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Glossary Terms

Affirmative Action
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 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.
At-Large Representative
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 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.
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.
Cold War
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 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.
People living within the geographic area that a Member of Congress represents.
Unofficial title given to Representatives with the longest continuous service in the U.S. House of Representatives or from a particular state delegation.
Elected Members of the U.S. House of Representatives from American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C. who 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)
Discharge Petition
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.
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.
Floor Manager
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.
Nickname given to Representatives and Senators serving in their first congressional term.
Great Depression
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.
Great Society
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.
The holding of an office or the term of an office.
Joint Meeting
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.
Joint Session
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.
New Deal
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.
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.
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 preliminary election, usually between aspirants from the same political affiliation, to determine who will serve as the party’s candidate in the general election.
Pro Forma
An official legislative day that fulfills the Constitutional mandate for Congress to assemble; however, no votes are cast and little floor business is conducted.
Progressive Era
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.
Ranking Member
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.
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.
Resident Commissioner
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 serve for four-year terms. (See Delegates)
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.
Sine Die
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.
Special Election
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.
The right to vote; the term also refers to the exercise of that right.
Surrogate representation
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 women in Congress—particularly after the 1960s—to advance a legislative agenda important to women 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.
Title IX
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.
Title VII
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.
Widow’s Mandate (also, Widow Succession)
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.
Women’s Rights
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.