Almost any news article about Congress uses terms that are not common to many Americans.  Below is a list of words and phrases that will help give some insight into what's happening in Congress.

  • Adjourn Sine Die: This term means “without day.” It is used to adjourn Congress for the last time that session. This type of adjourning only happens every two years when a new Congress is elected.
  • Amendment: This is an additional provision added to a bill while that bill is in committee or being debated on the floor.
  • Appropriations: This is a certain type of legislation which gives permission for each federal agency and department to spend a specific amount of money for a set period of time, usually a year.
  • Authorizations: This is 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. It is different from appropriations legislation in that it authorizes the agency to spend but does not provide the funds which must be appropriated.
  • Committee: There are three types of committees; Standing (they remain every year), Joint Committees (has members of both the House and Senate) and Special, Elect, and Other Committees.
  • Conference committee: This is a type of committee set up when legislation passes both the House and the Senate, but in two different versions.  Members are then selected from both the House and the Senate to serve on this committee.  They work out any differences and come to an agreement bill which they then take back to the Senate and House.  The final bill is voted on by both the House and the Senate, before the bill goes to the President.
  • Continuing resolution: A bill that, if passed, funds the government at current appropriations levels until Congress can pass spending (appropriations) bills under consideration. 
  • Cloture: In 1917, the Senate passed “Rule 22” allowing for debate to be ended with the agreement of two-thirds of the body (60 votes). This is called “cloture.”
  • Dropping a bill: Action that a Member of Congress takes to introduce legislation in 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.
  • Filibuster: An effort by a Senator to prevent a vote on a bill.
  • Floor: This refers to the literal Congressional chamber floor. The Senate Floor, means the Senate Chamber where members stand, debate and vote, and likewise in the House.
  • Floor action: Term describing when a bill is debated on the floor of the House or the Senate.
  • Hold: This is used by members of the Senate to notify leadership that they object to a Unanimous Consent request. Reasons for holds vary, they may be specific to the language of the bill, because the Member has questions that remain unanswered, or for a variety of other reasons.
  • Grant: Money appropriated to an agency or department of government that is meant to go to a state, city or other organization to carry out the work of government.  Grants are frequently highly competitive and require an application process.
  • Mark-up: This is when a committee meets to discuss and potentially pass a bill so that it may be considered for passage by the full legislative body.
  • Omnibus: Describes a large spending bill that includes many agencies or departments appropriations’ bills all thrown together into one bill. 
  • Session: This is the time period during which the House or Senate is actively considering and voting on legislation in Washington D.C.
  • Sponsor/Co-sponsor/Original Co-sponsor: The Member of Congress who create a bill are the bill’s sponsors. Before the bill is introduced, Members who agree to sign onto the bill are called original co-sponsors. After a bill has been introduced but before it has been voted on, Members who agree to sign on to a bill are called co-sponsors.
  • Recess: During recess, Members of Congress spend their time in their home states for meetings and other events. It is not correct to claim every recess is a vacation break as a Member’s schedule is often as busy during recess as when Congress is in session. It is more accurate to consider recess as home work period.
  • Referred to Committee: Once a bill has been introduced, it is referred to a committee that has jurisdiction over the subject matter in the bill. Bills may die in committee and never reach the floor for a vote.  Many changes also may occur to bills in committee through a mark-up before being sent to the floor for consideration.
  • Roll Call Vote: This is the standard method of voting on legislation. Each Member of the Senate is called by last name three times over a span of time designated for that particular vote by the Clerk of the Senate.  The time to vote varies greatly from 5 to 20 minutes.  Clocks are programmed, throughout the Senate and House office buildings, with buzzing reminders to remind Members of Congress of the ongoing 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. If there is no opposition, the legislation passes.
  • Vehicle: This is a bill that holds legislative language that may be altered with things such as riders or amendments. Sometimes the riders or amendments must be germane to the legislation.

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