Glossary of Legislative Terms

This glossary is designed to familiarize you with many of the terms and definitions used within the United States Congress.
AMENDMENT— A proposal to alter the  language, provisions or stipulations in a bill or in another  amendment.  It is usually printed, debated and voted upon in the same way as a bill.

APPROPRIATIONS — Legislation which provides the actual funds to operate the departments and agencies of the federal government.  There are 13 regular appropriations bills which must be approved on an annual basis effective for the fiscal year which begins on Oct. 1 (also see Continuing Resolution).

AUTHORIZATION — Basic, substantive legislation that establishes or continues (reauthorizes) the legal operation of a federal program or agency, either indefinitely or for a specific period, or which sanctions a particular type of obligation or expenditure. 

BILL — A legislative proposal, designated as H.R. in the House of Representatives and S. in the Senate, followed by a number assigned in the order in which it is introduced during the two-year period in which a Congress is convened.  If approved by both houses of Congress in the same form and signed by the President, a bill becomes a law.

COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE — A procedural device designed to expedite the legislative work in the House in which slightly less formal rules for conduct of debate and voting on amendments apply.

CONCURRENT RESOLUTION — A resolution, designated as House Concurrent Resolution (H.Con.Res.) or Senate Concurrent Resolution (S.Con.Res.), often used to express the “sense of Congress” on various domestic or foreign policy issues. Concurrent resolutions do not require or are not intended for approval by the President and therefore do not have the force of law.

CONFERENCE — A meeting between representatives of the House and Senate to reconcile differences between the two houses over provisions of a bill or joint resolution passed by both chambers.  A majority of the members of the conference from each chamber must agree on the provisions of a measure before it can be considered by either chamber in the form of a “conference report.”  Conference reports cannot be amended and if not approved, the legislation may go back to conference or a new conference must be convened.  Legislation passed by both houses with only minor differences need not be sent to conference; either chamber may “concur” in the other’s amendments, completing action on the legislation.

CONTINUING RESOLUTION — A joint resolution which continues in effect appropriations legislation for specific ongoing activities of federal departments or agencies when a fiscal year begins and Congress has not yet enacted all of the 13 regular appropriations bills for that fiscal year.

HOUSE — The House of Representatives, as distinct from the Senate, although each body is a “house” of Congress.

JOINT RESOLUTION — A resolution, designated House Joint Resolution (H.J.Res.) or Senate Joint Resolution (S.J.Res.), followed by a number assigned in the order in which it is introduced during the two-year period in which a Congress is convened.  If approved by both houses in the same form and signed by the President, it becomes a law just as a bill does.  A joint resolution is generally limited to special circumstances and is also used to propose amendments to the Constitution.  Under that purpose, it does not require a presidential signature and becomes part of the Constitution when three-fourths of the states ratify or approve it.

MOTION TO RECOMMIT — After the third reading of a bill (or resolution), but before the Speaker orders the vote on final passage of the bill (or resolution), a motion to recommit the bill, either with or without instructions, to the committee which originally reported it is in order. This motion is traditionally the right of the minority and gives one last chance to amend or kill the bill.

RESOLUTION — A simple resolution, designated House Resolution (H.Res.) or Senate Resolution (S.Res.), deals with matters entirely within the prerogatives of one house or the other.  It requires neither passage by the other chamber nor approval by the President, does not have the force of law and is commonly used for internal business of one house or for expressing views of a chamber. 

ROLL CALL VOTE — There are several different ways of voting in Congress, one of which is the roll call vote, where the vote of each member is recorded. Not all bills, in fact, the minority of bills, receive a roll call vote.

SERIAL SET — The Serial Set contains the House and Senate Documents and the House and Senate Reports. The reports are usually from congressional committees dealing with proposed legislation and issues under investigation. The Serial Set began publication with the 15th Congress, 1st Session (1817).

SIMPLE RESOLUTION — Legislation that relates to the operations of a single chamber or expresses the collective opinion of that chamber on public policy issues. A simple resolution originating in the House of Representatives is designated by the letters “H. Res.” followed by a number and simple resolutions introduced in the Senate as “S. Res.” followed by a number. For Example: H. Res. 10.

STATUTES AT LARGE — The official source for the laws and resolutions passed by Congress. Every law, public and private, ever enacted by the Congress is published in the Statutes at Large in order of the date of its passage. Until 1948, all treaties and international agreements approved by the Senate were also published in the set.

SUSPENSION OF RULES — A procedure used in the House intended to speed the consideration of non-controversial legislation.  Under suspension of the rules, debate is limited to 40 minutes, no amendments from the floor are permitted, and a two-thirds vote of those members voting is required for passage.

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