Some subjects have a special vocabulary that we use so we can talk about complex topics in simple ways. In math, some words are addition, fractions, and decimals. We can talk about math without using these words, but it can quickly get confusing. In the same way, laws use a special vocabulary of their own. If we want to understand how laws are made, we have to start by understanding the vocabulary.

Here are some of the basic words and phrases that we’ll encounter when talking about how laws, especially Federal laws, are made:

Act: Legislation that has passed both houses of Congress and has been either approved by the President, or has passed Congress over his veto, thus becoming law.

Bill: Formally introduced legislation. Most ideas for new laws, called legislative proposals, are in the form of bills and are labeled as H.R. (House of Representatives) or S. (Senate), depending on where they are introduced. They are also numbered in the order that they are introduced during each Congress. For example, a bill might be called H.R. 10 if it’s the tenth bill introduced in the House of Representatives or S. 42 if it’s the forty-second bill introduced in the Senate. Public bills deal with matters that affect the general public and become Public Laws, or Acts, if approved by Congress and signed by the President. Private bills deal with matters that affect specific individuals or private entities, such as claims against the Federal Government, immigration and naturalization cases, land titles, and other topics. They become private laws if approved and signed. An enrolled bill is one that has been passed by both houses of Congress (Senate and House of Representatives), signed by their presiding officers, and sent to the President for signature.

Calendar: A list of bills, resolutions, and other matters scheduled to be considered before committees or on the floor of either House of Congress. A Congressional Calendar is an agenda or list of business awaiting possible action by the House or Senate.

Committee(s): Committees are groups of Members of Congress appointed to investigate, debate, and report on legislation. Standing Committees are the most common type of committee; they consider bills and other legislation that is before the House or the Senate. Subcommittees are subsets of a standing committee that are established for the purpose of dividing the committee's workload. The recommendations of a subcommittee must be approved by the full committee before being reported to the Senate or House.

Congress: The two houses of the legislative branch of the Federal Government: the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. There are currently 100 U.S. Senators, 435 U.S. Representatives, 5 Delegates, and 1 Resident Commissioner. Congress is also referred to as a bicameral legislature because of its two legislative houses or chambers.

Federal: About or relating to the central, national Government of the United States.

Hopper: In the House, a wooden box that bills are dropped in to be officially introduced. In the Senate, a bill is handed to a clerk at the rostrum.

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

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

Report: The printed record of a committee’s actions, including its votes, recommendations, and views on a bill, a question of public policy, or its findings and conclusions based on oversight inquiry, investigation, or other study.

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. Resolutions generally fall into one of three categories. Simple resolutions, designated H. Res. or S. Res., deal with matters entirely within the prerogatives of the respective house. Concurrent resolutions, designated H. Con. Res. or S. Con. Res., must be passed by both houses, but are not presented for signature by the President. Concurrent resolutions generally are used to make or amend rules applicable to both houses, or to express the sentiment of the two houses. Joint Resolutions, designated H.J. Res. or S.J. Res., require the approval of both houses, and, with one exception, the signature of the President, and have the force of law if approved. There is no real difference between a bill and a joint resolution. The latter is generally used in dealing with limited matters, such as a single appropriation for a specific purpose, or for the declaration of war. Joint resolutions are also used to propose amendments to the Constitution, but these do not require the President's signature.

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

Unanimous Consent: An agreement among members of Congress to set aside a specified rule of procedure to expedite proceedings. In the Senate, for example, if there are no objections, unanimous consent is allowed. But if even a single Senator objects, the unanimous consent request is rejected. Unanimous consent requests with short-term effects are normally granted. However, ones affecting the floor schedule, the conditions of considering a bill or other business, or the rights of other Senators, are normally not offered, or a floor leader will object to it, until all Senators concerned have had an opportunity to accept it.

Veto: The constitutional procedure that happens when the President does not sign a bill or joint resolution into law. A regular veto happens when the President returns the bill to the originating house of Congress without approval. It can be overridden only by a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. A pocket veto happens after Congress has adjourned and is unable to override the President’s action.

For a full list of vocabulary words that are used in Congressional legislation, explore the following resources: