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Legislative Terminology


Act: An act is legislation (a bill or joint resolution) that has passed both chambers of Congress in identical form, has been signed into law by the president, or has been passed over his veto, thus becoming law. Technically, this term also refers to a bill that has been passed by one chamber and engrossed (prepared as an official copy).

Adjournment Sine Die: This term means the end of a legislative session “without day.” This type of adjournment is the final adjournment of an annual session or a two-year session of Congress. Bills in progress at the end of the first session are continued in the second session.  

Amendment: An amendment is a proposal to alter the text of a pending bill or other measure by striking out some language, inserting new language, or both. Before an amendment becomes part of the measure, the legislative body must agree to its inclusion.

Amendment in the Nature of a Substitute: This term refers to an amendment that would strike out the entire text of a bill or other measure and insert a different full text.

Appropriation: An appropriation is a provision of law that gives authority for federal agencies to obligate funds and to make payments out of the U.S. Treasury for specified purposes. Budgets for the federal government are provided both in annual appropriations acts and in permanent provisions of law.

Authorization: An authorization is a statutory provision in an authorizations act that appropriates funds for a program or an agency. An authorization may be effective for one year, a fixed number of years, or an indefinite period. An authorization may be for a definite amount of money or for “such sums as may be necessary.”e

Baseline: A baseline projects receipts, outlays, and other budget amounts that would ensue in the future without existing policy changes. Baseline projections are used to gauge the extent to which proposed legislation, if enacted into law, would alter current spending and revenue levels. 

Bill: A bill is the lawmaker’s principal vehicle for introducing legislative proposals. Senate bills are designated S. 1, S. 2, and so forth. In the House, bills are designated HR 1, HR 2, and so on, depending on the order in which they are introduced. Bills may address matters of general interest (“public bills”) or narrow interest (“private bills”), such as specific immigration cases and individual claims against the federal government.

Budget Resolution: A budget resolution is legislation in the form of a concurrent resolution setting forth the congressional budget. The budget resolution establishes various budget totals, divides spending totals into functional categories (e.g., transportation), and may include reconciliation instructions to designated House or Senate committees.

Caucus: Originally from the Algonquian Indian language, the word caucus meant “to meet together.” It is an informal organization of members of the House, the Senate, or both that exists to discuss issues of mutual concern and possibly to perform legislative research and policy planning for its members. There are regional, political or ideological, ethnic, and economic-based caucuses.

Cloture: A formal procedure used to end a filibuster. It can take up to three days and requires 60 votes. Cloture can also be used even if there is no filibuster underway, to ban non-germane amendments. If cloture wins, 30 additional hours of debate are allowed prior to voting, but they are rarely used. If cloture fails, debate would continue without limits. Instead, the bill is usually set aside.

Clean Bill: Generally, after a committee has amended legislation, the chair may be authorized by the panel to incorporate the changes into the original bill and reintroduce it as a clean bill. This process may expedite action by avoiding separate floor consideration of each committee amendment.

Companion Bill or Measure: A companion bill or measure is similar or identical legislation that has been introduced in the Senate and House. House and Senate lawmakers who share similar views on legislation may introduce a companion bill in their respective chambers to promote simultaneous consideration of the measure.

Concurrent Resolution: A concurrent resolution is a legislative measure that is generally designated “S. Con. Res.” and is numbered consecutively upon introduction. It is usually employed to address the sentiments of both chambers and to deal with issues or matters affecting both chambers, such as a concurrent budget resolution or the creation of temporary joint committees. Concurrent resolutions are not submitted to the president and do not have the force of law.

Conference Committee: This type of committee is a temporary, ad hoc panel composed of House and Senate conferees whose purpose is to reconcile differences in legislation that has passed both chambers. Conference committees are usually convened to resolve differences on major and controversial legislation.

Conference Report: When a conference committee reaches a compromise, a conference report is written and printed for consideration and approval in each chamber.

Congressional Record: A nearly verbatim account of the daily proceedings on the House and Senate floors, an issue of the Congressional Record is printed for each day Congress is in session. At the back of each daily issue is the “Daily Digest,” which summarizes the day’s floor and committee activities.

Continuing Resolution/Continuing Appropriations: This legislation provides budget authority for federal agencies and programs to continue in operation until regular appropriations acts are enacted. It is usually passed in the form of a joint resolution enacted by Congress and is approved when the new fiscal year is about to begin (or has begun).

Discretionary Spending: Discretionary spending consists of budget authorities and outlays that are controlled in annual appropriations acts.

Enrolled Bill: The final copy of a bill or joint resolution that has passed both chambers in identical form. It is printed on parchment paper, signed by the appropriate House and Senate officials, and submitted to the president for signature.

Entitlement: Based on eligibility criteria established by law, entitlements define federal programs or provisions of law that require payments to any person or unit of government. Entitlements constitute a binding obligation on the part of the federal government, and eligible recipients have legal recourse if the obligation is not fulfilled. Social Security and veterans’ compensation and pensions are examples of entitlement programs.

Filibuster: Filibuster is an informal term for any attempt to block or delay action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by taking any other delaying or obstructive actions.

Floor: Floor is a shorthand term that refers to the full House or Senate. It is often used when noting that action is being taken “on the floor,” or, in other words, when a formal session of the full House or Senate is taking place.

Floor Amendment: This is an amendment offered by an individual representative or senator from the floor during consideration of a bill or other measure, in contrast to a committee amendment.

Germane: This term can mean (1) on the subject of the pending bill or other business, or (2) a strict standard of relevance.

Hearing: A hearing is a meeting of a committee or subcommittee—generally open to the public—to (1) take testimony in order to gather information and opinions on proposed legislation, (2) conduct an investigation, ojointr (3) review the operation or other aspects of a federal agency or program.

Item Veto: An item veto (or line-item veto) is the authority to veto part rather than all of an appropriations act. The president does not now have item veto authority. He must sign or veto the entire appropriations act.

Joint Committee: Joint committees, which include membership from both chambers of Congress, are usually established with narrow jurisdictions and normally lack authority to report legislation. Chairmanship usually alternates between the House and Senate members from session to session.

Joint Resolution: A joint resolution is a legislative measure—designated “S. J. Res.” or “H. J. Res.” and numbered consecutively upon introduction—that requires the approval of both chambers. With one exception, it is submitted (as a bill) to the president for possible signature into law. The one exception occurs when joint resolutions (and not bills) are used to propose constitutional amendments. These resolutions require a two-thirds affirmative vote in each house but are not submitted to the president; they become effective when ratified by at least three-quarters of the states.

Lame-Duck Session: When either chamber reconvenes in an even-numbered year following the November general election to consider various items of business, a lame-duck session occurs. Some lawmakers who attend this session will not be in the next Congress; hence, they are informally called lame-duck members.

Mandatory Spending: Mandatory spending consists of budget authorities and outlays that are controlled by laws other than annual appropriations acts.

Markup: The process by which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation is called a “markup.”

Must-Pass Bill: Vitally important measures that Congress must enact, must-pass bills often refer to annual money bills that are necessary to fund operations of the government. Because of their must-pass status, these measures often attract “riders” (unrelated policy provisos).  

Pocket Veto: The Constitution grants the president 10 days to review a measure passed by Congress. If the president has not signed the bill after 10 days, it becomes law without his signature. However, if Congress adjourns during the 10-day period, the bill does not become law.

Pro Forma Session: When a brief meeting (sometimes only several seconds long) of Congress is held but no business is conducted, a pro forma session takes place. It is usually held to satisfy the constitutional obligation that neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other.

Quorum: A quorum refers to the number of legislators that must be present for the House or the Senate to do business.

Recess: Rather than adjourning, the House and the Senate generally recess at the end of each calendar day, signaling only a temporary interruption of the House’s or Senate’s (or a committee’s) business.

90 Reconciliation Bill: A reconciliation bill contains changes in law recommended pursuant to reconciliation instructions in a budget resolution. If the instructions pertain to only one committee in a chamber, that committee reports the reconciliation bill. If the instructions pertain to more than one committee, the Budget Committee reports an omnibus reconciliation bill, but it may not make substantive changes in the recommendations of the other committees.

Roll-Call Vote: A roll-call vote occurs when the legislator must vote “Yea” or “Nay” as the clerk calls the legislator’s name. When a roll-call vote takes place, the names of the lawmakers voting on each side are recorded. Under the Constitution, a roll-call vote must be held if demanded by one-fifth of a quorum of senators present, with a minimum of 11.

Subcommittee: A subcommittee is a subunit of a committee established for the purpose of dividing the committee’s workload. The recommendations of a subcommittee must be approved by the full committee before being reported to the House or the Senate.

Veto: The Constitution provides the president with the power to reject a bill or joint resolution—preventing either from becoming law—through the use of the veto. A regular veto occurs when the president returns the legislation to the house in which it originated. The president usually returns a vetoed bill with a message indicating his or her reasons for rejecting the measure. The veto can be overridden only by a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House.

Voice Vote: A voice vote occurs when the presiding officer states a question, then asks those in favor and against to say “Yea” and “Nay,” respectively. The presiding officer announces the result according to his or her judgment.