Below are frequently used congressional terms and those that appear in the Office of the Historian publications, Women in Congress, Black Americans in Congress, and Hispanic Americans in Congress. For a list of terms about congressional records, see, Glossary of Terms Related to Congressional Records.
First used in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, a policy to promote opportunities for minorities and women by favoring them in hiring and promotion in government and private jobs, college admissions, and the awarding of government contracts as a means to compensate for their historic exclusion or underrepresentation.
The era preceding a war, especially the American Civil War, 1861–1865.
The allocation of congressional seats in the House of Representatives in proportion to states’ populations as tabulated by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years. Although federal law determines the total number of Representatives, states determine the size and boundaries of their congressional districts based on population changes revealed in the census.
A Representative elected to the House in statewide voting when a majority of the state delegation was elected by single-Member, geographically defined districts. (This method for electing differs from the general ticket, in which an entire delegation is elected statewide.) Until the mid-20th century, At-Large Representatives were often elected immediately following decennial apportionment. At-Large elections were abolished by federal law in 1968.
A neighborhood defined by geographical location, particular feature, or history.
Black Panthers (or Black Panther Party for Self-Defense)
An organization formed in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to monitor police activity and brutality against residents in Oakland, California. In contrast to the southern civil rights movement’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance, the Black Panthers promoted local self-help, community activism, and armed defense against the use of excessive force by police. The Black Panthers also called for the restructuring of American society to ensure social, political, and economic equality for all races.
A violent event or controversial political issue used to stir up outrage or partisan support. Typically used during the late 19th century, “wave the bloody shirt” refers to the Republican Party’s use of the Civil War as justification for political revenge on former Confederates.
A derogatory term applied by the popular press to a Northerner who went to the South during Reconstruction to pursue economic or political opportunities. Many of these Northerners carried their belongings in carpetbags. This term is also used by observers of current political affairs to describe a person who interferes with the politics of a locality to which he or she has no permanent or genuine connection.
A meeting of party members in each chamber (House Republicans, Senate Democrats, and Senate Republicans refer to their respective gatherings as “Conferences”). These meetings are used primarily to select candidates for office and to consider other important business for furthering party interests. The term also describes an organization of House and Senate Members that is devoted to a special interest or legislative area.
An official count of a population, with various related demographic statistics. The U.S. Constitution mandates that a census be taken every 10 years.
The presiding officer of a committee, subcommittee, or other group such as a caucus. Chairs are selected by the majority party in the House and are elevated by seniority in the Senate. Committee and subcommittee chairs hire majority staff and set the committee’s schedule.
Used by Americans of Hispanic and/or mestizo descent in the 1960s and 1970s as a term of self-identification that emphasized working-class origins as well as indigenous influences. The term is also used to describe the historical study of citizens of Mexican descent and a civil rights initiative that compelled federal authorities to acknowledge civil rights issues that relate to Chicanos.
A parliamentary procedure in the U.S. Senate requiring the approval of a super-majority (three-fifths in the case of legislation; two-thirds in the case of a motion to amend Senate rule) of all Senators present to end debate on a pending proposal and bring the measure to final consideration and a vote.
The influence or power of a political candidate to draw supporters to vote for other candidates on his or her party ticket on Election Day. In modern political lexicon, the term frequently is used to describe a presidential candidate’s ability to draw votes for congressional candidates further down the ballot.
A state of ideological, economic, political, military, and cultural warfare between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) from 1947 until 1991. Developing from divergent American and Soviet foreign policies concerning the restoration of Europe after World War II, the conflict spread from Europe to the rest of the world. Although there were no direct military conflicts, the Soviet and American superpowers tried to alter the international balance of power in their favor by competing globally for allies, strategic locations, natural resources, and influence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The Cold War ended with the collapse and disintegration of the USSR in 1991.
Committee (Standing, Joint, Select or Special)
A Standing Committee is permanently established by House and Senate Rules and has the ability to receive and report bills and resolutions to the full chamber. A Joint Committee is also established by House and Senate Rules, with membership comprised of an equal number of Representatives and Senators and a chairperson that traditionally rotates between a House and a Senate member each Congress. A Select or Special Committee is established by resolution for a defined period of time, is usually created to investigate a specific legislative issue, and may or may not have legislative authority.
Committee of the Whole
Also known as the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union, a parliamentary procedure whereby the House dissolves into a smaller body for the purposes of expediting legislation and debate. The committee can then debate and amend legislation with a quorum of only 100 Members. House Rules permit Delegates and the Resident Commissioner to participate in debate and vote in the committee as long as their vote does not directly affect the legislation. The committee dissolves itself back into the full body of the House for final votes on legislation.
Commonwealth (in Puerto Rico, Estado Libre Asociado)
A nation, state, or political unit founded on law and united by compact or tacit agreement of the people for the common good. Used to refer to self-governing political units voluntarily associated with the United States, namely Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. The commonwealth agreement between the United States and Puerto Rico is the Estado Libre Asociado (Free Associated State or ELA), first enacted in 1952.
Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 was a series of bills organizing land ceded by Mexico to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. After President Zachary Taylor proposed carving two free states out of the land, Southern opponents threatened secession. Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky responded with a package of compromises that was later made into a single omnibus bill. Clay’s resolutions proposed admission of California as a free state; establishment of the territories of Utah and New Mexico without restrictions on slavery; adjustment of the Texas-New Mexico boundary; assumption of the debt of the Republic of Texas; enactment of a stronger fugitive slave law; abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia; and approval of a resolution stating that Congress had no power over the interstate slave trade. Although his proposals failed to pass as one bill, each gained a majority on its own. By September 17, 1850, all of these proposals were signed into law by President Millard Fillmore.
People living within the geographic area that a Member of Congress represents.
Spain’s parliament that consists of two houses: the lower house (Congreso de los Diputados), and the upper house (El Senado).
Unofficial title given to Representatives with the longest continuous service in the U.S. House of Representatives or from a particular state delegation.
A process that took place from 1945 to 1993 characterized by the dissolution of European colonial institutions in Africa and Asia and the emergence of postcolonial indigenous governments.
Elected Members of the U.S. House of Representatives from former and existing U.S. territories Delegates currently represent American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C. Like representatives, delegates serve two-year terms. Although barred from voting by the Constitution, they have the authority to make speeches on the House Floor and vote in committee. (See Resident Commissioner)
A rarely used legislative procedure in the House to force a bill to the floor when stalled in committee for more than 30 days. A motion with the signatures of 218 Members is necessary to dislodge a measure from committee, making it possible for the bill to reach the floor.
The act of depriving an eligible citizen or a portion of the population of voting rights.
A geographical area represented by a U.S. Representative.
Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)
A proposed constitutional amendment granting women equal protection under the law. Passed by Congress in 1972, the ERA then went to the states for ratification. Despite a 3-year extension to the constitutionally-mandated 7-year deadline, the ERA amendment failed to gain passage in the requisite three-fourths of the states and expired in 1982.
Family Medical Leave Act
Legislation requiring businesses with 50 or more employees to provide workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a one-year period to deal with the medical issues of close family members. These issues include the birth, adoption, or placement into foster care of a child and the caring for a child, spouse, or parent in the case of a chronic health problem. The measure was signed into law on February 5, 1993. Congress amended the measure in January 2008 expanding the benefits to the family members of wounded war veterans.
A technique or strategy used in the Senate to postpone or prevent a vote on a bill. A Senator or group of Senators may implement a variety of tactics to delay a vote such as lengthy speeches and numerous amendments.
A Representative or Senator who takes the lead in steering a bill or resolution through the debate and consideration process on the chamber floor. Often, such individuals are the majority chairman and ranking minority member of the committee that reports the bill to the floor.
From 1865 to 1872, the Bureau of Abandoned Lands, Freedmen, and Refugees (better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) provided resources such as food, clothing, and medical treatment to freed slaves and southern white refugees. The Freedmen’s Bureau also interceded with employers to secure economic and civil rights for freed slaves and worked with northern philanthropists to open schools for them.
Nickname given to Representatives and Senators serving in their first congressional term.
A coalition of political parties or factions. Historically, the term refers to a movement in the South and West during the late 19th century, when the Populist Party “fused” with the Republican Party in an attempt to challenge Democratic Party rule.
The act of dividing a geographic area into districts so as to give one party an unfair advantage during elections. In the early 19th century, the party of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry redrew the state’s congressional districts to favor its candidates. One district resembled a salamander; hence the combination of “Gerry” and “mander.”
A constitutional provision that was frequently used in southern states, exempting descendants of men who voted prior to 1866 from suffrage restrictions such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and property requirements. This clause allowed poor, illiterate southern whites to vote while disfranchising blacks, whose enslaved ancestors had no voting rights.
The economic crisis and period of minimal business activity in the United States and other industrialized nations that began in 1929 and continued through the 1930s. During the 1920s in the United States, speculation on the stock market led to changes in federal monetary policy. The subsequent decline in personal consumption and investments triggered the stock market crash of 1929, which, along with World War I debts and reparations, precipitated the Great Depression.
A term used to describe two mass movements during the twentieth century. One movement occurred during the 1910s through 1950s as African Americans, in pursuit of economic, social, and political opportunities, moved from the rural, segregated South to the urban North and West. Another movement occurred during the 1950s as Puerto Ricans moved from Puerto Rico to the continental United States, especially New York City, for similar reasons.
A wave of social reform legislation championed by President Lyndon Johnson in the mid-1960s and passed in the wake of a Democratic sweep in the 1964 presidential and congressional elections. The crowning legislation of Johnson’s reforms included increased aid for education, the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid providing healthcare for the elderly and the poor, immigration reform, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed literacy tests and provided federal monitoring of elections in southern states.
A 19th-century term describing a person of Hispanic and/or mestizo descent native to the American West and Southwest.
The rules and precedents that govern the conduct of business in the House. These rules address duties of officers, the order of business, admission to the floor, parliamentary procedures on handling amendment and voting, and jurisdictions of committees. Whereas the House re-adopts its rules, usually with some changes, at the beginning of each Congress, Senate rules carry over from one Congress to the next.
The holding of an office or the term of an office.
The term used to describe the segregation, social control, and political and economic subjugation of African Americans in the South (and Hispanic Americans in the Southwest) from the late 1800s to the 1960s.
A meeting of both the House and the Senate which occurs upon the adoption of a unanimous consent agreement to recess and meet with the other legislative body. Joint Meetings are typically reserved for addresses by visiting dignitaries and other U.S. government officials.
A meeting of both the House and the Senate which occurs upon the adoption of a concurrent resolution. Joint Sessions are typically reserved for the purpose of hearing a presidential address or to count electoral votes.
Lame Duck Session
Refers to a session of Congress that transpires after congressional elections but before the start of a new Congress. In the 19th century, new Congresses commenced on March 4 (though both chambers often convened for business at later dates). Thus, after biennial fall elections, a new Congress was not seated for four months. Congress often convened for an additional, or lame duck, session in the intervening weeks in a hurried effort to complete legislative business. Ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933 set the start date for new Congresses to January 3, drastically reducing the time period in which a lame duck session could transpire. As a result, modern Congresses have rarely held lame duck sessions.
Execution without due process of law; the mob execution, usually by hanging and often accompanied by torture, of alleged criminals, especially African Americans, during the Jim Crow Era.
A term used to refer to tight political organizations under the control of party regulars, often under the authority of a regional leader or “boss.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, political parties used this system to disburse patronage rewards, turn out votes, and enforce party discipline.
A term used in the 1840s to justify U.S. expansion into Texas, Oregon, and Mexico. Jacksonian journalist John O’Sullivan is reputed to have coined the term and wrote that Manifest Destiny was “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
A person of American Indian and Caucasian ancestry.
A period of political, economic, and social activity spanning President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first two terms in office (1933–1941). Working with Congress, the Roosevelt administration provided an unprecedented level of emergency legislative intervention in response to the Great Depression that was designed to revive the economy and to provide basic welfare to citizens.
A meeting of local party officials to select the delegates who eventually designated party nominees for elective office or represented the locality at state or national conventions. Developed in the 1820s and 1830s, the system ensured that only one member would run for an elective position while providing structure and publicity for the party. In the early 20th century the modern primary election replaced nominating conventions as the principal method for selecting congressional candidates.
A 19th-century term used to describe Hispanics and Caucasians living in New Mexico. Hispanic Americans in Congress uses the term to describe New Mexicans of Hispanic and/or mestizo descent.
Oath of Office
An affirmation taken by Members of Congress acknowledging the duty to uphold their office and to defend the Constitution. In the House, the oath is administered during the opening day of each Congress. Until the 1920s, the Speaker administered the oath to each separate House delegation. In modern practice, the dean of the House usually swears-in the Speaker, who then administers the oath to the Members en masse. Representatives elected thereafter by special election, are administered the oath by the presiding officer in the House Chamber. The oath is prescribed by the Constitution, but its language is set by law.
A term used to refer to a package of numerous, often unrelated, bills that are bundled together and considered in Congress as a single measure.
The master or owner of an estate; also used to describe a political boss.
“Packing” and “Cracking”
Techniques used to redraw electoral boundaries to favor one political party over another. “Packing” clustered voters within a geographic area to ensure a biased result. “Cracking” distributed voters across geographic areas to dilute their voting strength.
A vote by which the people of an entire country or district express an opinion for or against a proposal especially on a choice of government or ruler.
Political Action Committee (PAC)
In existence since the mid-1940s, PACs are non-party, political committees organized by a special interest to receive and spend money either to support or to defeat candidates seeking elective office. Federal PACs must register with the Federal Election Committee.
A tax required as a qualification for voting used by some southern states to circumvent the 15th Amendment. Many poor African Americans could not afford to pay the tax and thus were unable to vote, but poor whites were exempt from the tax.
A political philosophy and movement that emerged in the agrarian West and South during the late 19th century. Populists advocated greater public participation in government and business to protect individuals from impersonal bureaucracies and financial conglomerates.
The period after a war, especially the American Civil War, 1861–1865.
A preliminary election, usually between aspirants from the same political affiliation, to determine who will serve as the party’s candidate in the general election.
An official legislative day that fulfills the Constitutional mandate for Congress to assemble; however, no votes are cast and little floor business is conducted.
A social movement roughly beginning in the 1890s and ending shortly after U.S. entry in the First World War in 1917. Marked by a desire to reform society in the wake of the dramatic changes brought on by rapid American industrialization. Activists of the era—many of whom were women—pursued a broad range of democratic reforms within political, social, and cultural contexts. The attention paid to public service and political activism of the era contributed to the eventual success of the women’s suffrage movement.
Refers to the federal ban on alcohol implemented after passage of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. Prohibition laws made the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol—as well as its importation into the United States—illegal. The term also is used to describe the era when than alcohol ban was in effect, from its passage in January 1919 to its repeal in December 1933.
The minimum number of Members needed to be present for the House or Senate to conduct business. The Constitution requires simple majorities of Members to achieve a quorum; in the modern chambers, given no vacancies, the numbers are 218 for the House and 51 in the Senate. In practice, however, both bodies act on the assumption that a quorum is present unless a Member suggests the absence of one or requests a quorum call. Additionally, according to a House rule, only 100 Members are required to achieve a quorum to conduct business in the Committee of the Whole.
This term refers to the minority party member with the highest rank on a committee or a subcommittee. In some usages it can also apply to the majority party member next in rank to the chairman or chairwoman. Ranking minority members have a leadership role in that they often serve as floor managers to debate legislation on the floor and they also oversee the budget and administrative duties allotted to minority committee staff. From their initial assignment to a committee, Members generally work their way up from the bottom of the list as vacancies open above them.
A new or unique merging of disparate political parties, philosophies, or organizations.
Refers to both the 12-year period (1865–1877) and political process after the American Civil War in which the former Confederate states were re-admitted to the Union, beginning the nation’s long process of readjustment after the end of slavery.
A term used to denote either the political movement or the period in which white southerners worked to dismantle Reconstruction governments, disfranchise blacks, and reshape the South’s legal system to foster labor control and subordination of blacks to whites.
The redrawing of U.S. House districts within states, following the constitutionally mandated decennial census and the apportionment of seats. State legislatures draw new districts based on the need to accommodate population declines or increases that result in the addition or subtraction of House seats apportioned to the state.
A non-voting Member of the House that is sent to represent the constituents of an unincorporated territory. Unlike Representatives and non-voting Delegates, Resident Commissioners currently serve for four-year terms. Puerto Rico has had a Resident Commissioner in the House since 1901. (See Delegate)
Literally “the rich”; a term used to describe affluent Hispanos and Anglos in 19th-century New Mexico.
A derogatory name denoting an imposter or intriguer, especially in politics. In the 19th century, the popular press applied the name to white southerners who willingly worked within the system of the Union-backed state Reconstruction governments.
Priority or precedence in office or service; superiority in standing to another of equal rank by reason of earlier entrance into the service or an earlier date of appointment.
From the Latin, meaning “without setting a day.” A sine die adjournment signifies that Congress has adjourned (suspended its business) at the end of an annual or special session.
An election held by states to fill a vacancy created when a Member of Congress dies, resigns, or is expelled. All House vacancies must be filled by election; Senate vacancies usually are filled by temporary appointments until a special election can be organized.
A position defined by congressional mandate rather than by the United States Constitution. Territorial Delegates and Resident Commissioners are statutory representatives. Senators and Representatives are Constitutional Representatives.
The right to vote; the term also refers to the exercise of that right.
The act of serving as a representative of or spokesperson for a group of persons united by gender or race, and not confined to the boundaries of a congressional district or state. This representational style was prevalent among some minorities in Congress—particularly after the 1960s—to advance a legislative agenda important to minorities nationwide. To a degree, each minority group in Congress has adopted some form of “surrogate representation.”
A late-19th and early-20th century movement to reduce and ban the use of alcohol in American society. Led by reformers like Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard and groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, women became highly involved in this social and political movement. The efforts of temperance reformers culminated with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 and the imposition of Prohibition.
The portion of the Educational Amendments of 1972 barring schools receiving federal funding from discrimination based on sex. The law precludes qualified institutions from denying participation in and equal benefits to women for any school-related program or activity. In 2002, Congress officially renamed the legislation the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act to honor one of the key authors of the initial bill.
The portion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting employers from discrimination in recruiting, hiring, and advancement based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
An assistant House or Senate Floor leader who helps round up party members for quorum calls and important votes. Coined in the British Parliament, this term is derived from “whipper-in,” a person who kept the dogs from straying during a fox hunt.
Describes the phenomenon of women succeeding their late husbands in Congress—a main entrée for women into political office until the 1960s. Particularly in the House, which requires special elections to fill vacancies, local party leaders often asked widows to serve as candidates. Expectations were that widows would serve as placeholders and retire to private life once a suitable long-term candidate (usually a man) was identified. Many congressional widows served abbreviated terms but others, particularly those who had prior experience serving as aides in their husbands’ offices or as his political surrogate in the district, enjoyed long and influential careers.
A reform movement which occurred in the U.S. from 1848 to 1920, which encompassed a wide range of issues concerning women’s equality. The movement began with the Seneca Falls Convention in New York in 1848, where activists unveiled the “Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances, and Resolutions”—a document modeled after the Declaration of Independence that outlined the goals of women’s rights reformers, including suffrage. Reformers also advocated increased economic freedom and educational opportunities for women. The passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, granting women the right to vote, is widely regarded as the culmination of the first phase of the women’s rights movement. A second phase—prefaced on educational, economic, and sexual equality—occurred during the 1960s and 1970s.
Year of the Woman
Term used to describe the record number of new women who won election to the House of Representatives (24) and the Senate (4) in the 1992 election. In all, voters sent as many women to Congress in one year as were elected in any previous decade. The gains made by women during this election cycle received vast media attention and set into motion a decade of remarkable momentum and progress for women in politics.