How the Government Works – WYN2K

Contributed by Deb Kline.

A new regular feature in the ILNH Take A Stand newsletter is Civics 101: basic information about how the government works plus definitions to help cut through the jargon. Don’t be insulted, be informed. Share with others, educate your children and community. Information is power.

How many members of the Senate and House are there in Congress?

There are 100 Senate members, two from each of the 50 states. There are 435 House members with a varying number of members per state based on the state’s population.

How often are members of the Senate and House elected?

Members of the Senate are elected to 6‐year terms. One‐third of the Senate seats (those that are expiring) and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are open for election every two years.

What is the essential difference between the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives?

Under the Constitution, the two chambers are equal. Neither can promulgate laws without the other. Although they are equal, the Constitution does give certain exclusive powers to each chamber. Nominees chosen by the President to serve as judges, ambassadors, cabinet officers, and senior executives must be confirmed by the Senate. Treaties negotiated with foreign nations must be ratified by the Senate. The House has no formal role in either process.

However, the Constitution gives the House the authority to originate all revenue (tax) bills and, through historical precedent, this authority has been extended to all appropriations (spending) bills as well. Although these money bills must begin in the House, the Senate has full opportunity to debate and modify the legislation sent to it by the House and, as with all bills, both chambers must pass a bill before it can be sent to the President.

What is the difference between an appropriations bill and an authorization bill?

An appropriations bill provides the legal authority needed to spend or obligate U.S. Treasury funds. Twelve annual appropriations bills fund the entire federal government. The bills are supposed to be enacted prior to the start of a new fiscal year, designated as October 1. Failure to meet the deadline results in the need for temporary short‐term funding or governmental agencies and offices will shut down. For example, funding for the Title VIII Nursing Workforce Education Programs at the Health Resources and Services Administration is contained in an appropriations bill.

An authorization bill provides the authority for a program or agency to exist and determines its policy and structure. It also recommends spending levels to carry out a defined policy, but these levels are not binding. Authorizations may be annual, multiyear, or permanent. Expiring programs require reauthorizations. House and Senate rules require that authorization be in place before final funding decisions are made, though this rule frequently is waived or disregarded. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is an example of an authorization bill.

What is the difference between discretionary funding and mandatory funding?

Discretionary spending refers to spending set by annual appropriation levels made by congressional decisions. This spending is optional, in contrast to entitlement programs (e.g. Medicare and Medicaid) for which funding are mandatory. For example, funding for the mental health programs at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration is discretionary spending.

Mandatory spending accounts for two‐thirds of federal budget. These funds are not controlled by an annual decision of Congress but are automatically obligated by virtue of previously enacted laws. For example, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and social security are entitlement programs — funding for them falls under mandatory spending.

What is a CR?

A continuing resolution or CR is a short‐term or long‐term temporary funding bill that funds the federal government after September 30 until a permanent appropriations measure is passed and signed into law.

What is a reconciliation bill?

A reconciliation bill makes changes to laws required to meet preset spending and revenue levels. A reconciliation bill may be considered when permitted by a budget resolution passed by the House and Senate. The House Budget Committee packages the bills produced by the substantive committees of jurisdiction into one omnibus bill.

What is an omnibus bill?

An omnibus bill is a large bill that combines many different aspects of a particular subject. In the last few years, Congress has passed an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the entire government.

When does the government’s fiscal year start?

For the federal government, the fiscal year (FY) is October 1 to September 30 of the following calendar year.

What does sponsor/cosponsor of a bill mean?

A sponsor is the Senator or Representative who introduces the measure. A cosponsor is a member of Congress who joins in sponsoring legislation but is not the member who introduced the measure.

Who is a Chair/Ranking Member of a committee/subcommittee?

The chair of a committee is the presiding officer of a committee or subcommittee — this is usually based on seniority of committee tenure. The ranking member is the highest ranking (and usually longest serving) minority member of a committee or subcommittee.

What is cloture?

Cloture is the only procedure by which the Senate can vote to place a time limit on consideration of a bill or other matter and, thereby, overcome a filibuster. Under the cloture rule (Rule XXII), the Senate may limit consideration of a pending matter to 30 additional hours, but only by vote of three‐fifths of the full Senate, normally 60 votes.

What is a markup?

A markup is the process by which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend, and rewrite proposed legislation.

What is unanimous consent?

A procedure whereby a matter is considered agreed to if no Member on the floor objects. A unanimous consent motion can save time by eliminating the need for a vote. This procedure is usually reserved for non‐controversial bills that will easily pass either chamber.

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