Capitol Hill Terms and Definitions
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Capitol Hill Terms and Definitions

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Congressional Staffers

Adapted from www.Congress.org

Each member of Congress has staff to assist him/her during a term in office. Offices are typically designed to be effective and efficient in meeting and communicating their constituents’ needs. 

Chief of Staff - The Chief of Staff reports directly to the member of Congress, and usually is responsible for evaluating the political outcome of various legislative proposals and constituent requests. He/she is also usually in charge of overall office operations, including the assignment of work and the supervision of key staff.

Legislative Director, Legislative Assistant/Aide, Legislative Correspondent - The Legislative Director is usually the staff person who monitors the legislative schedule and makes recommendations regarding the pros and cons of particular issues. In most congressional offices there are several Legislative Assistants whose responsibilities are assigned based on particular expertise in specific areas. For example, depending on the responsibilities and interests of the member, an office may include a different Legislative Assistant for health issues, seniors issues, appropriations, etc. Legislative Correspondents are junior staffers, typically not directly responsible for specific issue areas, who support Legislative Assistants/Aides and have responsibility for constituent communications.

Scheduler or Appointment/Personal Secretary - The Scheduler is usually responsible for allocating a member's time among the many demands that arise from congressional responsibilities, staff requirements, and constituent requests. He/she may also be responsible for making necessary travel arrangements, arranging speaking dates, coordinating visits to the district, etc.

Caseworker - The Caseworker is the staff member usually assigned to help with constituent requests, typically focused on helping to resolve problems constituents present in relation to federal agencies, e.g., Social Security and Medicare issues, veteran's benefits, passports, etc. There are often several Caseworkers in a congressional office.

Terms and Definitions

People who work on Capitol Hill use some specialized language and terminology. If you want to be an effective advocate, you need to be familiar with some of the commonly used terms.

Appropriations bill – A bill passed by Congress that provides the legal authority for spending U.S. Treasury funds.  There are 12 regular annual appropriations bills, each one covering hundreds of programs or spending lines.  In the Senate as well as in the House there is one Appropriations subcommittee for each of the 12 bills.  In addition, Congress often passes a supplemental appropriations bill midway through the fiscal year.

Authorization bill – A bill passed by Congress that provides authority for a program or agency to exist and sets guidelines for its policies and activities.  The bill may recommend spending levels for programs, but they are not binding.  Generally an authorization must be enacted before an appropriation is made for a program or agency, though there are exceptions.  Most authorizations are multi-year, and subsequent versions are called reauthorizations.

Budget resolution – An annual Congressional document that provides a broad framework within which Congress fits the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the government, and in some cases sets reconciliation instructions.  The Budget is not a law, but its assumptions and statements are a basis for future decisions, and its spending ceilings impose restrictions on the actions of Congressional committees.

Cloture – A process for ending debate in the Senate.  Senate rules permit unlimited debate, so the Senate does not vote on a bill if someone wants to keep debating it.  The exception to this rule is that the Senate can close off debate by cloture, which requires 60 votes (out of 100) to pass.  With the current 51-49 split between the two parties, cloture is usually difficult to achieve.  The House has no comparable provision for unlimited debate, and thus no cloture provision.

Conference committee – A group of officially appointed Representatives and Senators that works out the differences between the versions of a given bill passed by the two chambers.  Its leaders are the chairs and ranking minority members of the committees that wrote the bill in each chamber.  Once agreed on, the conference committee report goes back to each chamber for final passage.  Some conference committees leave much of the work to staff (who may “pre-conference” a bill before the conferees are appointed).

Continuing Resolution (CR) – A bill passed by Congress as a stop-gap when the new fiscal year begins.  The CR sets continued spending levels for a specified period of time if any regular appropriations bill has not been signed into law.  Often the CR continues spending at the previous year’s levels, though it may be at levels marked up by  appropriations subcommittees.

Cosponsor – A Senator or Representative who formally lists his/her name as a supporter of another member’s bill.  Generally – but not always – done before mark-up.

Discretionary spending – Government spending enacted by annual appropriations.  A government agency cannot spend more than the total appropriated for a discretionary program in a given year.  Discretionary spending is projected to make up about one-third of total FY12 federal spending of $3.8 trillion; about two-thirds of discretionary spending goes for security (military, homeland security and international) activities, while the remaining third is for all “domestic” programs.  Domestic discretionary spending includes: education, community and economic development, transportation, housing, national parks, energy – and, of course, the Older Americans Act and other programs serving seniors and their families.

Fiscal Year – The official year for the government runs from October 1 through September 30.  The current year is designated Fiscal Year 2012, or FY12.

Mandatory spending – Sometimes called entitlement spending or nondiscretionary spending.  These are government programs for which there is no annual spending ceiling.  As events unfold and people qualify, the government spends the money needed.  Although there are not many mandatory programs, they comprise over half of all federal spending.  Major mandatory activities are Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the debt.  Spending on mandatory programs is noted in appropriations bills, but is not limited by those bills.  Legislation that revises a mandatory program (e.g. Medicare) is an authorization for which there is no corresponding appropriation.

Mark-up – A business meeting of a subcommittee or full committee to debate, amend and vote on a bill.  A bill passed in a committee mark-up session can be scheduled for a vote in the full chamber.

Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) – Budgeting rules that require that most new spending (including revenue reductions due to tax cuts) is offset by corresponding spending cuts or increased revenues.  Congress can waive PAYGO rules, and the current statute defining the rules, the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010, automatically exempts over 150 programs, funds and activities.

Reconciliation – A complicated part of the Congressional budget process that directs changes to already-existing legislation in order to cut spending.  Because reconciliation bills are not subject to a 60-vote cloture requirement in the Senate, and thus can move forward with only 51 votes, reconciliation is sometimes favored as a vehicle for moving controversial changes.  A reconciliation bill is subject to a Presidential veto.

Scoring – The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzes every bill and determines the effective cost of the proposed legislation.  The score that CBO gives a bill may shape its future, e.g. whether it will attract cosponsors and whether the relevant committee chairman will hold a mark-up session.

Subcommittees and committees – All members of Congress serve on committees.  Every member of a subcommittee is also a member of the full committee to which the subcommittee reports.  All committees and subcommittees are chaired by someone from the majority party in that chamber, and they all (with minor exceptions) have a majority of members from the majority party.  The lead member from the minority party is designated the ranking member.  Much important work (both mark-ups and hearings) is done in subcommittees, and everything done by a subcommittee goes next to the full committee for action.

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