Congressional Jargon

September 14, 2011

One thing that’s pretty hard to find on the internet is a good guide to the jargon of Capitol Hill. I don’t mean formal terminology related to floor procedure, that can be found in quite a few places. I mean the language that staffers use. Like any profession, the Hill is chock-full of wonderful phrases and sayings. But unlike a lot of other professions, politics tends garner a lot of interest from non-practitioners. Last year, PS published an article with a bunch of jargon (subscription required), but it was kind of short. So I thought I’d post some here. This is just a first edition off the top of my head. As you’ll see, many of these are appropriations-process related, probably because that’s what I have on my brain right now. I’ll do another round in a future post. Enjoy. And feel free to add on in the comments.

Update: There is now a more updated version of this post, available here.

UC: unanimous consent, or unanimous consent agreement. Perhaps the most important phrase in the Senate. If no one objects, the time-consuming process for moving anything on the Senate floor can be reduced to mere seconds. Usage: We need to line everyone up on this, if we can’t get a UC then it’s not going to move.

Run the traps: The process of vetting an idea by making sure all key players sign-off on it. Usage: I think this language will work, but you need to run the traps on it. Start by calling Ben in the Speaker’s office.

Member-level:  In bill or report language negotiations, an issue that can’t be handled by staff and will require Member-to-Member communication. Usage: Q: Can you delete the language on the park issue? A: No. That’s going to have to be a Member-level decision.

Mark: The version of a bill used by a committee when the committee formally acts to amend legislation. Usage: Have you seen the mark for the Defense bill yet?

Rattle the cage: To surprise a hearing witness with unexpected or unwanted questions. Usage: When the secretary comes down here next week, I think the chairman is going to rattle the cage a little.

Embargo: A ban on the disclosure of information of any sort until a certain time. Usage: Here’s the report language for the bill. There’s an embargo on it until 3pm tomorrow.

D’s/R’s: Democrats and Republicans. Usage: If we put that on the floor this week, the D’s are going to be might upset.

Scores: When a provision in a bill costs money, but especially when the provision does not appropriate money, it scores. The Congressional Budget Office evaluates the cost of all bills that come out of committee, and appropriations bills are subject to caps on their budget authority and outlays. So it’s not good when something scores. Usage: I don’t think we can include those riders. They’re both going to score, and we don’t have room under the cap.

Book(s): Short for briefing book(s). The large binders that staff put together for Members and themselves prior to committee and other events, filled with things like statement texts, markup notes, bill language, data, etc. Usage: We’ve got to get moving on this draft. It’s already 9pm and we haven’t even started putting the books together.

Go down: Send bill or report language to GPO for overnight printing. Usage: I’m hoping we can finish this afternoon and go down tonight. That way we can read a bit tomorrow.

Sit and read/ turn pages: Collectively walking through a bill (especially an appropriations bill) out loud with multiple people, to check new drafts against old ones and confirm that language is exactly correct. A slow process. Usage: I’d like to turn pages on Thursday, so adjust your schedule accordingly.

Optics: how a bill or report language or policy will look from a constituent point of view. Usage: I agree with you, John, but the optics of this thing are terrible.

Drop: to introduce a bill. Usage: We need that language ASAP, because we want to drop this bill tomorrow.

Take a haircut: have your appropriation cut by some percentage. Usage: I know you have a lot of needs, but in this climate everyone is going to have to take a haircut.

Plus up: An appropriations increase, especially in contrast. Usage: the overall bill is flat but we gave a plus up to agency XYZ.

Four corners discussion: staff conference that includes majority and minority staff of both House and Senate. Usage: Let’s try to put together a four corners discussion for Tuesday. See if they’ll come over here.

CR: continuing resolution. If all 12 appropriations bills are not signed into law by October 1, the government will have at least a partial shutdown, unless a continuing resolution is passed to temporarily fund things until the regular bills can be passed. Usage: The CR expires on November 3rd. Do you think they’ll have it all done by then, or do you think there will be another CR?

IQ: the most popular correspondence management system on the Hill. Used by Member offices to track and respond to constituent communications. Usage: Our new staff assistant is terrible. Five weeks and he can’t figure out IQ.

SA/LC/LA/LD: Four common positions in a Member office: Staff Assistant, Legislative Correspondent, Legislative Assistant, and Legislative Director. The basic chain of command beneath the chief of staff. Usage: We need to hire two new LAs this month and it looks like our LD might be leaving.

Clerk: lead staffer on a committee or subcommittee, particularly on Appropriations. Largely interchangeable with Staff Director. Calls the roll for committee votes. Usage: I think that’s right, but you better check with the Clerk.

CRS/CBO/GPO/GAO/LOC/AOC: Some of the legislative branch agencies. Congressional Research Service, Congressional Budget Office, Government Printing Office, Government Accountability Office, Library of Congress, Architect of the Capitol. Usage: I can’t believe the roof is leaking again. Get the AOC down here stat.

Give away: to have no floor votes on a day when there were initially going to be votes. Thus, Members are free to return to their districts early, and the Hill quiets down. Usage: I heard they are going to give away Friday this week.

The smell of jet fuel: an allusion to the impatience that sets in when Members are imminently leaving town for the weekend. Such situations can be used to quickly get through mark ups or floor action that might have otherwise taken time. Usage: It’s great we’re going last today. The smell of jet fuel is in the air, so there’s little chance we’ll face many hostile amendments.

Cats and dogs: Small details in a bill. Usage: we’ve pretty much ironed out all the outstanding issues. Just a few cats and dogs left, but nothing major.

CODEL/STAFDEL: Acronym for congressional delegation and staff delegation, the groups that might go on an official trip overseas. Usage: Did we get the money for the CODEL to South Africa yet? No, but I hear its coming.

Hotline: any number of uses related to moving a bill through the Senate by unanimous consent. Formally the decentralized phone system used to clear bills with all Members prior to bringing them to the floor. As a verb, the practice of moving bills in this manner. Usage: When are they going to do the land use bill? They’re going to try to hotline it tomorrow afternoon.

Ramseyers: refers to the Ramseyer’s Rule, which requires committee reports for House bills to include a section that describes how the proposed legislation would alter current law. Usage: I’m so glad we can farm out the Ramseyers to legislative counsel, those are a pain to write.

Side-by-side: A document that places the text of two similar bills (perhaps a House version and a Senate version) next to each, line by line. Allows easier comparison of the exact language difference between the bills. Usage: We’re almost ready for the staff-level conference negotiations, but we need to finish the side-by-side.

Markup notes: a document produced by committee staff for Members to use as a companion to a bill at markup. Most common in appropriations bills. Usage: If you’re having trouble understanding section 5, refer to the markup notes, which have more details.

HR/SR: House recedes or Senate recedes. Notation used in conference negotiations to indicate one chamber or the other giving in on bill language that differs between the chamber-passed versions. Usage: On page 12, section 3, 4, and 5 are all HR’s.

Suspension: Any bill going through the House of Representatives under suspension of the rules, which can move a bill quickly, but requires a 2/3 vote. Usually used with non-controversial legislation. Usage: How many suspensions are we doing today?


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