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Lawmakers' Legislative Lingo

27 July 2007
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We try to make our website a wonderful and extensive place for citizens to find out what's happening in their governments. Here in the Key Votes Department we summarize and post votes that take place on pieces of legislation that may interest a citizen. We want this to be as handy a tool as possible. The process of legislating is easy to learn, but some terms that you see floating around our summaries may not be familiar to someone who is not particularly well versed in the legislative process. For instance, what is a substitute bill and where does it come from? What is the difference between a bill passing the U.S. Senate unanimously and passing by unanimous consent? What is that emergency clause thing hanging on the end of this bill in my state legislature? What is a voice vote? Here at Project Vote Smart we have all of those answers and more.

What is a Cloture Vote?

You may be familiar with the Senate's attempts at passing immigration bills earlier this summer. You may have read in the press that these bills were voted down and killed. This is not quite accurate. These bills failed cloture votes. In the United States Senate, some votes are on motions to invoke cloture on a bill. Invoking cloture is a way to limit debate on the bill. There is no limit on how long a bill can be debated, so if a bill seems to be getting debated forever or getting filibustered (filibustering is another word we will discuss here) a senator may move to invoke cloture. A cloture vote needs 60 yeas to pass, not just a majority. If the cloture vote passes, debate is then limited, and oftentimes there will be no further debate. Winning a cloture vote does not mean the bill passes. After a bill passes a cloture vote, it still must have a passage vote. In the case of the Senate's immigration bills that failed cloture votes, these bills were pulled from consideration because the debate could not be limited on them. They were not directly killed by a vote. If the Senate wanted, they could resume debate on those bills because they are not technically dead.

What is a Filibuster?

In the United States Senate a senator may filibuster a bill. This means the senator will take the floor for as long as possible to put off a vote on the bill, hoping that the bill's supporters will get tired of the senator talking and drop consideration of the bill. Filibusters can be stopped by a cloture vote. During a filibuster, a senator is free to talk about anything, regardless of whether or not it is even remotely related to the bill, but the senator must continue talking and cannot leave the floor even to eat, sleep, or use the restroom. The record for the longest filibuster has been held by the late South Carolina Senator James Strom Thurmond since 1957, when he filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes.

What is a Record Vote (or Recorded Vote)?

A record vote is the standard vote the average citizen thinks of when they think of a vote. Each lawmaker votes yea or nay and these votes are recorded and published. Record votes can be on passages of bills and amendments, on motions (such as the cloture motion above) and usually on anything else the legislature may take a vote on.

What is a Voice Vote?

If there is overwhelming support for a bill, the chamber may take a voice vote. When this happens the leader of the chamber will say "All in favor say yea" and then "All opposed say nay." If the sound of the yeas demonstrates a clear dominance over the sound of the nays, the bill passes. Anyone in the chamber may demand a record vote instead of a voice vote if they would like. That motion is not debatable, and a record vote is immediately taken. A senator or representative will normally call for a record vote if they feel the voice vote was too close to call or if they want everyone to have their position on the legislation recorded.

What is Unanimous Consent?

Passing a bill by unanimous consent is different than passing a bill unanimously. If a chamber passes a bill unanimously, everyone is in favor of the bill. To pass a bill by unanimous consent, objections will be called for. If no one objects, the bill is passed by unanimous consent. This may mean that everyone is in favor of the bill, but it may also mean that those opposed to the bill know they are in a small minority and don't have any chance of defeating the bill. They may not want to take the time to have a vote they know they will lose.

What is Referral?

After a bill is introduced and read the first time, it will be referred to a committee that specializes in the topic the bill addresses (for instance, a bill on health care will be referred to a Health Committee). Referral is just a fancy way of saying the bill is given to a committee.

What is an Emergency Clause?

In some states, a bill may have an emergency clause attached to it. This means that instead of becoming law at a date later in the year, it becomes law as soon as the governor signs it. Some states require two votes on bills with emergency clauses: one vote to pass the bill, and another to pass the emergency clause. Some states have only one vote where a supermajority is needed to pass the emergency clause, but the bill may pass with a simple majority. So if 60% is needed to pass the emergency clause and the bill passes with 55% the bill would pass but the emergency clause would not.

What is a Tabling Vote?

Sometimes a lawmaker will move to table a bill. If their tabling motion is seconded, a vote is taken. If a majority votes to table the bill, discussion is ended on the bill for the day and it is not voted on. Typically after a bill is tabled it will never again be taken up.

What is a Substituted Bill?

Sometimes (and in some states it happens very frequently) a substitute amendment to a bill will be submitted. This amendment strikes all of the language in the original bill and rewrites the whole thing, making it a substituted bill.

What is a Conference Committee?

In Congress, and in most states, if the two chambers of the legislature pass a bill in different forms (because they've amended it), each chamber will appoint a conference committee. A handful of lawmakers from each chamber will meet with each other and hammer out the differences of the two chambers. Then the bill (in most states known now as a conference report) is voted on again in each chamber.

If you have any questions about these or any other legislative terms, drop us a line at 1-888-VOTE-SMART (1-888-868-3762). We're here to help!

Related tags: blog, legislative-terms

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