Some Words You Need to Know to Understand What Congress Is Doing

February 10th 2017

Mike Rothschild

The contentious nature of the confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump's cabinet picks has meant the strange ways of the U.S. Senate.

Casual C-SPAN watchers are bombarded with arcane procedural terms that veteran wonks know well. To help get you up to speed, here are some of the most commonly used terms in congressional proceedings.

Cloture. French for "ending," cloture is the term for a motion introduced in the Senate to end debate on a bill or nomination. It's often, though not always, used to end a filibuster, and was first introduced to the Senate in 1920 to advance the Treaty of Versailles.

After cloture is invoked, the Senate votes on it, and if it passes, only 30 more hours of debate are allowed. Before November 2013, a cloture vote on a nomination for anything other than the Supreme Court required 60 votes. But under former Nevada Senator Harry Reid, Democrats changed that rule to require a simple majority (the "nuclear option," defined below) after continuous Republican obstruction of President Barack Obama's nominees.

Filibuster. From the Middle English word for "pirate," this is the hijacking of debate by one lawmaker who is permitted to speak for as long as they're able — unless cloture is invoked. It evolved out of rule changes in the early days of the Senate and, for decades, even threatening a filibuster was enough to have a bill pulled back.

A 60-vote majority is still needed to end filibusters on legislation, leading to epic talk-fests, such as Sen. Chris Murphy (D -Conn.) speaking for nearly 15 hours on gun control, and Ted Cruz filibustering for over 21 hours to defund the Affordable Care in Act 2013.

The longest filibuster in history was by Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1957, who spoke for over 24 hours against the Civil Rights Act.

The filibuster only exists in the Senate, the House of Representatives having gotten rid of it in 1842.

Reconciliation. A fairly recent addition to the Senate, reconciliation is the preferred tactic for passing budgets, tax increases, and spending cuts. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, the financial aspects will be ended through budget reconciliation as it's a tactic the Democratic minority won't be able to stop.

Quorum. This term means the number of legislators required to start a meeting. Having a quorum ensures that legislators can't ram bills through without minority party representation. For Senate committees, a quorum is not achieved unless one person from the non-majority party is there.

As part of the confirmation process of the Trump cabinet, Democrats boycotted their committees, ensuring a quorum couldn't be achieved — until Republican legislators revoked the need for a quorum.

Nuclear option. This is the Senate procedure that allows the override of a rule by a simple majority, instead of by a supermajority — a fundamental and complex change to how the Senate conducts its business. While changing the number of votes needed to override a filibuster had been threatened by both parties for decades, the Democratic Senate finally pulled the trigger in November 2013.

With dozens of executive and judicial nominees waiting to be confirmed, Senate Democrats eliminated the use of the filibuster against all nominees other than to the Supreme Court. Trump advocated for the Senate to use the nuclear option again after moving to the White House, this time to end debate if Democrats filibuster his Supreme Court pick.

Roll Call Vote. A vote where the name of each member of Congress is called and they vote "yea" or "nay," with their names recorded along with their vote.

Voice Vote. The same as a roll call vote, except the names and votes aren't recorded. Most congressional votes are done as voice votes, and the House has used electronic voting cards for voice votes for decades, due to its size. 

Confirmation. Confirming a member of the executive branch is an involved process. The president selects a candidate, who undergoes legal and financial vetting. Their name is then submitted to the Senate so they can play their constitutional role of offering "advice and consent."

In turn, the nomination is given to the appropriate Senate committee for hearings. The committee then votes on the nomination, passing it along to the full Senate favorably, unfavorably, or without recommendation.

After a committee vote (which can be ended via a cloture vote by the full Senate), the nomination goes to the full chamber, where a simple majority is required for approval. This process was able be filibustered until the "nuclear option" was invoked in 2013.