Absentee: A voter who is permitted to cast a ballot by mail.
American Exceptionalism: The idea that, first the history of the United States is inherently different from those of other nations. In this view, American exceptionalism stems from its emergence from the American Revolution, thereby becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called “the first new nation” and developing a uniquely American ideology, “Americanism”, based on liberty, equality before the law, individual responsibility, republicanism, representative democracy and laissez-faire economics. This ideology itself is often referred to as “American exceptionalism.” Second is the idea that the US has a unique mission to transform the world. As Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg address (1863), Americans have a duty to ensure, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Third is the sense that the United States’ history and mission give it a superiority over other nations.
Attorney General: The one person within the federal government and within each state who is the legal advisor to his or her government body. The federal Attorney General is also the head of the US Department of Justice.
Appellate Court: A judicial court that hears appeals of rulings from lower courts. The US Supreme Court is the highest of all the appellate courts.
Bellwether State: A bellwether state is one that is closely aligned with the general political leanings of the rest of the country at a particular time. As this state votes in a particular way, so will the country.
Bicameral legislature: When a democratic parliament is formed it is an example of two (bi) chambers (cameral) representing all the people of the country. When originally formed, the Senate chamber represented the states and the House of Representatives represented the general public.
Bill of Rights: This “document,” ratified by all 13 colonies in 1791, is composed of the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. It is not a single bill, but rather a collection of amendments (bills) which were voted on separately after the passing of the Constitution by the Continental Congress. Proponents of these amendments were promised by the Founding Fathers that their concerns — mostly pertaining to protecting individual and states’ rights — would be addressed with the passage of the Constitution.
Bipartisanship: While this term means the collective working together between two (bi) parties it generally pertains to all legislators working together for the good of the country, rather than for just the good of their respective party.
Blanket Primary: In a Blanket Primary, voters are given a ballot listing all candidates from all parties.
The opposite of this form of ballot is a Closed Primary where the ballot only lists the candidates of one party.
Block Grant: Usually this pertains to a large sum of money given by the federal government to a state or local government. A block grant is intended for a general fund or project and is awarded with few specific strings attached.
Boston Tea Party: Bostonians were angry about the British government levying a tax on imported tea; as colonists, they were not allowed representation in their own governance. Citizens protested by throwing tea chests into Boston Harbor in 1773.
Budget Deficit: This is the amount of money a government spends in excess of the amount of annual revenue it collects. The sum of existing and unpaid annual deficits is the National Debt.
Cabinet: This group of people, appointed by the president, is responsible for giving advice to the federal executive branch. It is not a Constitutional office.
Camp David: This camp is a restricted area in The Catoctin Mountain Park, Maryland. It exists for the private use of the President for vacation or entertainment purposes. It was named by President Dwight D. Eisenhower after the first name of both his father and the President’s grandson.
Campaign Finance: The subject of financing a campaign came into national concern as politicians increasingly became aware that money could indirectly “buy” votes by allocating overwhelming amounts of money into their campaign’s advertising budgets.
In cases where a candidate’s principles, policies and platforms take second place to their financial resources it is necessary for campaign finance reform to mitigate that financial influence.
Capitol Building: This building houses both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives, and is situated on Capitol Hill in Washington DC.
Carpetbagger: This term originated in the late 1800’s as a pejorative reference to northern politicians who moved south to run for political office. They traveled with suitcases or bags made of a carpet-like material to areas where they had no historical roots.
Caucus: This is the name for a meeting of politicians with similar agendas, interests or platforms.
Censure: When Congress desires to reprimand a politician or group for exhibiting bad behavior, it issues an official reprimand that may or may not carry penalties.
Central Intelligence Agency: Also known as the CIA, the agency’s duty is to safeguard our nation’s national security through intelligence gathering and analysis. It does not involve itself with domestic criminality or military intelligence, and most of its operations are done mostly out-of-country.
Certiorari: Also known as a “Writ of Certiorari,” this is a demand to an inferior court by the US Supreme Court, for more information about a case under consideration.
The word is derived from Latin and Middle English and means to be more certain or informed. A writ is a written demand.
Checks and Balances: The US Constitution was constructed to ensure that practically every power given to one government entity was liable for oversight and control by another.
Chief Justice: This title is given to the Supreme Court judge who is head of the federal judicial branch. While the Chief Justice performs some unique duties, he or she does not have more power than the other justices during the voting process.
Chief of Staff: The Chief of Staff oversees the President’s schedule and advisors. The position is appointed by the President. Depending upon the duties assigned by the President, the Chief of Staff’s position can be one of enormous power.
Christmas Tree Bill: Many Congressional bills are ladened with amendments or added benefits — much like a Christmas tree is adorned with ornaments, lights and tinsel.
Some of these additions may have nothing to do with the original bill, but are last-minute add-ons designed to incur favor from politicians so that the bill gets passed.
Closed Primary: Voters are given one ballot with only the candidates of one party listed. This is the opposite of a “Blanket Primary” which lists candidates from all qualifying parties.
Cloture: This is the action taken in the Senate to close debate and bring a bill to a vote. It requires ⅗ of the members present to vote for cloture; the action is essentially the way to end filibusters or to speed up the agenda.
There is no Cloture rule in the House as assigning time limits to debate achieves the same result.
Commander in Chief: There is only one and that person is the President. While the President commands the military, he or she must not be in the military.
The President is not allowed to declare war, which is the sole responsibility of Congress.
Commerce Clause: This clause in the Constitution gives the federal government the power and responsibility to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with Indian tribes”. It is designed to mitigate economic inequities caused by chaotic trade imbalances and interstate tariffs, which were prevalent in the period prior to the signing of the Constitution.
As history has unfolded, the definition of “commerce” has been construed to mean many things other than trade — to include, for example, social and related economic issues; the effect of these developments has been to gradually shift power once held by the states to the federal government.
Committee System: Committees are formed in each branch of congress to study proposed legislation and to interview experts on various subjects related to the issues of the day. After the committees handles the specifics of understanding a particular issue it must pass out of that committee before being debated and voted on by the entire body.
Concurrent Powers: While the US Constitution takes great pains to delineate powers between the federal and the state governments, it also makes it possible for powers to be shared between the two. Examples of power-sharing include taxation, building and maintaining infrastructure, and running the court system.
Conference Committee: Conference committees are comprised of members of both the Senate and the House to work on a compromise bill that both houses will agree upon before the final vote in each chamber. After a vote approving that bill it then goes to the executive branch for the President’s signature.
Confirmation Hearings: These hearings are held in the Senate, which has sole authority to approve presidential appointees. Usually the questioning is restricted to matters of the character and competence of the nominees who are typically appointed to hold cabinet level positions, judgeships, and senior level positions in the military.
Congressional Budget Office: This office name is often shortened to “CBO” and its function is to study and analyze the annual budget presented to Congress by the President.
Congressional Hearings: Specific committees from both houses hold these meetings separately to interview people with specific knowledge on subjects pertaining to legislation or on topics related to investigations or allegations pertaining to the Executive branch.
Constitution: As defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a constitution outlines “the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it.”
The United States Constitution was written in 1787 through the work of 55 delegates at a convention of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, The Constitution consists of seven sections or “Articles” defining our country’s unique governing formula, involving the principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, and limited government.
Constitutional Amendment: While the foundation of the federal government is set in stone by the US Constituion, procedures to amend or change it were incorporated into the document.
There are two ways to amend the Constitution. The more commonly known avenue requires that any proposed change must have the support of ⅔ of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, and ¾ of the states’ legislatures. This has been how all current 27 Amendments were implemented.
If the Congress fails to pass an amendment, a second route for Constitutional amendment is for 2/3 of the states’ legislatures to demand and force the convening of a constitutional convention; passage of the amendment requires support of the ¾ vote of the states’ legislatures.
Declaration of Independence: Once the American colonies decided to break away from England, an official declaration was written and signed by delegates from all 13 colonies.
Thomas Jefferson was the main writer of this document, which detailed the principles of the newly declared republic and the reasons why it felt the need to declare its independence. The Declaration was adopted by 12 colonies on July 4, 1776, and by New York on July 19. It was finally signed on August 2, 1776.
Delegated Powers: This term refers to the powers explicitly given, or “delegated”, to the US Congress by the US Constitution.
Delegates to the House of Representatives:
Each state is represented in proportion to its population, with the most populous states sending the most delegates. Each of the three territories (American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands) has one delegate as do the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. All delegates serve two-year terms except the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico who serves for four years. The total number of delegates is 439.
Denied Powers: Denied powers are rights retained by all US citizens which neither the federal or state governments can interfere with. These are detailed in the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
Direct Primary: In a Direct Primary, national party delegates are required to vote for the winning primary candidate he or she originally supported. Just the opposite occurs during an Indirect Primary where the delegate is free to vote for anyone.
Discharging a Bill: Both the Senate and the House have the power to force a bill out of committee, for consideration by the entire chamber.
District of Columbia: This area was given to the federal government in 1790 by Maryland to site the buildings of the federal government, including the White House, the Capitol Building and the Supreme Court. It is a territory, not a state, and is governed by the US Congress.
Double Jeopardy: In order to restrict over-zealous or punitive prosecution by the government, it is against the law to try someone for the same crime twice, or to punish someone more than once for the same crime.
Due Process: The 14th Amendment establishes that a US Citizen accused of a crime must be treated by the government fairly, according to the law and may suffer only the punishment established for the crime.
Electoral College: A body of people representing the states of the US, who formally cast their votes for the election of the president and vice president. This “college” or group of delegates, is given the ultimate power and responsibility to vote for the US President. Each state is awarded delegates according to the sum of their Senators and Representatives. The delegates cast votes representing their respective state’s popular votes.
The purpose of the Electoral College is to give voting power to the rural states so they don’t get ignored by candidates spending their time only on the more populous ones. To win an election the candidate needs to win the favor of all states possible, not just the ones with the most voters. Without the Electoral College the candidates would strategize their campaign and their promises only to curry favor with the top-most populated states at the expense of the rest of the country. Five presidents won the presidency by electoral college while losing the popular vote: Donald J. Trump, George W. Bush, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, and John Quincy Adams.
Emancipation Proclamation: President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed freedom of all slaves to occur on January 1, 1863, prior to the end of the Civil War. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution established that proclamation as law in 1865.
Equal Rights Amendment: The Equal Rights Amendment forbids discrimination based upon gender. The US Congress passed this amendment in the early 1970s but it has not been ratified by the requisite number of state legislatures. While one side is in favor of this law due to the ongoing existence of discrimination, the other side says that those rights are already set and guaranteed within the US Constitution.
Establishment Clause: The 1st Amendment makes it clear that the state or federal government cannot promote or “establish” any religion. Opponents maintain that government interacting with religions groups is allowed as long as one religion is not favored over another.
Executive Orders: As long as the President acts within the framework of the US Constitution he/she can issue orders as official law. As a check-and-balance mechanism, these orders may be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court or may be rescinded by Congress.
Executive Branch: The President is in charge of the Executive Branch, which is comprised of both a civilian bureaucracy of the federal government, and all members of the military.
Executive Privilege: This is the recently recognised and accepted privilege or “right” of the President to keep secrets from the other branches of government and the American people. The justification for this right is to facilitate and protect those offering advice to the President. While this right is not mentioned in the US Constitution it is seen as a necessary practice to enhance forthright deliberation, especially in cases involving diplomatic negotiations.
Featherbed: This term describes the practice of politicians or labor leaders to force an employer to hire unnecessary employees, to assign unnecessary work or to limit production according to a union rule or safety statute.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): The FBI is part of the Justice Department and is tasked with investigating criminal activity pertaining to breaking federal laws, as well as crimes that cross state lines.
Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA): The Congress enacted this law in 1971 obliging candidates in federal elections to make the names of their donors public. In 1974 the Federal Election Commission was formed to manage the Act’s rules and regulations and the compliance of candidates.
Federal Government: The Federal Government is based in Washington, DC, and is comprised of the Executive branch, the Congress and the Supreme Court. It governs the nation as a whole separate from the 50 states and territories.
Federal Reserve System: This “system” is essentially the national bank of the United States and sets the interest rate for the 12 Federal Reserve Banks to which it distributes money.
Federalism: This is the name given to the working relationship between a federal government, its states and citizens; each of these entities has defined powers or rights, and the US Constitution is the glue that holds all three factions together in a symbiotic relationship.
Federalist Papers: After the Declaration of Independence was written and the War of Independence ended, three American statesmen wrote and published 85 essays to explain the intricacies in the proposed US Constitution. They did so anonymously between 1787 and 1788 under the pen name “Publius”. Their papers sparked discussion and debate which resulted in the Constitution being ratified in 1791. The writers were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.
Federalists: If you generally favor a strong central “federal” government you can call yourself a federalist. If you favor a stronger states’ rights position you can call yourself an anti-federalist.
Filibuster: This word (of Dutch origin, meaning “pirate”) describes the practice of talking non-stop in the Senate to delay passage of a bill.
Since there is no time limit to speaking in the Senate, a filibuster could continue indefinitely; supporters of a bill undergoing a filibuster must either drop the bill or achieve a compromise. Senate members, however, can end a filibuster with a ⅗ vote.
Fireside Chat: President Franklin D. Roosevelt communicated regularly with the American public using informal radio broadcasts. These fireside chats helped to boost his popularity as he led the country through the Great Depression.
527 Groups: These groups are named after the 527th section of the IRS Tax Code, which grants non-profit status to political committees. Not to be confused with political action committees, a 527 group is not restricted to the amount of money it can raise to promote a cause, but is not allowed to directly promote or defeat a candidate.
Floor Manager: This person of either the Senate or the House is assigned the job of managing a bill through the various steps required to make it a bill and get passed in its respective chamber.
Food Stamps: These “stamps” (now cards) are vehicles for the federal government to redistribute money to low income people to purchase groceries. The program was introduced during the Great Depression in the 1930’s; it is managed by the Food and Nutrition Service of the US Department of Agriculture.
General Accountability Office (GAO): What originally was named the General Accounting Office in 1921. This agency conducts financial investigations and audits of the various federal departments at the direction of the US Congress.
General Election: These elections are for national political contests involving candidates from opposing parties. The election is held the first Tuesday of November, every 24 months in even-numbered years.
Gerrymandering: This refers to the practice of dividing a state, county or city into election districts so as to give one political party a majority in many districts while concentrating the voting strength of the other party into as few districts as possible. The term gerrymander was inspired by an 1812 Massachusetts redistricting scheme that favored the party of Governor Elbridge Gerry. [Portraitist Gilbert C. Stuart noted that one new election district had the shape of a salamander. Stuart drew an outline of the district, put a salamander’s head on one end, and called the creature a Gerrymander.]
Grand Old Party (GOP): This is a nickname of the current Republican party; the party was formed in 1854 to fight the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (an act which allowed slavery in new territories). Prior to 1854, the name “Grand Old Party” was used to refer to the Democratic party.
Great Depression: The crash of the New York stock market in 1929 began a five-year period of national economic collapse with high unemployment, bank closings and dismal economic reports.
Great Society: This was the name given by President Lyndon B. Johnson to his programs to redistribute federal money to reduce poverty, improve educational opportunities, expand health care access and end racial discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare and Medicaid began under his administration.
Gubernatorial: This is an adjective meaning that the subject is related to the office of governor of a state. Gubernor is the latin word for governor.
Hack: A political hack is a politician who belongs to a small clique that controls a political party for private rather than public ends. The hack usually has no morals and always lacks principles.
Hanging Chad: A chad is a tiny piece of a paper ballot which, when punched out, indicates who the voter voted for. A hanging chad is one that hasn’t been completely punched out from the ballot by the voting machine.
Hard Money: This is money donated to a campaign to support a specific candidate; the amount of a hard money donation is legally limited. Soft money is money donated to a cause, not a candidate and has no such limitations.
House of Representatives: Each state is awarded delegates to roughly correspond to their respective population as determined by the census. There are 435 voting members (delegates) in the House of Representatives. Each of the country’s three territories and the District of Columbia, are represented by a (non-voting) delegate. Each representative’s term lasts two years except for the one delegate from Puerto Rico whose term is for four years and who also is not allowed to vote.
Impeachment: To impeach a politician is to remove them from office for having committed “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” A simple majority vote of House members can impeach someone, after which the case may or may not proceed to the Senate for trial. In the Senate, the case is presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. A vote of ⅔ of the Senate is required for conviction whereupon the offender is removed from office.
Subsequent legal proceedings in cases of criminal conduct may be conducted by law enforcement agencies. The House may not impeach a politician who has left office.
Implied Powers: These powers, while not stipulated in the Constitution, are nevertheless implied or assumed to be necessary and proper to facilitate government work.
Incumbent: A politician who holds office is an incumbent when election time rolls around and often gets re-elected simply due to his/her position, name recognition and accumulated campaign donation money.
Indirect Primary: When a delegate wins a primary election there is no requirement for that person to vote for a specific candidate in a national election. The opposite occurs in a Direct Primary.
Initiative Election: This is a procedure reserved for citizens, who as a group have gathered sufficient support, (usually through amassing signatures) to propose legislation for direct vote in a general election.
Jim Crow Laws: Jim Crow was the stage name of a white actor, “Daddy Rice”, who performed in black-face in minstrel shows in the 1820’s and 1830’s. His act consisted of condescendingly portraying an African-American dancing and singing in raggedy, old clothes. At the time his act was quite popular in America and Europe but since then his stage name has been used to categorize state and local laws designed to discriminate against African-Americans as well as to deny them the opportunity to vote.
Johnson Rule: When Lyndon B. Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader in 1953 he instituted a rule that before a Democratic Senator was given his/her second committee assignment all other Democratic Senators had to receive their first. This upset the customary seniority system that had long promoted old-time politicians over recently elected ones.
Joint Chiefs of Staff: This four-person group consists of the heads of all four military branches whose duty is to advise the President, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council.
Joint Committee: These committees are rarely formed but are comprised of members of both the Senate and the House usually to study like-minded concerns.
Judicial Activism: This term relates to a court making legal decisions that tend to make public policy rather than just rule on the merits of a case brought before it. An activist court tends to infringe on the power of the other two branches of government in proposing and making law.
Judicial Restraint: This term relates to a court that makes legal decisions primarily only to decide clear violations of the law. Expanding its power into what normally is the jurisdiction of the Executive or Legislative branches is not characteristic of this court.
Judicial Review: Federal and state laws are subject to judicial review to determine if they are unconstitutional. Laws determined to be unconstitutional are invalidated.
State Governors and the US Presidents are also subject to the same judicial review which is an implied power of the court.
Kitchen Cabinet: An informal group of advisors to the President — more aptly described as a group of friends with whom the President can relax and solicit fresh perspective — provides support to the President without the accountability, rules or regulations which constrain the official Cabinet.
Lame Duck: When a politician is without congressional support, or is soon to be out of office due to retirement or term limits, he or she is considered to be weak and not having sufficient personal power to control policies. Presidents at the end of their term are often in this position.
Legislative Agencies: These are small, independent departments that assist the legislature in completing its work. Examples are the Government Accountability Office and the Library of Congress.
Legislative Branch: This bicameral (two-chambered) branch of the federal government has the authority to make laws. It consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives working together to propose and pass bills to be sent to the President for signing.
Originally Senators were elected by their respective state legislatures but now members of both chambers are directly elected by citizens. Each state is represented by two senators, who enjoy 6-year terms.
House members proportionally represent the population: states with large populations have more representatives than states with smaller populations. All representatives run for election every two years. Territories are represented in Congress but their delegates are not allowed to vote.
Limited Government: Government that is restrained and restricted by a constitution is unable to exceed its delegated powers and is therefore limited in its power.
Line-Item Veto: A bill set before the President or a Governor consists of “lines” of information detailing the meaning and the intent of the bill. Most governors have the power to strike out any word, sentence or line of that bill before signing, leaving with what remains in the bill as lawful and legal. The President has no such ability and either approves the bill as written with his/her signature or vetoes it, thereby killing the bill.
Living Constitution: Some consider the Constitution to be a document open to interpretation in each generation; those interpretations can be used to justify altering its intent and influence on current law. Strict constitutionalists hold an opposing belief that the Constitution is not open to flexible interpretation and can only be changed by passing an amendment.
Log Rolling: When one legislator agrees to support the bill of another legislator in return for the same support for his/her own bill, that legal practice is termed log-rolling. It takes its name from the practice of lumberjacks helping each other move or roll logs from the shoreline into the river for transport downstream.
McCarthyism: Named after Senator Joseph McCarthy this term relates to making unfounded accusations, — usually of disloyalty — against Americans. During the 1950’s communism was considered by many to pose a significant threat to America, and accusations of affiliation with or sympathy for the ideology of communism — with or without proof — caused thousands of American citizens to lose their jobs, their liberty or their lives.
Majority Leader: The party with the most members in either the Senate or the House is the majority. That party chooses a leader to be their spokesperson, to maintain order on the floor and to promote their party.
Marine One: This is the short name for Marine Helicopter Squadron One, the official helicopter tasked with transporting the President and staff on official business.
Mark-Up: This refers to the last step that a bill takes before being voted out of committee and sent to the chamber floor. During mark-up the bill undergoes final review and may or may not be subjected to changes.
Medicaid: This is a program that is shared between the federal and the state government to provide health care insurance for low income people under the age of 65 and for those over 65 who have run out of their allotment of Medicare funding. All who receive welfare are required by law to be covered by Medicaid.
Medicare: This federal program provides health care insurance for Americans 65 or over and for certain disabled people under 65.
Midterm Elections: Federal elections that occur halfway through a President’s four-year term for all representatives and one-third of Senators are called Midterm elections.
Minority Leader: The party that does not have a majority of members in either the Senate or the House is considered a minority party in that chamber. The party with the second largest number of members chooses a leader to be that chamber’s minority leader whose job is to help to maintain order on the floor, promote party unity and be the minority party’s spokesman.
Motor-Voter Act: This is another name for the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which was designed to increase legal voter registration by expanding the number of venues where a US citizen can register to vote in a national election. The motor vehicle department is one such place.
National Debt: This is the total amount of money that the United States federal government has borrowed and owes to creditors. It is the result of accumulated annual deficits that occur when more money is spent than is collected.
National Governors Association (NGA): This group is comprised of the Governors of all the states, US territories and commonwealths. The group meets twice yearly in a non-partisan atmosphere to exchange ideas, do program research and development, and to promote public policies that benefit both the state and the federal government.
National Guard: The National Guard is the reserve force of the US Army and Air Force, organized by the states, commanded by their Governor but paid by the federal government. It can be activated for local emergencies by the Governor, or for national emergencies by the President.
National Security Advisor: This civilian advisor to the President focuses on national security issues and administers the National Security Council. This position is a Presidential appointment which does not require Senate confirmation; it is referred to as the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.
National Security Council (NSC): This group, formed in 1947, consists of senior federal government officials designed to give the President advice on national security issues. Members include the Vice-President, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Other senior officials may also attend meetings. The NSC has no designated powers, does not vote, and makes no decisions on its own.
Negative Campaigning: A political candidate who is focused on attacking his/her opponent’s deficiencies rather than promoting his/her own policies and abilities is a negative campaigner.
Neo-Conservative: A Neo or “new” conservative is one who has a platform somewhat different from previous conservative politicians. The term is not necessarily specific and its meaning depends upon the conservative being described.
- a major increase in federally sponsored public work projects,
- changes in the banking system to enable more loans,
- boosting welfare payments and
- legislation favorable to labor interests.
New Federalism: In 1969 President Richard M. Nixon directed that the power shift which occurred during the years of the New Deal program from the states to the federal government, be reversed. One change was to issue federal block grants instead of restrictive categorical grants, to the states. Block grants award more power to the states to determine how the money should be spent.
Office of Management and Budget (OMB): This office assists the President in putting together the annual federal budget. After the Congresses passes their version of the budget this office is involved in disbursing funds as directed.
Omnibus Bill: The Latin word “omnibus” means “for all”. When applied to legislation it refers to many dissimilar pieces of legislation rolled into one enormous bill for the President’s signature. Without the power of a line-item veto the President must accept it or reject it as a whole.
Open Primary: Political parties have separate primary elections to decide who their candidate is in the general election. In an open primary it does not make any difference what party the voter belongs to when selecting a party ballot to vote in. The opposite situation occurs in a closed primary where only the voters who have registered for a particular party can vote in that party’s primary.
Opinion of the Supreme Court: When the Supreme Court has arrived at a decision on a particular case, a justice representing the majority opinion writes a document explaining and justifying the Supreme Court’s decision. Alternate majority opinions from other justices may offer concurring opinions. A justice representing the minority writes a dissenting opinion.
Oval Office: The President’s office in the White House is this shape and is so-named.
Oversight: This is the inherent power granted to each branch of the federal government to be able to check the work done, or proposed by the other two branches.
Pardon: Most state governors and the President have the power to pardon — or forgive — someone who has been convicted of committing a crime. Accepting a pardon does not imply innocence but it restores the individual’s civil rights and ends the punishment phase. Pardons were included in the constitution primarily as a check and balance against an overreaching judiciary branch.
Packing the Court: The President nominates a justice to the Supreme Court when a vacancy occurs and the Congress votes to approve or reject a nominee. It is in the authority of the Congress to change the number of justices on the Supreme Court and can increase it to enable the sitting president to nominate an equal number of justices to insure a court makeup that is favorable to his policies.
Parochialism: The word describes something which is localized or narrow in scope. It is neither a positive nor a negative attribute. When applied to politics a politician can be focused on his/her parochial constituency or more on the more expansive policies of the country.
Partisan: One is considered a partisan or practising partisan politics when the interests of the party are more important than the merits of the legislation or policies at hand. A partisan is characterised as offering blind, unreasoned allegiance to his/her party or cause.
Pentagon: This is the name given to the headquarters of the US Department of Defense in Arlington, Virginia. The building is five-sided in shape; it is the largest office building in the world covering 29 acres with a 67 acre parking lot.
Platform: This is a public declaration of the principles and policies of a candidate or a political party. The platform may or may not be specific but be written in general terms.
Pocket Veto: The President has ten days to sign a bill into law or to send it back to the legislature unsigned (vetoed). When the President is presented with the bill within ten days of the Congressional recess he is under no obligation to act either way and can ignore the bill which will be automatically null and void after Congress adjourns. The word pocket refers to keeping, hiding or taking the bill, as if putting it in a pocket.
Political Action Committee (PAC): This committee collects money from organizations to be donated to a political campaign. The PAC must be registered with the Federal Election Committee and has restrictions in place as to how much it can donate to any one candidate or party.
Pork Barrel Politics: When politicians gather grants or projects specifically for their constituency without regard to national interests, their conduct is described as pork barrel politics. (The barrel refers to where salt pork was stored in the 1800’s and one only had to go to the barrel for meat.) The term was first used in a book by Edward Everitt Hale called The Children of the Public.
Precinct: This is the lowest level of a political organization which is used to campaign for a candidate or party. It is headed by a captain and is active only in a relatively small locality such as a street, borough or town.
President: This position is the chief executive of the executive branch. The President is responsible for the implementation of bills from the Congress, and is the Commander in Chief of all the US military forces. The President also has the power to negotiate political and economic treaties, appoint ambassadors, cabinet officials and judges. The President holds office for four years and may only be elected twice, whether the terms are consecutive or not. The President’s power can be checked by both a pro-active Congress and the Supreme Court.
President pro tempore of the Senate: This position is held by a politician elected from the majority party in the Senate to fill in temporarily for the Vice-President (whose job is also to be president of the Senate). Pro tempore is Latin for “temporarily”. The President pro tempore is also called the Speaker of the Senate.
Primary Election: This is the election where the public votes for the one candidate who will represent the party for any particular position. The winner then runs in the general election against the primary winner(s) of the other parties.
Quorum: This is the minimum number of people required to hold an official meeting to conduct business. In the Senate and the House the quorum is one more than 50% of its members.
Ratification: This term means to formally agree on an action or proposal.
Re-apportionment: Every ten years the US census counts not only the population of the United States but also shows where they live. Since a state’s representation in the House of Representatives is determined by its population, some states may have their representation in Congress increased, decreased or remain unchanged depending upon the shift in population from one state to another.
Recall Election: Voters of some states have the opportunity to remove a sitting official. Voters need to first collect signatures from usually one-third of the number of voters who originally voted for the politician to call for a new election. The policitan is removed from office if 50% of the votes are in favor of that action. A recall election is not allowed for politicians in the federal government.
Reconstruction: In the aftermath of the the Civil War, between 1863 and 1867, federal policies were enacted to unify the country. New civil rights legislation including three amendments (13th in 1865, 14th in 1868 and the 15th in 1870) to the Constitution, and political rules to ensure that the southern states would adhere to federal supremacy were enacted. Although the country came together as a nation, civil rights legislation was not sufficient to overcome discriminatory Jim Crow laws which stayed on the books in various southern states until the 24th amendment was enacted in 1964.
Red State: This color is given to states where the majority of the voters are Republican. States where the majority of voters are Democrats are referred to as Blue States. The association of these colors began in the 2000 national election when Journalist Tim Russert first used them in discussing the electorate’s party predominance in each state.
Reporting Out: This is the time in the life of a bill when it leaves a Congressional committee to be sent to the floor of the respective house for possible review, debate or a vote.
Reserved Powers: During the writing of the US Constitution the states negotiated which branches of the federal government would hold certain powers and which were not given to the federal government at all. Reserved powers, in the US Constitution, are those awarded to the states only and not given to the federal government.
Retail Politics: Candidates perform retail politics by treating their candidacy as a retail product to sell directly to the general public. Posters, bumper stickers, buttons and leaflets are the stock and trade of the politician speaking to crowds and going door-to-door meeting individual voters.
Rider: A rider is the name given to a condition or proviso added to a proposed bill usually inserted during negotiation or debate.
Roll Call: Many votes in the chambers are done with a simple voice vote but when the names of the legislators voting are required the process is called a roll call where there names are recorded along with their vote.
Rule of Four: The ‘Rule of Four’ pertains to when four Supreme Court judges agree to review a case on appeal from a lower court and a writ of certiorari is issued.
Rules Committee: Both the Senate and the House have this committee to set the groundwork to determine if, when and how a bill is brought to the floor for debate. In the House the committee is called the Committee on Rules. In the Senate it is called the Rules and Administration Committee.
School District: This is one of many so-called special districts that local government relies upon to form and implement laws as passed by state legislation.
Secession: To separate a state or area from the nation is called this. In 1861 eleven southern states (including the Arizona Territory in 1862) broke away from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America. This act was declared by the federal government to be against the law and the Civil War began. Secession continues to be against the law today.
Secretary of State: This is the title given to the head of the Department of State; this person is responsible for implementing foreign policy.
Senate: The Senate shares responsibility with the House or Representatives to make federal law. This chamber is made up of two Senators from each state. Each member serves a six-year term and every other year one-third of the seats are up for election. The Senate acts as the judge and jury during impeachment proceedings and is the chamber that confirms Presidential appointments and treaties.
Senate Committee on Appropriation: Both chambers have this committee which approves and distributes federal funding to the various departments of the Executive branch.
Seniority: This term relates to the practice of granting power (in the form of committee chairmanships and other perks) based upon the length of time the politician has served in Congress. Over the years various party rule changes have attempted to control this practice.
Separation of Powers: The federal government is divided into three separate but equal branches. Each branch has power over another in a system of checks and balances, which serves to thwart one branch from becoming too powerful.
Soft Money: This is the money donated to a candidate’s party or a cause rather than directly to the candidate. Soft money donations are less restricted by campaign finance laws than hard money (money donated directly to the candidate).
Solicitor General: When the Executive branch needs to be represented in the Supreme Court the President appoints this person who reports to the Attorney General.
Term Limits: To prevent a government official from holding the same office after repeated elections he or she is restricted to a set number of terms to serve. This action prevents the individual from amassing too much power and allows less senior candidates with new ideas the chance to win political office. The President is the only politician of the three branches of the federal government who is term limited.
Ticket: This term is used to describe when members of the same party are listed on the same ballot and the voter can vote for all those candidates with one vote. It all indirectly describes members of the same party running together for different positions but on the same election day.
Truman Doctrine: In 1947 President Harry Truman spoke to Congress saying that it was his official position that America would help other countries resist the spread of communism.
Two-Party System: When two political parties predominant in an election one is most likely to achieve a majority of votes, win and lead the country with majority backing. A third party candidate always has the opportunity to garner enough votes in an election to drain enough votes from his/her opponents and influence the election. Even if this third candidate does not win he/she may exert great outcome on an election and is known as a spoiler.
United States Conference of Mayors: Over 1000 mayors from all parties convene annually to exchange ideas and strategies to address problems in their cities or to share programs already proven to benefit their constituency.
Veto: The President and all Governors have the power to reject (veto) any bill passed by the legislature and presented for his/her signature. The US Congress, in turn, has the right to override this veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers.
Vice-President (VP): The Vice-President is next in line for the presidency in the event that the current President die in office, resign or be impeached. The VP also serves as the President of the Senate though rarely does so unless a tie vote needs to be broken. The VP may also be an advisor to the President.
Voting Rights Act: Since the Civil War, so-called Jim Crow laws thwarted African-Americans in southern states from voting by instituting poll taxes and literacy tests. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made illegal the use of literacy tests in all elections, allowed for federal oversight in areas where less than 50% of the non-white electorate had registered, and allowed the US Attorney General to investigate both local and state jurisdictions where poll taxes were being allowed. In 1964 the 24th Amendment outlawed poll taxes in federal elections, and in 1966 the Supreme Court outlawed poll taxes in state elections.
War Powers Resolution: While the Congress has the power to declare war, the President has the power to implement that declaration. Over the years Presidents have sent troops into police actions and conflicts while not asking Congress to actually declare war. In an effort to regain control over the Executive branch in this matter Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973 to require the President to inform Congress within 48 hours of troops being sent into combat. Congress then has 60 days to formally declare war or to simply approve of the President’s decision. Congress may extend this period of time but regardless, if no such approval from Congress is given, the President must withdraw forces within another 60-day time frame. Neither branch has strictly followed this resolution, however, and the Supreme Court has decided not to give its opinion on this matter.
Washington Beltway: This is the highway running around Washington DC delineating those who live inside the beltway from those who live outside of it. Those living inside the beltway are thought to have a different perspective on government bureaucracy than the rest of the country on the outside.
West Wing: This section of the White House faces in a westerly direction and encompasses the President’s oval office as well as offices for the senior staff of the executive branch. The wing comprises four floors and has been renovated and redesigned a number of times.
Whip: In both the Senate and the House the majority and minority leaders appoint one person to manage party unity and to gather support for a specific bill of their party. That person is called the party’s whip. The word has English roots pertaining to the person, called the whipper-in, on a hunt whose job it was to keep the dogs together during the pursuit.
White House: This is the name given to the President’s residence in Washington DC and was officially named this by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.
Wholesale Politics: This is a term given to the practice of structuring political campaigns to appeal to specific groups of the electorate. It is the opposite of practicing retail politics which is a campaign designed to appeal to a large group of people.