Glossary of Legislative Terms

April 4, 2011

Appropriation: legislative designation of money for a particular use.

Authorization: a statutory provision that obligates funding for a program or agency. May be effective for one year, a fixed number of years, or an indefinite period. May be for a specific amount of money or for "such sums as may be necessary."

Balanced Budget Amendment: a constitutional rule requiring that the government not spend more than its income. It requires a balance between the projected receipts and expenditures of the government.

Budget Resolution: legislation that sets forth the congressional budget, establishing various budget totals, allocations, entitlements.  The budget resolution serves as a blueprint for the actual appropriation process. It binds Congress, but it is not law.

Continuing Resolution: a type of appropriations (funding) legislation used by Congress to fund government agencies if a formal appropriations bill has not been signed into law by the end of the Congressional fiscal year. It provides funding for existing federal programs at current or reduced levels.

Debt Limit/Debt Ceiling: The debt limit, or debt ceiling, is the total amount of money that the United States government is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations, including Social Security and Medicare benefits, military salaries, interest on the national debt, tax refunds, and other payments.  The debt limit does not authorize new spending commitments.  It simply allows the government to finance existing legal obligations that Congresses and presidents of both parties have made in the past.  For more information, see the Department of Treasury Fact Sheet on the debt limit.

Deficit: the amount by which a sum of money falls short of the required amount.

Discretionary spending: a type of spending for which appropriators can make choices; optional spending.

Entitlement: a Federal program or provision of law that requires payments to any person or unit of government that meets the eligibility criteria established by law. (For example, Social Security, Medicaid)

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

Fiscal year: the accounting period for the federal government which begins on October 1 and ends on September 30.

Hearing: A meeting of a committee or subcommittee -- generally open to the public -- to take testimony in order to gather information and opinions on proposed legislation, to conduct an investigation, or review the operation or other aspects of a Federal agency or program.

H.R.: Bills that begin with "H.R." originate in the U.S. House of Representatives

"Lame duck" session: When Congress (or either chamber) reconvenes in an even-numbered year following the November elections to consider various items of business. Some lawmakers who return for this session will not be in the next Congress, and are informally called "lame duck" Members participating in a "lame duck" session. 

Mandatory spending: appropriations that are required by existing law, such as for entitlement programs.

Markup: The process by which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation. 

Omnibus spending bill: is a bill that sets the budget of many departments of the United States government at once. It is one possible outcome of the budget process in the U.S.  Every year, Congress must pass bills that appropriate money for all discretionary government spending. Generally, one bill is passed for each sub-committee of the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations. Ordinarily, each bill is passed separately - one bill for Defense, one for Homeland Security, and so on.  When Congress does not or cannot produce separate bills in a timely fashion (by the beginning of the fiscal year on October 1), it will roll many of the separate appropriations bills into one omnibus spending bill. 

P.L.: Stands for Public Law - A public bill or joint resolution that has passed both chambers and been enacted into law. Public laws have general applicability nationwide.

Revenue: income of the government from taxation, excise duties, customs or other sources.

Roll call vote: a vote in which each Senator/Representative votes "yea" or "nay" as his or her name is called, so that each Member's name is recorded. 

S.: Bills that begin with "S." originate in the U.S. Senate.