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franking privileges

The free use of the mail system to communicate with constituents and machines that duplicate a member's signature in real ink.

descriptive representation

Representing constituents by mirroring their personal, politically relevant characteristics.

substantive representation

Representing the interests of groups.


Those already holding office. In congressional elections, these people usually win.


Activities of members of Congress that help constituents as individuals; cutting through bureaucratic red tape to get people what they think they have a right to get.

pork barrel (aka: earmarks)

The mighty list of federal projects, grants, and contracts available to cities, businesses, colleges, and institutions in a congressional district.

bicameral legislature

A legislature divided into two houses. The U.S. Congress and every American state legislature except Nebraska's are this format.

House Rules Committee

An institution unique to the House of Representatives that reviews all bills (except revenue, budget, and appropriations bills) coming from a House committee before they go to the full House.


A strategy unique to the Senate whereby opponents of a piece of legislation try to talk it to death, based in the tradition of unlimited debate. Today, 60 members present and voting can halt a filibuster.


a procedure for ending a debate and taking a vote.

Speaker of the House

An office mandated by the Constitution, chosen in practice by the majority party, has both formal and informal powers, and is second in line to succeed to the presidency should that office become vacant.

majority leader

The principal partisan ally of the Speaker of the House or the party's manager in the Senate. The majority leader is responsible for scheduling bills, influencing committee assignments, and rounding up votes in behalf of the party's legislative positions.


Party leaders who work with the majority leader or minority leader to count votes beforehand and lean on waverers whose votes are crucial to a bill favored by the party.

minority leader

The principal leader of the minority party in the House of Representatives or in the Senate.

standing committees

Separate subject-matter committees in each house of Congress that handle bills in different policy areas.

joint committees

Congressional committees on a few subject-matter areas with membership drawn from both houses.

conference committees

Congressional committees formed when the Senate and the House pass a particular bill in different forms. Party leadership appoints members from each house to iron out the differences and bring back a single bill.

select committees

Congressional committees appointed for a specific purpose, such as the Watergate investigation.

legislative oversight

Congress's monitoring of the bureaucracy and its administration of policy, performed mainly through hearings.

committee chairs

The most important influencers of the congressional agenda, They play dominant roles in scheduling hearings, hiring staff, appointing subcommittees, and managing committee bills when they are brought before the full house.

seniority system

A simple rule for picking committee chairs, in effect until the 1970s. The member who had served on the committee the longest and whose party controlled the chamber became chair, regardless of party loyalty, mental state, or competence.

caucus (Congressional)

A group of members of Congress sharing some interest or characteristics. Most are composed of members from both parties and from both houses. There are about 300 of these.


A proposed law, drafted in legal language. Anyone can draft one, but only a member of the House of Representatives or the Senate can formally submit one for consideration.

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