Glossary of Congressional Terms

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Publication date: 
29 January 1993

The 103 Congress is now underway.  As future FYIs report on and
analyze congressional actions throughout the year, the following
list of congressional terminology might be of use to readers:

Act:  Once legislation has been passed by both houses of Congress
and signed by the president or passed over his veto, it becomes an
act, or law.  Legislation can also become law if the president
takes no action on it within 10 days of receiving it (excluding
Sundays) while Congress is in session.  An act, or law, passed in
the 103nd session is designated as P.L. 103-xx.

Amendment:  A Member of Congress can propose an amendment to alter
the language, provisions or stipulations in a bill or another
amendment.  An amendment is usually printed, debated and voted on
in the same manner as a bill.  In last year's appropriations
process, House appropriators Bob Traxler (D-Michigan) and Bill
Green (R-New York) offered an amendment to eliminate funding for
the Space Station.  It was defeated by a vote of 237 to 181.
Appropriations Bill:  An appropriations bill gives the legal
authority to spend or obligate money from the Treasury.  Thirteen
appropriations bills must be passed every fiscal year; every
federal department and agency must have an appropriations bill
passed to provide its funding.  For example, the fiscal year 1993
appropriation for the National Science Foundation was $2,733
million, $294 million less than the President's request of $3,027

Authorization Bill:  Authorizing legislation establishes or
continues the legal operation of a federal program or agency, or
sanctions a particular type of obligation or expenditure.  In
theory, every federal department, agency, and in some cases,
program, should have an authorizing bill defining what the
department or agency can do and setting maximum spending limits.
However, in both the House and the Senate, authorizations and
appropriations are the responsibility of different committees, and
authorizing committees do not have the power to force their
appropriations counterparts to follow their guidelines.  Some
programs, such as the Superconducting Super Collider-- expected to
cost over $8 billion-- are receiving annual appropriations without
ever having been authorized.

Bills:  Most legislative proposals before Congress are in the form
of bills.  When introduced, bills are referred to the committee(s)
with jurisdiction over the subject of the bill.  Bills are labelled
as H.R. xx or S.xx, depending on whether they originate in the
House or Senate.  All appropriations bills, by law, must originate
in the House.

Committee:  The House and Senate form committees to consider
legislation or make investigations.  Most standing committees are
divided into subcommittees which study legislation, hold hearings,
and report (send) bills to the full committee, which can then
report the legislation for action by the House or Senate.  The
House Space, Science and Technology committee, for example, is the
authorizing committee in the House for such agencies as NASA and
NSF.  Due to the great influx of new members in the 103rd Congress,
over one-third of the House science committee members this year are

Conference:  Representatives of the House and Senate meet in
conference to reconcile differences in the provisions of a bill
passed by both chambers. A majority of the conference committee
members for each chamber must agree on provisions of the bill
before it can be considered by either chamber in the form of a
"conference report."  Conferees have enormous latitude to change
the provisions of a bill.  In the fiscal 1993 appropriations
process, the House voted to effectively terminate the
Superconducting Super Collider, while the Senate proposed to fund
it at $550 million.  In conference, the conferees agreed to provide
$517 million for the atom-smasher.  This appropriation passed both
the House and Senate and was signed into law, over the outrage of
many House members who had voted against it the first time.  It is
of note that all the House conferees were SSC supporters.

District Office:  Senators and Representatives maintain offices in
their state or district in addition to their office in Washington.

Earmark:  When a Member of Congress inserts language into
appropriations legislation designating funds for a specific
project, the money is "earmarked" for that project.  These projects
are usually located in a Member's home state or district, and
academic earmarks often have not undergone the competitive peer
review which is the normal procedure for funding scientific
projects.  Earmarking, also known as "pork-barrel," is becoming an
increasing problem as tight budgets force many university
presidents to lobby their Members of Congress for research funding.
In a recent report prepared for House science chairman George Brown
(D-California), it was estimated that of the approximately $2.5
billion in academic earmarks distributed over the period 1980-1992,
48% was provided in the last two years.

Executive Session:  An executive session is a meeting of a Senate
or House committee open only to its members.  Appropriations
conference committee meetings are often held in executive session.

Hearings:  Committees hold hearings in order to take testimony from
witnesses, which then becomes part of the public record.  At
hearings on legislation, witnesses usually include specialists,
government officials and spokespersons for individuals or entities
affected by the bill under study.  The vast majority of hearings
are open to the public.  Later this spring, Congress will begin
hearing from the Federal agencies on their fiscal year 1994 budget

Marking Up a Bill:  A "mark-up" involves going through a bill in
committee or subcommittee to consider its provisions, act on
amendments and revisions, and insert new sections or phraseology.

Report:  A committee explains its action on a bill in its
accompanying report.  Although not strictly legally binding,
conference report language is very important in setting agency
priorities.  In report language last year, appropriators urged NSF
to focus more on strategic and applied research.