The definitions provided in this glossary relate to words as used on Ben's Guide to the U.S. Government. There may be other definitions for these words.


act: Legislation that has passed both Houses of Congress and has been either approved by the President or passed over his veto, thus becoming law. Also used technically for a bill that has been passed by one House of Congress.

amend: To change the wording or meaning of a motion, bill, Constitution, etc. by formal procedure. For example, Congress may amend the Constitution.

amendment: A proposal by a Member (in committee or floor session of the respective Chamber) to alter the language or provisions of a bill or act. It is voted on in the same manner as a bill. The Constitution of the United States, as provided in Article 5, may be amended when two-thirds of each House of Congress approves a proposed amendment and three-fourths of the states thereafter ratify it.

alien: A resident of another country who has not yet become a citizen of the country where he or she now lives.

American Revolutionary War: The war in which the United States won independence from Great Britain (1775-1783).

Anti-Federalists: Opponents to the adoption of the Federal Constitution. Leading Anti-Federalists included George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, Patrick Henry, and George Clinton.

Articles of Confederation: The first constitution of the 13 American states. They were written in 1777, adopted in 1781, but then replaced in 1787 by the Constitution of the United States.

autonomy: Independence or freedom; the right of self-government.


bicameral: The quality of having two branches, chambers, or houses, such as the United States Congress, which is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

bill: Formally introduced legislation. Most legislative proposals are in the form of bills and are designated as H.R. (House of Representatives) or S. (Senate), depending on the House in which they are introduced. They are numbered in the order in which they are introduced during each Congress. Public Bills deal with general questions and become Public Laws, or Acts, if they approved by Congress and signed by the President. Private Bills deal with individual matters such as claims against the Federal Government, immigration and naturalization cases, land titles, and so on, and become Private Laws if approved and signed.

Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution.


calendar: A list of bills, resolutions, or other matters to be considered before committees or on the floor of either House of Congress.

census: An official count of the number of persons living in a geographic area, such as a city, county, state, or nation.

centralized government: A form of government in which the national government maintains the power.

checks and balances: Limits placed on the branches of Government by giving each the right to amend acts of the other branches. 

citizen: A native or naturalized subject of a state or nation who owes allegiance to its government and is entitled to its protection.

colonist: Someone living in a colony.

colony: A country or an area that is under the control or government of another country.

commerce: Buying and selling of goods; it is usually thought of as trade between states or nations.

committee: A group of Members of Congress appointed to investigate, debate, and report on legislation.

concurrent powers: Power that is shared by both a national government and state governments, such as collecting taxes, building roads, and making and enforcing laws.

confirmation: Action by the Senate approving Presidential nominees for the executive branch, regulatory commissions, and certain other positions.

confederation: a joining together or association in an alliance or league, such as confederate states.

Congress: The seat of legislative power. There are 535 members of the U.S. Congress: 435 in the House of Representatives and 100 in the Senate. See also House of Representatives and Senate.

congressional district: A division or part of a state based on population; each district elects one person to Congress.

constituent: A person who is part of a larger group. In politics, a constituent is represented by an elected official.

Constitution: The document which establishes the basic principles of the American Government.


decennial: Occurring every ten years. The first decennial census, or count of the population of the United States, took place in 1790.

delegate: A person who acts for or represents another or others, such as a deputy or representative at a political convention.

democracy: A system of government by all eligible people, often through their representatives.

democratic: Supporting the principles of a democracy, such as representation by and for the people.

dual federalism: A system of government where the states and the national government have clearly defined and separated areas of power.

due process: The requirement under law that each state must respect all legal rights that are owed to a person. It ensures fair treatment through the judicial system.


elastic clause: A statement in the U.S. Constitution granting Congress the power to pass all laws necessary and proper for carrying out the list of powers it was granted (Article I, Section 8).

Emancipation Proclamation: An order by President Lincoln that took effect in 1863, during the Civil War, which ended slavery in the confederate states.

enrolled bill: The final copy of a bill or joint resolution which has passed both chambers in identical form. It is printed on parchment paper, signed by appropriate House and Senate officials, and submitted to the President for signature.


federal: A union of groups or states in which each member agrees to give up some of its governmental power in certain areas to a central authority; in the United States, it is used to describe the central Government.

federalism: A federal principle or system union of states in which power is divided between a central authority and the member state authorities.

fiscal year: A twelve month period used by the Federal Government that begins on October 1 of one year and ends on September 30 of the following year. It is often shortened to FY, as in, FY 2015 is October 1, 2014, to September 30, 2015.

Founding Fathers: Important leaders who took part in the American Revolution and helped form our system of Government. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and John Adams are considered Founding Fathers.


general election: A regular election of candidates to office, as opposed to a primary election, which is held to decide who will be in the general election.

gerrymandering: A way or practice of controlling the boundaries of district lines to favor the electoral advantage of a political party or faction. The term was first used in 1812, when Elbridge Gerry was Governor of Massachusetts, to characterize the state redistricting plan.


hearing: A meeting or session of a committee of Congress, usually open to the public, to gather information and opinions on proposed legislation, conduct an investigation, or oversee a program.

hopper: A box attached to the side of the Clerk’s desk in the House of Representatives into which a proposed legislative bill is dropped and in so doing is officially introduced.

House of Representatives: Along with the Senate, it is one of the two Houses of the U.S. Congress. Members are granted to each state based upon population and each representative serves a two-year term. There are currently 435 members in the House of Representatives.


immigrant: A person who moves from one country to another to live permanently.

impeachment: A formal accusation issued by a legislature against a public official charged with crime or other serious misconduct.

independent: When a person or thing is not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion or conduct; thinking or acting for oneself.

indirect popular election: Instead of voting for a specific candidate, voters select a panel of individuals pledged to vote for a specific candidate. This is in contrast to a popular election where votes are cast for an individual candidate. For example, in a general Presidential election, voters select electors to represent their vote in the Electoral College, and not for an individual Presidential candidate.

initiative: A process by which a particular number of voters may propose a statute, constitutional amendment, or ordinance, and compel a vote on its adoption.


judicial review: The power of a court to judge the constitutionality of the laws of a government or the acts of a government official.


law: A system of rules of conduct established and enforced by the authority, legislation, or custom of a given community, state, or nation. Used in the singular to mean a specific law (a law protecting free speech) or in the plural to refer to a set of laws (the law of the land).

legislative day: A formal meeting of a House of Congress which begins with the call to order and opening of business and ends with adjournment. A legislative day may cover a period of several calendar days, with the House recessing at the end of each calendar day, rather than adjourning.

legislation: A law or a body (set) of laws.

line-item veto: The power of an executive to disapprove or reject parts of a bill without having to reject the entire bill.


motion: A formal suggestion or proposal that an action be taken related to the process of making a law.


national: Of or relating to the entire nation. Also, a citizen or subject of a nation who is entitled to its protection.

naturalization: The process by which a person is made a national or citizen of a country other than his or her native one. A naturalized citizen is one who was not born a U.S. citizen.


obelisk: An upright stone pillar, usually having four sides, that has a pyramid shape at the top; the Washington Monument is an obelisk.


pocket veto: The disapproval of a bill brought about by an indirect rejection by the President. According to the Constitution, the President is granted 10 days, Sundays excepted, to review a piece of legislation passed by Congress. If the President has not signed the bill after 10 days, it becomes law without his signature. But if Congress adjourns during the 10 day period, the bill does not become law.

preamble: An introduction to a document.

President: A head of state that had been elected to office; also called chief executive. The President of the United States is the highest elected official in the nation and head of Government, the leader of the executive branch, and the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. Sometimes referred to by the acronym POTUS.

primary election: An election held to decide which candidates will be on the November general election ballot.

public law: A bill or joint resolution (other than for amendments to the Constitution) passed by both Houses of Congress and approved by the President. Bills and joint resolutions vetoed by the President, but then overridden by the Congress also become Public Law. Public Laws affect society as a whole, and most laws passed by Congress are Public Laws. Public Law citations include the abbreviation, Pub.L., the Congress number (e.g. 107), and the number of the law. For example: Pub.L. 107-006.

private law: A law that affects an individual, family, or small group and is enacted to help citizens that have been injured by government programs or who are appealing an executive agency ruling such as deportation. Private Laws citations include the abbreviation, Pvt.L., the Congress number (e.g. 107), and the number of the law. For example: Pvt.L. 107-006.


ratify: To sign or officially approve an agreement, treaty, contract, amendment, or similar document.

ratification: In U.S. Government, this can be the act of approval of a proposed constitutional amendment by the legislatures of the States; it can also refer to the Senate process of advice and consent to treaties negotiated by the President.

reapportionment: The process by which seats in the House of Representatives are reassigned among the states to reflect population changes following the decennial census.

redistricting: The process within the states of redrawing legislative district boundaries to reflect population changes following the decennial census. See also gerrymandering

referendum: A general or direct vote by the people on a political issue.

report: The printed record of a committee’s actions, including its votes, recommendations, and views on a bill or question of public policy or its findings and conclusions based on oversight inquiry, investigation, or other study. Senate committees usually publish a committee report to accompany the legislation they have voted out; these are numbered consecutively in the order in which they are filed in the Senate. Committee reports discuss and explain the purpose of measures and contain other, related information. The term can also refer to the action taken by a committee ("report the legislation") to submit its recommendations to the Senate.

Representative: A person appointed, chosen, or elected to act on another’s behalf. In Congress, Representatives are granted to each state based upon population and each Representative serves a two-year term. There are currently 435 members in the House of Representatives.

republic: A state or nation in which the power rests in all the citizens entitled to vote and their elected representatives; a republic also has a President and not a king or other type of monarch.

resolution: A proposal approved by either or both Houses of Congress which, except for joint resolutions signed by the President, does not have the force of law.


Senate: Along with the House of Representatives, it is one of the two Houses of the U.S. Congress. There are two Senators granted to each state and each Senator serves a six-year term. There are currently 100 members in the Senate.

Senator: The Constitution requires that a Senator be at least 30 years old, a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and an inhabitant of the state from which he or she is elected. A person elected or appointed to the Senate and duly sworn is a Senator. There are currently 100 members in the Senate.

separation of powers: The system of dividing power and authority; in the United States, it is divided among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the Government.

sovereign: Above or superior to all others; chief; greatest; supreme dominion or power.


tabling motion: A motion to stop action on a pending proposal and to lay it aside until further notice. When the Senate or House agrees to a tabling motion, the measure which has been tabled is effectively defeated.

treason: Being unfaithful or disloyal to one’s own country.


unanimous consent: An agreement among members of Congress to set aside a specified rule of procedure to expedite proceedings.


veto: The procedure, as allowed by the Constitution, by which the President refuses to approve a bill or joint resolution and thus prevents its enactment into law. A regular veto occurs when the President returns the legislation to the originating House without approval. It can be overridden only by a two-thirds vote in each House. A pocket veto occurs after Congress has adjourned and is unable to override the President’s action.



United States Senate glossary:
Kids in the House glossary:
Middle School
High School glossary of legislative terms:
House Document 108-94 – ‘Our American Government’ (2003)