations to election campaign funds, for example-a practice that has recently come under fire, as the public perception has grown that many elected officials are virtual prisoners of special interest groups. Others say that the activities of many different interest groups that influence policy are a healthy sign of a pluralist system. See also lobby.

Joint Committee
A Committee appointed for a temporary investigative purpose or as a continuing group, composed of members of both houses.
Official trips by congressmen to particular areas of the United States and other countries affected by a proposed law. Often the term is used in a derogatory manner to indicate the trip may not be necessary and may be little more than a vacation at the expense of the taxpayer
An Act of Congress which has been signed by the president or passed over his veto
Legislative Branch
Congress, is the division of government that makes laws.
Line-Item Veto
Under the Constitution, the president must sign a bill into law or veto it in its entirety. The line-item veto gives the president authority to cancel the funds for selected programs after he signs a bill into law. Congress is given 30 days to review his cancellations. Within that time, if they do nothing, the cancellation takes effect. If Congress, however, passes a disapproval resolution by majority vote, the funds are spent. The president may then veto the disapproval resolution. If he does, Congress must override his veto by a 2/3 vote for the funding to go forward. The line-item veto was first brought before Congress in 1876 during President Grantís term of office. Since that time is has been brought before Congress in one form or another 200 times. The line-item veto was passed into law on April 9, 1996. President William Clinton used it 82 times. The city of New York, New York appealed the line-item veto to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional on June 25, 1998.
A group of persons or an organization seeking to influence the passage or defeat of legislation. A lobbyist is a person who represents a particular individual or group for the purpose of affecting the outcome of legislation. To lobby Congress is to seek to influence the decisions of members of the House or Senate.
An informal pact in which members agree to vote for each other's priorities.
Majority Leader
The chief legislative strategist for the majority party who plans the order of business on the floor and directs the daily business of the chamber. The members of the majority party elect Majority Leaders in the House and Senate. The role of the Majority Leader in the House and Senate has evolved differently over the years because of differences in the rules and in the manner in which the House and Senate conduct parliamentary proceedings and organize themselves for administrative purposes. While Majority Leaders of the House and Senate perform similar functions, they are not identical in duties, power, or influence. The Speaker the House is the top administrative officer of the House, while in the Senate the Majority Leader is the top administrator.
Majority Opinion
One more than half the votes in the U.S. congress.
Majority Party
The political party with the most elected members.
Majority Whip
Assistant floor leader; canvasses party members to determine their votes and marshal support.
Minority Leader
The minority party's chief strategist attempts to control floor action.
Minority Party
The political party second in number of elected members to the majority party in a two-party system, or a member of any other party, which is not in the majority.
Minority Whip
Assistant to the Minority Leader.

Nongermane riders

Amendments to bills the subjects of which are different from the legislation to which they are attached; prohibited by the rules in the House but a frequent occurrence in the Senate.


Open Seat
Congressional districts/states in which no incumbent is running for re-election.
Party Caucus
A closed meeting of the members of each party in either house.
A request sent to one or both chambers from an organization or private citizen's group asking for support for particular legislation or consideration of a matter not yet having congressional attention.
Plurality Opinion

More numerous votes it doesnít have to succeed half the U.S. Congress.

Political Action Committee (PAC)
Special committee set up to handle the collection and spending of money for political campaigns.
Pork Barrel Legislation
"Pork barrel" came into use as a political term in the post-Civil War era. The term comes from the plantation practice of distributing rations of salt pork to slaves from wooden barrels. When used to describe a bill, it implies that the legislation is loaded with special projects for members of Congress to distribute to their constituents back home at the cost of the federal taxpayer.
President of the Senate
The Senate's presiding officer, who is also the Vice President of the United States but not a member of the Senate. The President of the Senate does not have the right to vote, except in the case of a tie vote.
After each decennial census, the total number of 435 House seats must be divided among the states on the basis of the states' population. If the state has lost population the number of seats may be reduced, while in states that have an increase of population the number of seats may be increased. During this re-allotment process the states may need to re-draw the boundaries of their congressional districts.
A provision attached to an important bill, but usually unrelated to it; it hitchhikes or rides through on the strength of the more important bill.
Rules Committee
The House Committee on Rules can claim to be one of the oldest House committees, dating back to a select committee of eleven members on April 2, 1789. Over the past two centuries the committee's role has evolved considerably. This important committee controls the flow of all bills to the floor of the House and often determines whether the bills, once on the floor, can be amended or not. During the years of the civil rights movement the chairman of the House Rules Committee was a conservative southern Democrat from Virginia, Howard W. Smith, who did everything in his power to block civil rights legislation.

Safe Seat

 Congressional districts/states in which a new member takes the place of an open seat.

The Senate is sometimes called the upper house or the upper body of Congress because it is a smaller, more select group with specific powers of state that have their origins in the functions of the supreme council of the ancient Roman Republic and Empire.

Precedence of position, especially precedence over others of the same rank by reason of a longer span of service.

Separation of Powers
Division of the powers of government among three branches-- legislative, executive, and judicial.

A list of the candidates of a political party running for various offices.

Social Security

The Social Security Act was passed in 1935; it established a national social security service, which included benefits for the elderly, unemployed, and also aid to the states for the care of the old, dependent children, and the blind. At first benefits were for private sector employees only, but in the 1950s Social Security was extended to self-employed, state and local employees, household and farm workers, and members of the armed forces and clergy. Disability insurance was added in 1954. In 1965 Medicare, which provided health insurance for those over 65, and Medicaid, which provided health care for the poor, were added. In 1972 a law was enacted that linked Social Security benefits to the rise in the cost of living. The result has been that over the last two decades Social Security has taken up more and more of the federal budget, but current proposals to balance the budget leave Social Security mostly exempt from cuts, the exceptions being Medicare and Medicaid, which are slated for sizable reductions.

Soft Money

Campaign contributions not covered by FECA regulations.

The Speaker of the House is an important and unique officer of the federal government. While the Constitution does not define the duties and powers of the Speaker, the framers of the Constitution clearly had in mind a presiding officer for the House, similar to the models they were familiar with in the British Parliament and in their experience with colonial and state legislature. But over the years the role of the Speaker has expanded to become that of majority party leader within the House, the chief administrative officer of the House, and, under the rules of the House, the Speaker has often wielded great power, sometimes rivaling that of the president of the United States. The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 made the Speaker next in line to become president of the United States if both the president and vice president were not able to carry out those duties because of death, resignation, removal from office, or disability.
Standing Committee
Created by the House or Senate rules, a permanent committee that specializes in certain legislative areas and to which all similar bills can be referred.

In the broad sense, any law or rule. More specifically,a statute is a law enacted by legislation.

SALT- Strategic Arms Limitation Talks
Talks between U.S. and U.S.S.R to limit the growth of nuclear weapons during the 1970ís.

START - Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I

Was signed in 1991 by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It provided for a one-third reduction of nuclear missiles, over a seven-year period. It was the first treaty to mandate reductions in nuclear weapons by the superpowers. START II was signed by the U.S and Russia in 1993. It called for both sides to reduce their long-range nuclear weapons to one-third of then current levels within ten years, and to eliminate land-based multiple warhead missiles.

Strategic Defense Initiative

S.D.I. and Star Wars. S.D.I. was announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. It was designed to create a completely new form of national defense, through the creation of a defensive shield around the United States, which would allow incoming nuclear weapons to be destroyed by laser guns before they hit their target. Reagan believed that S.D.I. could put an end to nuclear weapons by making them useless. However, many experts were certain that S.D.I. could not possibly work at all; others said it could not protect the entire U.S. population and would merely force the Soviet Union to aim more nuclear warheads at the U.S. But in spite of these concerns, the Reagan administration committed large resources to the development of S.D.I., and it was an importnat factor in negotiations with the Soviet Union during Reagan's two terms of office. (The Soviets opposed the development of S.D.I.) The administration of President George Bush (1989-1993) was less enthusiastic about Star Wars, and the idea gradually was dropped, especially since the end of the Cold War made a nuclear attack on the U.S. less likely. It was revived in 1995 by Republican senators, who say that the threat of nuclear proliferation is such that it warrants more research into the devlopment of a land-based missile defense system.


A division of a committee having specialized jurisdiction.
Politicians way of focusing on specific groups in relations to their interest and needs.
Federal Tax Court

Established by Congress in 1924 under Article I of the Constitution, the U.S. Tax Court decides controversies between taxpayers and the Internal Revenue Service involving underpayment of federal income, gift, and estate taxes. Its decisions may be appealed to the federal courts of appeals and are subject to the review of the U.S. Supreme Court on writs of certiorari. The 19 tax court judges are appointed by the President for terms of 15 years.

U.S. Constitution

The document written in 1787 and ratified in 1788 that sets forth the institutional structure of U.S. government and the tasks these institutions perform. It replaced the Articles of Confederation. See also constitution and unwritten constitution.