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morning business

Morning business is routine business that is supposed to occur during the first two hours of a new legislative day in the U.S. Senate.

This business includes receiving messages from the President and from the other legislative chamber, reports from executive branch officials, petitions from citizens, committee reports and the introduction of bills and submission of resolutions.

In practice, this sometime occurs at other convenient points in the day.

hopper

Legislators introduce bills by placing them in the bill hopper attached to the side of the clerk’s desk.

The term derives from a funnel-shaped storage bin filled from the top and emptied from the bottom, which is often used to house grain or coal. Bills are retrieved from the hopper and referred to committees with the appropriate jurisdiction.

hideaways

Hideaways are personal, unmarked offices in the Capitol originally assigned to senior senators. They are conveniently located near the Senate floor.

The hideaway location of an individual Senator is a closely held secret, most with no names on the doors. They are hidden from view with some even tucked away behind large statues. Due to recent renovations, all 100 Senators have for the first time been assigned their own hideaway. There is no public information on the cost of renovating and furnishing these offices.

The secrecy surrounding hideaways has generated considerable media interest, with provocative article titles, such as: “Senate’s Biggest Secret: Lush Hideaways for Lawmakers“, and “Congressional Perks: How the Trappings of Office Trap Taxpayers“.

germane

germane

In politics, if you want to follow legislation that’s introduced both on the local and national levels, it’s important to understand the meaning of the term “germane.”

“Germane” is typically defined as “in close relationship, appropriate, relative or pertinent to.” In the case of legislation, it commonly refers to whether or not an amendment or rider to a bill needs to be relevant to the original bill or not, and there are a wide range of rules that govern this in federal and state jurisdictions.

The importance of understanding the term is described in Congressional Quarterly: “Why Understanding the Term ‘Germane’ Can Save You From Heartaches and Headaches.”

The article points out that “only 40 state constitutions require a bill to be ‘germane’ – that is, require a bill to address or contain only a single subject.” The lack of uniform rules about “germaneness” in state government means that life can get difficult for people in various industries who spend their time tracking legislation.

The article goes on: “if you’re tracking state legislation about real estate licensing, you can ignore bills about traffic safety, right?” Then, providing its own answer, “You could if lawmakers were always rationale and lawmaking were a rationale process. But that’s not our reality.”

In the U.S. Senate, the rules about germaneness can be described as follows, as taken from the Senate’s own PDF on the subject: “The Senate requires only that amendments be germane when they are offered (1) to general appropriations bills and budget measures, (2) under cloture, or (3) under certain unanimous consent agreements and certain statutes. Otherwise, Senators can offer amendments on any subject to any bill.”

Broadly speaking, the purpose of the germane rule is to prevent legislators from putting irrelevant or immaterial legislation into unrelated bills as an underhanded way of getting legislation passed.The rules in the U.S. House, as described here, are a bit different: “Clause 7 of rule XVI, called the “germaneness rule,” stands for the simple proposition that an amendment must address the same subject as the matter being amended. The germaneness rule was adopted by the House in 1789 and has remained the same since it was last changed in 1822. The purpose of the rule is to provide for the orderly consideration of amendments to bills and resolutions by requiring a relationship between the amendment and the matter being amended. The existence of this rule is one of the key procedural differences between the House and Senate.”

The word “germane” is also applicable not only to legislation, but to debate as well, with something called the “Pastore Rule,” which requires Senate floor debate to be germane during specific periods of a Senate workday.

In 2003, Roll Call described a violation of this rule: “As Byrd continued Friday to pound away at Bush on many fronts during consideration of the omnibus spending bill, McCain interrupted. McCain asserted that Byrd’s attack on the administration’s policy on North Korea was violating the ‘Pastore Rule,’ which stipulates that debate has to be germane to the matter at hand during the first three hours of debate on a bill.”

franking privileges

Franking privileges allow lawmakers to send mail to constituents without having to pay postage. A copy of the member’s signature replaces the stamp on the envelope. Authentic signatures of famous individuals are valuable collectors’ items.

Franking privileges in Congress date from the First Continental Congress of 1775. Opportunity for abuse exists and has prompted calls for reform. According to “CRS Report: Franking Privilege: Historical Development and Options for Change”:

“… [S]trong criticism of the franking privilege developed regarding the use of the frank as an influence in congressional elections and the perceived advantage it gives incumbent Members running for reelection. Contemporary opponents of the franking privilege continue to express concerns about both its cost and its effect on congressional elections.”

Limits on and oversight of franking exist today. The House has appointed a Franking Commission t0:

“(1)  issue regulations governing the proper use of the franking privilege; (2) provide guidance in connection with mailings; (3) act as a quasi-judicial body for the disposition of formal complaints against Members of Congress who have allegedly violated franking laws or regulations.”

ex officio

The term “ex officio” comes from the Latin phrase “from the office,” and in politics it refers to someone who is part of a political body just by virtue of holding a different elected office.

The most common example of an “ex officio” member of a body is the Vice President of the United States, who is considered the President of the Senate and can cast tie-breaking votes, despite never actually being elected to the Senate.

Further examples of “ex officio” members in the United States government are the chairmen and ranking minority members of U.S. Senate committees. These members are able to participate in any of the subcommittees, though they can’t vote.

In 2017, the New York Times noted the presence of Senators McCain and Reed during the highly charged testimony of James Comey in 2017: “Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, also questioned Mr. Comey on Thursday. As the leaders of the Armed Services Committee, they are “ex officio” members of the Intelligence Committee, as are the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer.

The use of the term “ex officio” dates back to the Roman empire, when various councils existed to debate issues and legislative matters, often with a large number of people who held other offices but were involved in the political processes of Roman leadership.  Examples of ex-officio members are common in the structure and set up of many different organizations. In the case of non-profits, most CEOs are also “ex officio” members of the board, and in local politics, elected officials can be ex officio sheriffs, ex officio tax collectors, and ex officio members of committees. In New York City, the speaker of the council and the leaders from each party, are all ex officio members of all the city’s various committees.

In certain cases, the term “ex officio” is used interchangeably with “acting,” as when Baltimore mayor was forced to resign in 2019, and city council president Jack Young became acting, or ex-officio, mayor of the city.

In other countries around the world, many ex officio members play a large role in government. In the U.K., for example, the most senior bishops of the Church of England are ex officio members of the House of Lords, and have equal vote, prompting one website to query: “Why are there Bishops in the House of Lords?”

earmarks

Funds that are allocated to a specific program, project or for a designated purpose. Revenues are earmarked by law. Expenditures are earmarked by appropriations bills or reports.

According to the Office of Management & Budget definition, earmarks include:

  1. Add-ons. If the Administration asks for $100 million for formula grants, for example, and Congress provides $110 million and places restrictions … on the additional $10 million, the additional $10 million is counted as an earmark. However, if the additional funding is to speed up the completion of a project with no restrictions this is NOT an earmark.
  2. Carve-outs. If the Administration asks for $100 million and Congress provides $100 million but places restrictions on some portion of the funding, the restricted portion is counted as an earmark.
  3. Funding provisions that do not name a recipient, but are so specific that only one recipient can qualify for funding is counted as an earmark.

Slate’s “What’s an Earmark” article provides a distinction between earmarks and general budget expenditures:

“For example, if Congress passed a budget that gave a certain amount of money to the National Park Service as a whole, no one would consider it an earmark. But if Congress added a line to the budget specifying that some of that money must go toward the preservation of a single building—definitely an earmark.”

Earmarks can be used for political, pork-barrel spending and considerable debate in Congress has centered on earmark reform. President Obama’s speech on Earmark Reform, March 11, 2009, called for legislation that would create greater transparency and public awareness of proposed earmarks. Acknowledging that earmarks can be useful, the president stated they “must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose.”

one-minute speeches

Also called, “one minutes”, a speech typically given at the beginning of the day by a House member on a chosen topic.

One minutes can also be scheduled at the end of legislative business. It is at the discretion of the Speaker how much time will be allotted for the speeches. Although they are not a rule of the House, one minutes have emerged as a “unanimous consent practice” of the chamber.

One-minute speeches can be used for promoting partisan positions and launching attacks. According to Kathryn Pearson of MinnPost.com, one minute attack speeches are becoming routine (See,”One-minute Attack Speeches Becoming Routine in U.S. House“): “…party leaders have taken an active role in coordinating one-minutes so that they consist of attacks on the other party or a defense of one’s own party… Indeed, the “Republican Theme Team” and the “Democratic Message Group” recruit members to deliver one-minutes to reinforce the party’s daily message”.

As noted in CRS Report, One Minute Speeches: Current Practices, “the usual position of one minutes at the start of day means they can be covered by broadcast news organizations in time for evening news programs …. Some Representatives have made one-minute speeches a regular part of their media and communication strategy.”

The tendency to use one minutes for attack and promotion has prompted calls for reform or complete elimination of the privilege.

mark-up

The mark-up is the committee meeting held to review the text of a bill before reporting it to the floor.

Committee members do not make changes to the text but can vote on proposed amendments.  In conclusion, members vote on a motion to send the bill with accompanying amendments, to the House.

There is room for political maneuvering during the mark-up meeting, as quoted by one lobbyist familiar with the process: “Committee’s often abruptly cancel congressional mark ups, such as in this case and instead schedule hearings in an attempt to regain support for a bill.”

The desk

The desk is another name for the rostrum where the presiding officer and various clerks of the chamber sit.

According to recent practices, most bills, resolutions, and committee reports are delivered to the clerks at the presiding officer’s desk for processing throughout the day.

Up until the 1960’s, measures delivered to the desk could be held, unprocessed, for days to allow the addition of new signatures. This unpopular procedure has now been discontinued.

Dear Colleague letter

A “Dear Colleague letter” is an official communication distributed in bulk by a lawmaker to all members of Congress.

Dear Colleague letters typically include issues related to co-sponsoring or opposing a bill, new procedures or upcoming congressional events.

Although Dear Colleague letters have been used by members for over a century, technological advances in recent years have facilitated their distribution. In 2008, the House introduced a web based e-“Dear Colleague” system, streamlining topic headings and distribution lists.

codel

A “codel” is short for “Congressional Delegation”, and defined as a trip abroad by a member or members of Congress.

casework

casework

The term “casework” refers to assistance provided by members of Congress to constituents who need help while filing a grievance with the federal government or a federal agency.

In a lot of cases, constituents don’t know how to get help if they have an issue relating to federal government services or a problem with federal programs. “Casework” gives these constituents a chance to seek that help from their representatives in Washington.

Casework is an extensive and all-encompassing term that covers a lot of ground: “Each year, thousands of constituents turn to Members of Congress with a wide range of requests, from the simple to the complex. Members and their staffs help constituents deal with administrative agencies by acting as facilitators, ombudsmen, and, in some cases, advocates. In addition to serving individual constituents, some congressional offices also consider as casework liaison activities between the federal government and local governments, businesses, communities, and nonprofit organizations.”

In 2016, the MinnPost described casework as Congress’ most important function (that almost no one uses),” adding: “An enormous amount of time, effort, and resources flows toward casework, and many members of Congress will tell you that helping constituents is their most important responsibility.”

A 2017 report issued by Congressional Research Service highlighted some areas which see the most frequent use of casework:

Tracking a misdirected benefits payment; filling out a government form; applying for Social Security, veterans’, education, and other federal benefits, explaining government activities or decisions; applying to a military service academy; seeking relief from a federal administrative decision; and seeking assistance for those immigrating to the United States or applying for U.S. citizenship.

To let Americans know about the availability of casework, certain members of Congress provide information on their websites about how their constituents can seek out help, as seen here on Maryland Rep Jamie Raskin’s site. And here on the site of South Dakota Senator John Thune.

Of course, casework only goes so far. As explained by the New York Times, “caseworkers are wary of promising too much on this front. They are not supposed to talk to your lender; they can only speak to its regulator, often the comptroller of the currency. And they will usually do so only if they believe a legitimate question has gone unanswered.”

As Congress Foundation points out, Congress has its ways of making sure a constituents request for casework is legitimate: “Though many constituents come to their congressional office to ask for legitimate help with an agency issue, there are plenty of inquiries that are not serious or require a caseworker to step in. Asking constituents to sign a Privacy Release Form is a professional way a caseworker can ensure a constituent is serious about their problem and willing to provide the necessary information to pursue a solution.”

logrolling

logrolling

Logrolling refers to a quid pro quo exchange of favors. In politics, “logrolling” generally refers to vote-trading by lawmakers to ensure that each legislator’s favored provisions have a higher chance of passing.

Specifically, logrolling means combining several provisions into one bill. Each of the provisions in the bill is supported by just a few members of Congress, and would not be able to pass through Congress on its own. But when the provisions are combined, or rolled together, they can secure a majority vote.

The term grew out of an old American custom in which neighbors helped each other to roll logs into piles for burning. Logrolling is also an obscure sport in which contestants balance on a log in water and try to make each other fall off.

In politics, logrolling usually comes into play when legislators need votes on a bill that would help out their home districts. Projects like Federally funded bridges, highways, and hospitals, which benefit people in the district but might be funded by federal taxes, are often pushed through thanks to logrolling.

Logrolling has a long history in the United States. It can be traced back as far as 1790, when Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson presided over a deal known as the “Compromise of 1790.” Politicians at the time were struggling to decide how the debts incurred during the Revolutionary War would be paid off. At the same time, they were trying to reach a deal about where the nation’s capital should be. Finally, at a dinner party hosted by Thomas Jefferson, Virginia representative James Madison agreed to Alexander Hamilton’s request that the Federal government should take responsibility for the war debt, in exchange for putting the nation’s capital on the Potomac.

President Lyndon Johnson is often described as a master of logrolling and of political deal-making. Johnson was a consummate politician who prided himself on knowing where every lawmaker’s interests were. He was famous for taking to the telephone or buttonholing Congressmembers in person in order to trade votes and get his favored legislation through Congress.

Logrolling, earmarking, and “pork barrel” spending all tend to be criticized by good-government groups and by watchdogs. The conservative-libertarian group Freedom Works, for example, is sharply critical of logrolling by both political parties.

But some pundits argue that logrolling is just the simplest way to push big, complicated laws through Congress. They argue that, by its nature, logrolling forces politicians to compromise and to make deals, abandoning more extremist positions in order to find a middle ground.

In 2014, a study found that “backroom deals” and political methods like earmarking and logrolling could actually be beneficial to government. The study found that such practices lead to greater understanding among political parties, by forcing them to interact with each other for prolonged periods of time. The study also found that closed-door meetings lead to more compromise, while increased transparency can lead to political rigidity and posturing.

leader time

Leader time is the ten minute time allotted to majority and minority leaders at the start of the daily session.

Leaders use the time to discuss any important issues or the day’s legislative agenda. All or part of the leader time may be reserved for use later in the day.

lay on the table

To “lay on the table” is to make motion for the permanent disposal of a bill, resolution, amendment, appeal, or motion.

One of the most widely used parliamentary procedures, tabling can be effected through unanimous consent — where the Chair states: “without objection, the matter is laid upon the table” — or put to a vote. However, tabling a resolution can be controversial because it permanently ends debate on an issue.

“Lay on the table” should not be confused with the same term used in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries where “tabling” refers to beginning consideration of a resolution or issue.

king of the hill

The “king of the hill” is a special rule in the House for sequencing different amendments. If more than one version receives a majority of votes, the last one to win a majority prevails.

An excerpt from The American Congress explains:

“Special rules are highly flexible tools for tailoring floor action to individual bills. Amendments may be limited or prohibited. The order of voting on amendments may be structured. For example, the House frequently adopts a special rule called a king-of-the-hill rule. First used in 1982, a king-of-the-hill rule provides for a sequence of votes on alternative amendments, usually full substitutes for the bill. The last amendment to receive a majority wins, even if it receives fewer votes than some other amendment. This rule allows members to vote for more than one version of the legislation, which gives them freedom both to support a version that is easy to defend at home and to vote for the version preferred by their party’s leaders. Even more important, the procedure advantages the version voted on last, which is usually the proposal favored by the majority party leadership.”

Also see:  Partisanship or Protection: Examining the King of the Hill Rule.

junket

A junket is a pleasure trip taken by a politicians with expenses paid for with public funds.

President Obama was accused of wasteful spending on a junket to New York in May, 2009 for dinner and a show with his wife.

aisle

The aisle refers to the space which divides the majority side from the minority on the House and Senate floor. When debating, members frequently refer to their party affiliation as “my side of the aisle.”

When facing the front of the chamber, Democrats sit on the left side of the aisle; Republicans on the right.

K Street

K Street

K Street refers to the area in downtown Washington, D.C. where many lobbyists, lawyers and advocacy groups have their offices. It’s become a term to refer to the lobbying industry as a whole.

In fact, the Washington Post has noted that most major lobbying firms don’t operate out of K Street any more. Only one of the top twenty lobbying companies still has a K Street address. The move away from K Street started in the 1980s, but the term still retains its original meaning as a shorthand for the lobbying industry.

“K Street” is generally a derogatory term. It’s used as a synonym for influence peddling and for the power of special interests. In fact, the term K Street is widely used as a symbol for the problems that many people see with the federal government.

K Street is widely criticized for the influence it exerts over politicians. Analysts argue that lobbyists working for, say, the pharmaceutical industry are influencing legislation in a way that benefits the industry, rather than ordinary Americans.

In 2019, the top spenders on lobbying included healthcare and insurance companies, tech firms, and broadcasters. Americans of all political stripes tend to distrust lobbyists, seeing them as favoring “special interests” over the good of the broader population.

K Street also comes under widespread criticism because of the so-called “revolving door” between Capitol Hill and the leading lobbying firms. The complaint is that former federal employees get jobs as lobbyists, consultants, and strategists; at the same time, one-time lobbyists get jobs as federal employees. The result, some say, is a permanent ruling class that can easily turn into an echo chamber.

Lobbyists argue that, in fact, they are exercising a key first amendment right. The first amendment protects five key rights and forbids Congress from enacting any laws that would restrict those rights. The fifth right protected by the first amendment is the right of the people to petition their government for redress of grievances.

Lobbyists argue that they are simply the professionals charged with allowing people to exercise their first amendment rights to petition their government and advocate for their cause. As the government grows bigger and more complicated, petitioning the government also becomes more and more complicated. It’s not something that an ordinary citizen can do; in the modern world, petitioning the government needs to be done by a professional lobbyist.

The term “lobbyist” dates back to 18th century England, when men known as “box-lobby loungers” began hanging around in the lobbies of London theaters. The lobby loungers weren’t there to watch a play – they were there to meet the wealthy and powerful Londoners who attended the theater. It wasn’t long before lobby loungers appeared in American theaters too. The term “lobbyist” was first used in a political sense in the 1810s; it was first seen in print when a New York newspaper described a man named William Irving as a “lobby member” of the New York legislature.

cats and dogs

Cats and dogs are are leftover “stray” bills on minor subjects saved for days when the House or Senate have light floor schedules.

recall election

A recall election allows voters to oust an elected official, by means of a direct vote,while that official is still  in the middle of their term. Recall elections are relatively rare and usually take place after the official does something which their opponents believe to be illegal or immoral.

The laws on recalls vary from state to state. In all but eleven states, some form of recall is allowed. In some states, recalls are allowed for all elected officials. In most states, though, there are strict rules about which officials can be subject to a recall. Many states also have rules about how long officials must serve before they can be recalled.

Federal law does not have any provision for recalling federally-elected officials, although some people have argued that voters have the right to recall members of Congress. The Supreme Court has never ruled on that issue, although the court has ruled that states cannot impose qualifications on members of Congress.

Analysts generally describe the recall as a populist initiative, an attempt to ensure that elected officials remain accountable to their constituents. The recall system dates back to colonial times; the laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony allowed for officials to be recalled. After independence, 11 states passed laws allowing for recalls of state officials.  At the time, state legislatures, rather than voters, carried out the recall.

In modern times, voters have mainly used recall elections against local government officials, like mayors and judges. However, governors have also been recalled. In 1921, North Dakota voters used a recall election to oust the state’s governor; the same thing happened in California in 2003.

One of the most dramatic recall elections in recent history happened in Wisconsin, in 2012. The states Democrats and Republicans were locked in a battle over the rights of unions. The fight, which attracted national attention, saw Democratic politicians physically flee the state to avoid having to vote on a bill that would have restricted the right to collective bargaining. With so many lawmakers absent, it was impossible to vote on the measure.

Finally, the Republican leadership amended the bill to make a vote possible, and governor Scott Walker signed it into law. In response, Democrats petitioned to recall Walker. Walker ultimately survived the recall vote, defeating both the Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett,and independent candidate Hariprasad Trivedi.

Some pundits believe that recalls are becoming more common in recent years. In August 2019, FiveThirtyEight reported that there were five governors being targeted for recall around the country. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, may be the most high profile case. As of early 2020, Newsom was facing two separate recall efforts, although it was not clear whether either effort would succeed.

Only two governors have ever been successfully recalled. In 1921, Gov. Lynn Frazier of North Dakota was recalled during a dispute about state-owned industries, and in 2003, Gov. Gray Davis of California was recalled over the state budget.

impeachment

An impeachment is a formal charge of criminality raised against an elected official in the first step to remove them from office. In the federal government, only the House of Representatives may bring an impeachment while only the Senate may try and convict the accused. A conviction requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate and results in removal of the accused from office.

Impeachment can also occur at the state level, according to their respective state constitutions.

The impeachment process should not be confused with a recall election which is usually initiated by voters.

yeas and nays

The yeas and nays is a recorded roll call vote of members of the House or Senate.

The U.S. Constitution directs that “the yeas and nays of the members of either house, on any question, shall, at the desire of one-fifth of those present, be entered on the journal.”

The action does not necessarily bring debate to an end. It does mean that whenever debate ends, a roll call vote will occur.

pocket veto

A pocket veto is a legislative tactic that allows the president to indirectly veto a bill.

The U.S. Constitution requires the President to sign a bill within the 10 days if Congress is in session. If Congress is in session and the president fails to sign the bill, it becomes law without his signature. However, if Congress adjourns before the ten days are up and the President does not sign the bill, it will not become law. Ignoring it — or putting it in your pocket — has been called a pocket veto.

Swiftboating

“Swiftboating” is an untrue or unfair political attack or smear campaign. It’s similar in meaning to mudslinging.

The term comes from the 2004 presidential campaign when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth produced a series of television ads and a bestselling book that challenged Kerry’s military record and criticized his subsequent antiwar activities. Kerry himself had served for four months as a swift boat commander in Vietnam.

The term “swiftboating” soon became used to describe political tactics of the group.

october surprise

October surprise

An October surprise is a news event which takes place shortly before a closely-watched election and which may influence the election’s outcome.

Usually, the term in reference to a presidential election, although it can be applied to any election.

Merriam Webster notes that October surprise wasn’t always a political term. In the early 20th century, it referred to the annual autumn sales held by major department stores. Around 1980, people started using October surprise in its modern political sense.

An October surprise can take many different forms. A natural disaster, an economic downturn, or even a war can all impact elections, especially if they take place just before people go to the polls. All of those count as an October surprise. However, the term is more commonly used for deliberately planned news events. Last-minute revelations about a candidate’s personal life or their finances can also constitute an October surprise.

In 2000, George W Bush was running for president against Al Gore. The two were in a close race, but Bush appeared to have pulled ahead. Then in early November, the news broke that Bush had been arrested and charged with a DUI in Maine back in 1976. The news shook Bush’s support. Karl Rove, Bush’s chief strategist, later said that if the DUI news had never become public, Bush would have won the popular vote, eliminating the need for a recount.

In October 2004, when Bush was running for re-election, Osama bin Laden released a video that boosted the president’s position in the polls. The video referred to the September 11 attacks and called President Bush a dictator, accusing him of repressing civil liberties by means of the Patriot Act. The video put national security back at the forefront of public discussion and likely inflated support for the president.

Four years later, in 2008, John McCain was running for president against Barack Obama. In October, the stock market crashed, unemployment reached an all-time high, and the global economy seemed to be on the point of collapse. The market crash was widely credited with helping Obama win the election.

The most famous October surprise of them all, however, may be one which never actually took place. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was running for president against the incumbent, Democrat Jimmy Carter. The Reagan campaign was reportedly afraid that Carter would orchestrate a last-minute deal to free the American hostages that had been held in Iran since 1979. Reagan’s staffers feared that if the hostages were released, Carter would get a huge bump in the polls.

In the event, though, Iran waited to free the hostages until just after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president. Since then, theories have abounded as to what happened. Many Democrats believe that Reagan himself made a deal with Iran, asking them not to liberate the hostages until after he won the election. What’s clear is that, in the absence of an October surprise, Reagan was able to sweep to victory.

recess appointment

A recess appointment is a presidential appointment typically requiring Senate approval that is made during a Senate recess.

To be confirmed, the appointment must be approved by the Senate by the end of the next session of Congress or the position becomes vacant again. Recess appointments are authorized by  Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

Recess appointments permitted the president to make appointments when the Senate was adjourned for lengthy periods. More recently, however, the president has used the privilege to push through unpopular candidates. For example, during his second term, President Bush appointed several controversial candidates while the Senate was in recess.  In 2007, Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, retaliated by holding pro forma sessions during Senate recesses. As a result, the Bush administration was unable to make further recess appointments.

bill

A bill is a proposed law introduced in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate.

A bill originating in the House is designated by the letters “H.R.” followed by a number and bills introduced in the Senate as “S.” followed by a number. The sequential numbering of bills for each session of Congress began in the House in 1817 and in the Senate in 1847.

In 1975, Schoolhouse Rock aired an educational segment, “I’m Just a Bill,” introducing children to the concept of how a bill becomes a law.

hardball

“Hardball” is a no-nonsense attitude or approach to getting what you want in politics.

From the introduction to Hardball by Chris Matthews: “Let me define terms: hardball is clean, aggressive Machiavellian politics. It is the discipline of gaining and holding power, useful to any profession or undertaking, but practiced most openly and unashamedly in the world of public affairs.”

Example from All the President’s Men: “This is the hardest hardball that’s ever been played in this town. We all have to be very careful, in the office and out.”

Related term: Chicago-style politics and politics ain’t beanbag.

witch hunt

A witch hunt is a politically-motivated, often vindictive investigation that feeds on public fears.

The term refers to the witch hunts in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, where many innocent women accused of witchcraft were burned at the stake or drowned.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R-WI) search for Communists in the federal government during the 1950s is often referred to as a witch hunt.

whistle-stopping

whistle-stopping

“Whistle-stopping” is practice of making political speeches or appearances in many different towns during a short period of time.

The term originates from the time when politicians mainly traveled by train and gave speeches from the back of the train during “whistle-stops” in small towns. The term now covers any means of travel punctuated by multiple short stops, usually arranged by an advance man. The term “flag stop” is used almost interchangeably with “whistle stop.”

The BBC notes that the term “whistle-stopping” originated in America but is now used by European politicians too. The expression may have been used first by the columnist O.O. McIntry, back in 1928. McIntryre wrote about a person who had to admit that his hometown was “some outlandish whistle stop with the conventional red depot.”

President Harry Truman is famous for his long whistle-stop tour while he was running for re-election in 1948. Truman’s campaign tour stretched 31,000 miles and included 352 campaign stops. The tour was planned by Truman’s publicist, a journalist named Charlie Ross. Voters apparently thought of Truman as distant and uncharismatic, and the whistle-stop tour was supposed to give them a fresh look at the president. The president reached three million Americans while he was on the months-long tour.

Of course, Truman and his staff did not invent the whistle stop tour. Abraham Lincoln was famous for campaigning from trains and train stations. After Lincoln was elected president, he spent nearly two weeks traveling from his home in Illinois to Washington DC to be sworn in as president. The extended trip gave Lincoln time to meet with his supporters in whistle stops throughout the country. Along the way, the president-elect survived an assassination attempt (discovered by the railroad detectives).

Almost a hundred and fifty years later, president-elect Barack Obama recreated Lincoln’s famous whistle-stop tour. Obama traveled to his own inauguration by train, following the same route as Lincoln had and stopping along the way to speak to crowds of supporters.

“To the children who hear the whistle of the train and dream of a better life — that’s who we’re fighting for. That’s who needs change,” Obama said at one stop along the way. “And those are the stories that we will gather with us to Washington.”

First ladies have historically done their own whistle stop tours too. Lady Bird Johnson famously carried out a whistle stop tour of the south in order to rally support for President Johnson’s civil rights agenda. Lady Bird spent four miles aboard a train which had been named the “Lady Bird Special,” traveling through eight states and covering 1,628 miles. A southerner herself, Johnson said she wanted her tour to take her “to the land where the pavement runs out and city people don’t often go.”

In 2017, Melania Trump went on what many journalists called her own whistle stop tour. The first lady visited four African nations during a week-long tour of the continent. Her trip was widely seen as an attempt to repair relationships between the Trump administration and African nations. Melania Trump’s tour was not technically a whistle stop tour, but because she made many short stops over a long distance, it was often referred to in that way.

photo-op

A photo-op is short for a “photo opportunity,” an event specifically staged for television news cameras or photographers to increase a politician’s exposure.

The term was reportedly coined during the Nixon administration by Bruce Whelihan, an aide to Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler. Ziegler would say, “Get ’em in for a picture,” and Whelihan would dutifully announce to the White House press room, “There will be a photo opportunity in the Oval Office.”

demagogue

A politician whose rhetoric appeals to raw emotions such as fear and hatred in order to gain power.

Former Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) is often cited as a classic demagogue for his practice in the 1950s of smearing prominent Americans with baseless accusations being Communists.

fence mending

fence mending

In politics, fence mending means making an effort to repair a political relationship after it has been damaged.

The term was first used in 1879 by John Sherman. Sherman, the younger brother of the Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman, was a politician in his own right; he served six years in the House of Representatives and six terms in Congress. Today, when he is remembered at all, it’s for a speech in which he declared, “I have come home to look after my fences.”

Sherman, a farmer, may have literally intended to mend the fences on his own land. However, the phrase quickly came to mean mending relationships with people after a rift.

In 2019, President Donald Trump was on the outs with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. The fight started back in 2018 as a disagreement over tariffs and then turned personal, with Trump publicly calling Trudeau “very dishonest and weak.”

In a fence mending effort, the Trump administration lifted tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel. Vice president Mike Pence also paid a visit to Ottowa during which he praised Trudeau’s negotiating skills.

Closer to home, President Trump mended fences with Senator Ted Cruz after a bitter rivalry between the two men during the 2016 presidential election. During the primary elections, Donald Trump dubbed the senator “Lyin’ Ted.” He also insulted Cruz’s wife and implied that his father was involved in the plot to assassinate president John F. Kennedy. For his part, Cruz said publicly that Trump was a “pathological liar” and a “coward.”

The two men mended fences in 2018, when Cruz was running for re-election. President Trump stumped for Ted Cruz and attacked Cruz’s rival, Beto O’Rourke. At the same time, Cruz became one of the president’s trusted allies in Congress. During one rally in Houston, Trump referred to the old rivalry between himself and Cruz:

“We had our little difficulties,” Trump said. “It got nasty, and then it ended. And I’ll tell you what — nobody has helped me more with your tax cuts, with your regulations, all of the things we’ve been doing with your military and your vets, than Sen. Ted Cruz.”

President Trump also had to mend fences with Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski in 2018. The two had a falling-out after Murkowski decided not to support Trump’s plans to end Obamacare. That led to a least one angry phone call; the president also denounced Murkowski on Twitter. Later, in an apparent attempt to mend fences, Trump invited Murkowski to a private lunch. She praised the gesture as “kind” and said that there was “no sourness” between herself and the president.

Mending fences isn’t just for politicians. Psychologists say that after a divisive election, it’s important for ordinary people to mend fences with their own friends and family. Elections, especially presidential elections, can be full of rancor and can rouse strong feelings. That’s why psychologists stress the importance of mending fences — by apologizing if you’ve made hurtful statements, and by trying to understand opposing points of view.

pro forma session

A brief meeting (sometimes only several seconds) in which no business is conducted. It is held usually to satisfy the constitutional obligation that neither chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other.

Pro forma sessions can also be used to prevent the President from making recess appointments, pocket-vetoing  bills, or calling the Congress into special session. During a 2007 recess, for example, Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, planned to keep the Senate in pro forma session in order to prevent further controversial appointments made by the Bush Administration. Said Reid: “I am keeping the Senate in pro forma [session] to prevent recess appointments until we get this process on track.”

The coattail effect is when the popularity of a candidate at the top of the ticket boosts the fortunes of candidates from the same party lower down on the ballot.

coattail effect

The “coattail effect” is a phenomenon whereby a political candidate or leader’s popularity leads to improved vote totals for fellow party candidates further down the ballot.

A coattail refers to a part of the coat extending below the waist that provides extra coverage. The coattail effect or the alternate phrase “riding on someone’s coattails” is a relatively recent entrant into the political lexicon. The concept’s origins are murky though U.S. Rep. Abraham Lincoln’s 1848 speech discussing General Zachary Taylor’s “coattails” seems to be the first notable use.

In this speech, Lincoln highlighted Democratic Party hypocrisy in their critiques of Whigs hiding under presidential nominee Taylor’s “military coat-tail.” The future president pointed to two decades of Democratic hiding under Andrew Jackson’s coattail as evidence of this hypocrisy. Lincoln’s use of coattail refers more to a presidential candidate providing cover for fellow party members rather than a rising political tide lifting all boats.

The Google Books Ngram Viewer points to the recency of the coattail effect’s use in political literature. In a search of all books from 1800 to 2008, there are no mentions of this phrase until 1947. There is a spike in the term’s use by 1957, which peaked by 1996.

The presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton illustrate positive and negative coattail effects. Eisenhower was a popular figure following his role in Allied victory in World War II. This popularity and his reluctance to political power contributed to his election in 1952 and Republican control of the House and the Senate.

Reagan’s appeal to conservative Democrats and Republicans helped him win the presidency in 1980. Republicans regained the Senate for the first time since Eisenhower’s first term due to the down-ballot effects of Reagan’s election.

Clinton emerged from a three-candidate race in 1992 with a Democratic Congress. After two years of an embattled presidency, Republicans retook the House and Senate by offering a Contract with America to counter what they viewed as presidential overreach on healthcare. Clinton’s struggles weighed heavily on Democratic congressional candidates.

Recent studies have raised questions about the power of the coattail effect. The University of Virginia Center for Politics published a report in 2011 that highlighted inconsistencies in a president’s impact on congressional races. Political scientist Robert Erikson’s 2016 study of the coattail effect found that Democratic votes for Congress fluctuate for both presidential popularity and evaluations of the likelihood of Democratic victory.

Examples

Fox 5 Atlanta (February 7, 2020): “Biden argued that he’s the only Democratic candidate who’d have a coattail effect for Senate candidates in battleground states and GOP-leaning states like North Carolina and Georgia.”

The Hill (June 18, 2016): “‘They’re whistling past the graveyard,’ said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, when asked about GOP skepticism of a presidential coattail effect in 2016.”

The New York Times (October 17, 1982): “But a poll by The New York Times indicates that the coattail effect is weak, with supporters of one Democrat often planning to vote a split ticket, and vote against the other candidate.”

checks and balances

checks and balances

“Checks and balances” refers to the Constitutionally mandated separation of powers that results from divided branches of government.

The U.S. Constitution divides power among the three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — to prevent any one from having too much power. Each branch is said to have the ability to check the power of the others, thereby maintaining a balance in the government.

Though it’s sometimes said the United States has three “equal” branches of government, in reality the power of each has fluctuated throughout history.

Examples of checks and balances include:

  • The president (Executive) is commander in chief of the military, but Congress (Legislative) approves military funds.
  • The president (Executive) nominates federal officials, but the Senate (Legislative) confirms those nominations.
  • Both the House and the Senate have to pass a bill in the same form for it to become law.
  • Once Congress (Legislative) passes a bill, the president (Executive) has the power to veto it.
  • The Supreme Court (Judicial) and other federal courts can declare laws or presidential actions (Executive) unconstitutional.

The idea of checks and balances in government dates back to ancient times, as described by History.com: “In his analysis of the government of Ancient Rome, the Greek statesman and historian Polybius identified it as a ‘mixed’ regime with three branches: monarchy… aristocracy…and democracy. These concepts greatly influenced later ideas about separation of powers being crucial to a well-functioning government.”

Years later, in his work “The Spirit of the Laws” in the 18th century, Enlightenment author Montesquieu codified the idea of “checks and balances” when he warned of the threat of despotism by suggesting that there should be different parts of the government to exercise legislative, executive and judicial authority, all under the rule of law.

Montesquieu’s suggestion was later adapted by James Madison who, often described at the Father of the Constitution, wrote: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Most historians agree that, like with any part of living history, the system of checks and balances has served our country well but goes through periods of stress, particularly during events like government shutdowns. As noted by Politico: “Our forefathers in their wisdom established a system of checks and balances in our Constitution to limit power in any one branch of government. That system has worked effectively for more than 200 years to limit power, but it also led to periods of legislative gridlock. We are in one of those periods of total gridlock with the current partial shutdown of the federal government. Each of the parties has dug in.”

Throughout the years, many have argued that the system of checks and balances is failing, as noted here, in reference to NSA’s controversial practice of telephone surveillance of U.S. citizens.

During the Trump administration, the system of “checks and balances” came under intense scrutiny, with a litany of articles suggesting the 45th president, with help from Congress, had placed too much power in the hands of the Executive branch.

The Bulwark: “The Trump administration’s radical expansion of executive power is beckoning what the Founders called “the very definition of tyranny.”

The Atlantic: “By the letter of the Constitution, and by the unwritten norms of American separation-of-powers governance, the main restraint on an overreaching, dishonest, or incompetent executive is a resolute legislative branch. But today’s legislative leaders—Mitch McConnell and his slim Republican majority in the Senate, Paul Ryan and his large Republican majority in the House—are ostentatiously refusing to play that check-and-balance function.”

Many blame the rise of intense partisanship over the last 20 years to further erosion of our system of checks and balances.

bleeding heart

A term that describes people whose hearts “bleed” with sympathy for the poor and downtrodden.

It’s frequently used to criticize liberals who favor government spending for social programs. However, former Republican Vice Presidential nominee Jack Kemp was remembered in a Los Angeles Times obituary as a “bleeding heart conservative” for policies he supported to empower poor people.

Blue Dog Democrats

The Blue Dog Democrats are a coalition of moderate House Democrats. The group is dedicated to fiscally conservative legislation and a strong national defense. They present themselves as the “commonsense” alternative to political extremism.

When the blue dog coalition was first formed, in 1995, their main issue was calling for a balanced budget. The group has also worked on legislation to reduce the national debt and to reform the welfare system.

The founding members of the blue dog Democrats complained that they had been “choked blue” by extremist politicians on both sides of the aisle. They took their name from that expression. The group was also inspired by the famous “blue dog” paintings of the Cajun artist George Rodrigue. Blue dog Democrats also say they based their name on “the long-time tradition of referring to a strong Democratic Party supporter as being a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” who would have ‘sooner voted for a yellow dog than a Republican.’”

In 2009, Blue Dog Democrats held 54 seats in Congress, representing 21 percent of Democratic presence in the House. Support for the Blue Dog coalition fell dramatically in 2010, though, as politics became more polarized. Voters preferred to send more strongly partisan representatives to the House, and it became difficult for centrist politicians to hold their seats in Congress. The spread of the Tea Party also hurt Blue Dog Democrats.

In recent years, the coalition has experienced a resurgence, hiring a communications director and planning a nation-wide strategy. Many pundits say that this resurgence is due to the election of Donald Trump, which, they say, has created much greater interest in moderate and centrist Democratic candidates. In 2017, the Blue Dog coalition systematically endorsed candidates running in districts where President Trump won in 2016. They also stepped up their fundraising activities. At the urging of some members, the group stopped accepting donations from the NRA.

As of 2020, roughly two dozen congressional Democrats claimed membership in the Blue Dog coalition. Members of the coalition say that the Blue Dogs have changed since the group was founded over two decades ago. While the Blue Dogs used to be made up of white men, the group now includes women and is racially diverse. And, while Blue Dogs originally came mainly from southern states, the current coalition includes lawmakers from the Midwest, the northeast, and the western states.

At the same time, the Blue Dog coalition faces competition from the New Democrat Coalition, another group of centrist Democrats. The New Democrat Coalition currently has 61 members and holds a third of the Democrats in the House of Representatives.

The Blue Dog Democrats continue to push for fiscally conservative policies. In a response to President Trump’s proposed 2020 budget, the group lamented that the country faces a $1 trillion annual deficit and that, as they put it, “a lack of fiscal discipline is forcing us to pay more on interest incurred on the national debt than we spend on our kids.”

Yellow Dog Democrat

A yellow dog Democrat was a Southern voter who was unwavering in their loyalty to the Democratic party. Those faithful Democrats swore that they would “vote for a yellow dog” before they’d vote for a Republican.

According to William Safire, the term was first used in 1928. That’s when a New York Democrat named Al Smith was running for president. Many Southern Democrats disapproved of Smith, who was a “wet,” or anti-prohibitionist. Alabama Sen. Tom Heflin went so far as to leave the Democratic party because he didn’t want to support Smith. Other Alabama Democrats, though, declared their loyalty to the party by saying, “I’d vote for a yellow dog if he ran on the Democratic ticket.””””

The term is largely out of use now. It refers to a time when the Democratic party dominated not only Alabama, but the whole American South. It also dates back to a time when Democratic policies were strikingly different than they are today.

During the lead-up to the Civil War, Southern Democrats called for slavery to remain legal throughout the United States. Meanwhile the new Republican party began calling for limits on slaveholding.

After the Civil War, the Democratic Party established a strong presence in the southern states. Democratic politicians at the time were overwhelmingly conservative and white. They opposed laws that would have protected the civil and voting rights of African Americans. State legislatures in the south imposed Jim Crow segregation laws and made it difficult for African Americans to vote.

Democrats maintained control of the South well into the 20th century. Southern Democrats largely supported the New Deal, although they did try to stop the spread of the labor movement and in some cases opposed the growth of Federal power, arguing for states’ rights. They also blocked the passage of an anti-lynching. Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s, the South remained solidly Democratic territory.

The Democratic party finally started to lose power in the South in 1948. That’s when the Democratic National Convention supported President Harry Truman’s stance on civil rights for African Americans. Many Southern Democrats left the party in anger. They determined to nominate Strom Thurmond as their alternative candidate, under the banner of the States’ Rights Democratic Party.

Even after that, Democrats did hold on to local seats in the South and continued to play a major role in shaping local laws. The party’s power in the region shrank little by little over the years, slowly. The party finally took a major hit with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Finally, in 1964, the Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater won a sweeping victory across the Deep South. Goldwater was a staunch opponent of the Civil Rights Act and a supporter of states’ rights. His candidacy is often seen as a turning point in American politics. It drove African American voters to leave the Republican party, and it drove many white southern voters away from the Democratic party.

gerrymander

Redistricting by the party in power to insure maximum votes for their candidates or make it more difficult for an opposition party to defend their seats.

The Library of Congress notes the term originated in 1811, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that created a new district resembling a salamander, provoking the Boston Gazette editor to say, “Salamander? Call it a Gerrymander!”

smoke-filled room

Typically a place where secret political deal-making occurs. In earlier times, many political operatives smoked cigars which filled the rooms with smoke.

Encyclopedia of Chicago: “The original smoke-filled room was in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel, where, according to an enduring legend, a small group of powerful United States senators gathered to arrange the nomination of Warren G. Harding as Republican candidate for president in 1920… when the Associated Press reported that Harding had been chosen ‘in a smoke-filled room,’ the phrase entered the American political lexicon. Ever since, ‘smoke-filled room’ has meant a place, behind the scenes, where cigar-smoking party bosses intrigue to choose candidates.”

trial balloon

An idea suggested by a politician in order to observe the reaction. If public reaction is favorable, the politician pursues the idea and takes full credit.

The term originates with the testing of the first hot air balloons in the late 18th century. Unmanned balloons were sent up into the atmosphere to determine if they were safe for human travel.

rubber chicken circuit

In politics, a “rubber chicken circuit’ is the nickname given to the endless parade of dinners that political candidates must attend during a campaign for office in order to meet donors and raise money.

The term refers to the pre-cooked, stale and unappetizing meals often served at these fundraising dinners. As described in The Guardian, it describes “the abundance of cold drumsticks on the buffet tables.”

The first known use of this term dates back to the 1950s when improvements in transportation made it easier for candidates to travel the city, state or country in which they were running to meet with potential supporters. Perhaps the earliest use is from a 1953 New York Times article: “Pity the poor coach. This is his twenty-first engagement on the ‘rubber chicken circuit’ in the past month and he has to drive 200 miles to the next town after he has finished his pleas for John and the other departing seniors.”

Over the years, countless candidates have hit the “rubber chicken circuit” to pound the flesh, raise money and meet wealthy donors. In 2012, Politico described then Maryland governor, and future presidential candidate, Martin O’ Malley’s appearance at Iowa steak dinner as ‘ramping up his presence on the national rubber-chicken circuit.”

During the lead up to the 2016 presidential race, in describing what Hillary Clinton will have to do to win the Oval Office, the Washington Post noted: “She’s going to have to spend time on the rubber-chicken circuit, looking inquisitive in factories (donning safety goggles as well) and dealing with a whole lot of minutiae.”

The term “rubber chicken circuit” is not just limited to campaigning, but also refers to the spate of high-profile speeches given by former officeholders, as in the case of Newt Gingrich, whose “rubber chicken circuit” speeches are described here in Wired Magazine as earning the former Speaker of the House “$50,000 a pop.”

While the rubber chicken circuit has long been a staple of donor-based campaigning, in more recent years it has become more associated with elitism in the political arena: From a 2020 article from The Independent, quoting Donald Trump, Jr.: “I am not an elitist. Never have been, never wanted to be and certainly never tried to get on the BS rubber chicken dinner circuit,”

Of course, the food served at these countless political dinners is not limited to poultry: the “rubber chicken circuit” is also sometimes referred to as the “mashed potato circuit.”

pork barrel projects

Wasteful government expeditures that lawmakers secure for their local districts in an attempt to gain favor with voters.

The term first came into use as a political term just after the Civil War. It’s derived from the practice of plantations distributing rations of salt pork to slaves from large wooden barrels as a reward or for special occasions

muckraker

A journalist who investigates the scandalous activities of public officials and businesses.

The term “muckraker” was first used in a speech on April 14, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt: “In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; Who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.”

The most famous muckrakers in American history are probably Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their work in exposing the corruption in the Nixon administration.

inside the Beltway

The area inside the Capital Beltway that encircles Washington, D.C.

An issue that is described as “inside the Beltway” is said to be only of concern to the people who work in the federal government and is of little interest to the nation at large.

fishing expedition

In politics, a fishing expedition is a pejorative phrase to describe an investigation that lacks a clear scope and defined purpose. Fishing expeditions are usually carried out by members of one political party looking for damaging information about members of the opposing party. 

On a literal level a fishing expedition involves casting out a line and then reeling in whatever you can; on a metaphorical level, a fishing expedition involves casting about for information that you may be able to use. Merriam Webster notes that the phrase was first used in 1874. 

Nobody ever admits to being on a fishing expedition, of course; instead, the phrase gets flung around as an insult, usually by the person being investigated, or by their allies. 

In March 2019, for example, House Democrats were investigating President Trump for alleged obstruction of justice and abuse of power. After the House requested documents from some of the president’s allies, President Trump tweeted that the investigation was:

The greatest overreach in the history of our Country. The Dems are obstructing justice and will not get anything done. A big, fat, fishing expedition desperately in search of a crime, when in fact the real crime is what the Dems are doing, and have done!

One year earlier, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway promised that the White House would not carry out a “fishing expedition” against the then-nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. Conway told CNN that the White House was investigating allegations of sexual assault and misconduct which had been brought against Kavanaugh, but she pledged that the investigation “will be limited in scope, it’s meant to last one week, and … it’s not meant to be a fishing expedition.”

A few years earlier, Democrats were the ones railing against a “fishing expedition,” which is how many on the left referred to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of the 2012 Benghazi attack. “It is time, and it is time now, for Republicans to end this taxpayer-funded fishing expedition,” asserted Representative Elijah Cummings, during Clinton’s testimony to the Benghazi panel. 

The “fishing expedition” hit an ironic peak in 2017, when Kenneth Starr told CNN that he was concerned that Special Counsel Robert Mueller might be overreaching in his investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Starr is best-known for his role as an independent investigator charged with looking into President Bill Clinton’s alleged crimes, from Whitewater to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. At the time, Starr was widely accused of overreaching his own authority as an investigator.

Decades later, when CNN asked him for his reaction to the news that Mueller’s investigation had impaneled a grand jury, Starr said, “I do think it is a, certainly a serious matter when a special counsel is accused—and I was accused of that—of exceeding his or her authority. That’s a serious matter because we do not want investigators and prosecutors out on a fishing expedition.”

Astroturfing

Astroturfing is an artificially-manufactured political movement designed to give the appearance of grassroots activism.

Campaigns & Elections magazine defined astroturf as a “grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.”

Unlike natural grassroots campaigns which are people-rich and money-poor, an astroturf campaign tends to be the opposite, well-funded but with little actual support from voters.

bully pulpit

bully pulpit

A bully pulpit is a public office or position of authority that provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter.  In theory, the expression could refer to any position of authority. In practice, it is usually used to describe the presidency.

The phrase bully pulpit is attributed to President Theodore Roosevelt, who exclaimed the words in response to critics of his leadership style. Roosevelt said, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit” as he wrote an address to Congress.

Roosevelt often used the adjective “bully” to describe an event or action that was good or entertaining. The noun pulpit refers to a raised stand used for readings during religious ceremonies.

The bully pulpit in Roosevelt’s mind wasn’t about pummeling legislators with presidential authority; rather, he believed the president could encourage the public to push their legislators on behalf of his agenda. Roosevelt, an avid reader and a prolific writer, coined an enduring phrase that would act as a litmus test for future presidents.

The Republican president was a more activist president than fallen successor William McKinley. Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. He intervened in a Pennsylvania coal strike and used executive orders to protect natural resources. Roosevelt remained a popular American figure beyond the end of his time as president with his name invoked during the 1916 and 1920 Republican nominating conventions.

Of course, Theodore Roosevelt was not the first president to use his position as a means of lecturing the American people. Abraham Lincoln was using a bully pulpit when he addressed the nation after the Civil War, urging the American people to move forward “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Public evaluations of the presidency include how officeholders have used the bully pulpit to promote their values and policies. Dwight Eisenhower was noted for staying clear of the bully pulpit, which contributed to his broad popularity over two terms in office. Jimmy Carter has been celebrated for using the fame of a former president to help domestic and international humanitarian organizations. Donald Trump’s use of Twitter and rallies show modern applications of the bully pulpit concept.

As Robert Schlesinger has noted, the bully pulpit has magnified as communications methods reach deeper into American life. The first presidential radio address was given by Warren Harding but Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt showed how the radio could engage the public. Harry Truman gave the first presidential speech on television but Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy showed the medium’s potential. Trump’s frequent use of social media follows earlier efforts by George W. Bush and Barack Obama to harness the Internet for bully pulpit purposes.

Social media has made it easier than ever for presidents to directly address the American people. Analysts have pointed out that President Donald Trump often uses his Twitter account as a kind of digital bully pulpit. The president took to Twitter to air his views during the impeachment hearings, to the dismay of many pundits. He also uses Twitter to discuss foreign policy and defense spending, among other issues. The president has also used Twitter to announce new policy initiatives and to express his opinions of other public figures.

Examples

Washington Post (July 2, 2017): “With the Republican push to revamp the Affordable Care Act stalled again, even some allies of President Trump question whether he has effectively used the bully pulpit afforded by his office and are increasingly frustrated by distractions of his own making.”

Forbes (January 19, 2017): “Properly exercised, the bully pulpit should reflect the leader’s personality, strengthening a natural and genuine extension of the leader’s communications relationship with followers.”

The Atlantic (April 2013): “The people agreed with Obama that the rich should pay more in taxes, agreed with Reagan that everybody should get a tax cut, and agreed with Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security. These presidents didn’t need to move the needle on these issues; all they had to do was marshal support. But the same three presidents, using the same bully-pulpit tactics, failed to win over the people – and the lawmakers – on other fronts.”

caucus

An informal meeting of local party members to discuss candidates and choose delegates to their party’s convention.

The term can also refer to informal groups of Members of the House of Representatives or the Senate used to discuss common issues of concern and conduct policy planning for its members. There are also regional, ideological, and ethnic-based caucuses in Congress.

The term comes from the Algonquian language and means “to meet together.”

William Harris: “The term Caucus is first attested in the diary of John Adams in l763 as a meeting of a small group interested in political matters, but William Gordon’s History of the Independence of the United States of America, 1788 speaks of the establishment of caucus political clubs as going back fifty years earlier than his time of writing in 1774, so a first-occurrence date for the caucus can be estimated in retrospect as early as 1724.”

Congressional Record

The official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress. It is published daily when Congress is in session. At the back of each daily issue is the “Daily Digest,” which summarizes the day’s floor and committee activities.

The Congressional Record is available online from 1994.

dog whistle politics

“Dog whistle politics” refers to the practice of sending out coded political messages, which are designed to be understood only by a narrow target audience.

In their literal form, dog whistles are instruments that emit high-pitched frequencies which only dogs can hear; human beings don’t even register the sound. In their figurative form, dog whistle messages can be heard and understood by members of certain groups, but not by the population at large.

According to Merriam Webster, “dog whistle” was first used figuratively in 1947. That’s when a book called American Economic History described a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as being “designed to be like a modern dog-whistle, with a note so high that the sensitive farm ear would catch it perfectly while the unsympathetic East would hear nothing.” Merriam Webster notes that the expression didn’t become widespread until the mid 1990s.

Today, the term dog whistle is chiefly used to describe coded hateful messages. In society at large, it is not usually acceptable to make racist, sexist, or xenophobic statements. That means that politicians who want to make such statements need to use coded language, or, to put it another way, dog whistles.

In recent years, pundits have accused President Donald Trump of using dog whistles to convey xenophobic and racist messages to his supporters. The president came under heavy criticism when he tweeted that certain Congressional Democrats who “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” should leave the United States instead of criticizing his administration. Trump’s tweet was interpreted by some to be a thinly disguised attack on non-white members of Congress like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, both of whom were born in the United States.

As a presidential candidate, Trump was accused of using racist anti-Semitic dog whistles to subtly empower white nationalists. Analysts argue that Trump’s supporters often picked up on the candidate’s messaging and responded to it by making overtly racist or anti-Semitic statements on social media.

Democratic politicians have also been accused of using dog whistles to covertly shore up support from white voters. Former Sen. Claire McCaskill came under fire after she said that Sen. Bernie Sanders might be too far to the left to win with midwestern voters. Many felt that McCaskill was using “midwestern” as code for “white,” and that she was deliberately setting herself apart from non-white people and Jews. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, has similarly been accused of using “heartland” as a dog whistle to white voters.

Of course, the practice of using dog whistles dates back to well before the 1990s, when the term became widespread. Most analysts agree that Ronald Reagan was using a dog whistle when he spoke about “states’ rights” on a campaign stop in Mississippi, back in 1980. Reagan was, analysts say, appealing to southern segregationists, or, more broadly, to any white voter with racist beliefs. Since racism and xenophobia were already taboo, the only way to appeal directly to racist voters was through coded language, or dog whistles.

lame duck session

When the House or Senate reconvenes in an even-numbered year following the November general elections to consider various items of business. Some lawmakers who return for this session will not be in the next Congress. Hence, they are informally called “lame duck” Members participating in a “lame duck” session.

advice and consent

Under Article II of the United States Constitution, presidential nominations for executive and judicial posts take effect only when confirmed by the U.S. Senate. In addition, international treaties become effective only when the U.S. Senate approves them by a two-thirds vote.

live pair

A “live pair” is an informal voluntary agreement between lawmakers which is not specifically recognized by House or Senate rules.

Live pairs are agreements which Members employ to nullify the effect of absences on the outcome of recorded votes. If a Member expects to be absent for a vote, he or he may “pair off” with another Member who will be present and who would vote on the other side of the question, but who agrees not to vote.

The Member in attendance states that he has a live pair, announces how he and the paired Member would have voted, and then votes “present.” In this way, the other Member can be absent without affecting the outcome of the vote. Because pairs are informal and unofficial arrangements, they are not counted in vote totals; however paired Members’ positions do appear in the Congressional Record.

sine die

Without any future date being designated for resumption from the Latin term meaning “without a day.” An adjournment sine die signifies the end of an annual or special legislative session.

quorum call

quorum call

A quorum call is a procedure used in both houses of Congress to bring to the floor the number of members who must be present for the legislative body to conduct its business.

The quorum call is established in Article I, Section V of the U.S. Constitution:

Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.

Each chamber needs a majority of its members present in order to conduct business. A majority of the U.S. House constitutes at least 218 members, while 51 senators form a quorum in the U.S. Senate. Quorum rules are often applied to local and state legislatures due to their presence in the Constitution and Robert’s Rules of Order.

Quorum calls may be used for their original purpose (“live quorum calls”) or as a delaying tactic (“routine quorum calls”). A representative can trigger a roll call vote in the House using a point of order. The presiding officer takes a headcount and calls a recess if there isn’t a quorum. From 1796 to 1890, the House used the number of votes on each measure to determine if a quorum was present. Speaker Thomas Reed (R) led a change in the chamber’s rules to compel a headcount to avoid votes that fail to reach a quorum.

Senators can raise questions about the chamber’s quorum at any point to force a roll call by the clerk. The chamber may be recessed until a quorum is reached or the sergeant of arms sent to request the presence of a quorum. This tactic can be used to allow time for behind-the-scenes negotiations between the parties. A call can also delay a vote until certain legislators back in the chamber.

Examples

Roll Call (January 31, 2020): “Before the vote, the Senate broke for a quorum call after arguments from each side for and against hearing from witnesses.”

Politico (January 21, 2020): “The chamber went into a brief quorum call to see what the next step is, and when the proceeding restarted it was clear no deal was reached as the Senate proceeded into a debate as long as two hours over subpoenaing Defense Department documents.”

Vox (July 3, 2018): “First, they’d initiate a quorum call or a roll-call vote. This, of course, would require a Democrat to be in the chamber, and perhaps several other Democrats to support a request for a vote or a quorum call.”

 

House Democratic cloakroom

cloakroom

In politics, cloakrooms are spaces adjacent to the chambers of the Senate and the House where politicians from both parties can gather to discuss Congressional business privately. There is a separate cloakroom for each political party. Put simply, a cloakroom is to politics what a breakroom is to a normal office.

Cloakrooms were first established in the late 1800s as actual places for members to store their coats, umbrellas, hats and other apparel, but that usage became obsolete as more office space was built over the years. With the creation of individual offices for members, cloakrooms were converted into places for members to gather to talk about legislation, meet privately to discuss issues facing Congress, make secret deals, or just vent to each other about Congressional matters.

These rooms are closed to everyone except for Senators, Representatives, Senate Pages, some select staffers, and they may even have their own private phone numbers.

An elaboration of life in the cloakroom from CNN: “Floor assistants and cloakroom attendants are among those who work in the rooms. Their duties include alerting lawmakers when votes are coming up, telling them whether the chamber will be open on a snow day and working with pages to deliver messages.”

C-SPAN explained up the cloakroom environment as “food, phones, frivolity, and fights.”

They are noisy, smelly, and cramped spaces. The House cloakrooms both have snack bars (basic diner food, e.g. hot dogs, sandwiches, and soups, and yes, they have to pay), but when they’re still voting late into the night, it’s better than nothing. Senators don’t have snack bars, but Senate catering sends left-over food platters from receptions to the cloakrooms, so there is usually something to nosh on.

All the cloakrooms have old-fashioned phone booths and the cloakroom staff tell Members which numbered booth they can use to take or make a call. There are stacks of flyers from the Whip offices about the floor schedule; from outside groups stating their position about that day’s votes, and copies of leadership Dear Colleague letters to their troops. The furnishings are modest, even a little shabby: large leather lounge chairs, sofas, and many ash-trays because that’s where all the serious smokers hang-out. Talk about a smoke-filled room, the cloakrooms are it! There are wall-mounted television sets and regular tiffs about the remote control. Sometimes sports events are favored over the floor proceedings occurring just on the other side of the door.

And the New York Times described them this way in 1986: “The Republican and Democratic cloakrooms are situated just off the floor of each chamber, and there a handful of men and women scramble to keep the members abreast of activity…”

“Although members of Congress themselves use the rooms a lot less frequently that their predecessors of earlier eras did, many still come around on the House side to take advantage of snack bars in the cloakrooms and occasionally to watch a crucial baseball game specially broadcast into the rooms.”

cloture

“Cloture” is legislative procedural term that refers to a motion or process by which debate is brought to a quick end.

From the French word meaning “the act of terminating something,” cloture is “basically a vote to go ahead on a vote, a procedural oddity of the Senate that allows a majority leader to ‘push past a recalcitrant minority,’” as described in a Pew Research article from 2017.

Simply put, cloture is a “is a blunt tool for managing the Senate,” wrote Brookings Institute’s Sarah Binder four years earlier in The Washington Post.

While it’s true that most legislators would prefer to come to a consensus rather than force an end to floor debate, cloture is a tool that began over 100 years ago under contentious circumstances. The Senate’s own website explains: “In 1841, when the Democratic minority hoped to block a bank bill promoted by Kentucky senator Henry Clay, he threatened to change Senate rules to allow the majority to close debate. Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton rebuked Clay for trying to stifle the Senate’s right to unlimited debate.”

It goes on: “Three quarters of a century later, in 1917, senators adopted a rule (Rule 22), at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, that allowed the Senate to end a debate with a two-thirds majority vote, a device known as ‘cloture.’”

The first time that cloture was actually used was two years later, in 1919, when the Senate invoked the rule to end a filibuster of the Versailles Treaty.

One of the most notable uses of cloture occurred was 45 years later, in order to put an end to a 57-day filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Despite some important uses of cloture, over the decades it became clear that the two-thirds majority needed to invoke it was prohibitive. Indeed, cloture was only successfully used 4 times from 1917 to 1960.

As described here, the rule was finally changed in 1975:

“The majority needed to invoke cloture in the Senate remained two-thirds, or 67 votes, of the 100-member body from the rule’s adoption in 1917 until 1975, when the number of votes needed was reduced to just 60.”

As result of the change to three-fifths, cloture became more common, and was used a record 187 times during the Democrat-controlled 113th Congress, which served during the Obama administration, a period of intense filibustering by Republicans.

While the three-fifth rule for cloture passed in 1975 eased the threshold for invoking the rule, there’s an additional option at the disposal of the Senate, the so-called “nuclear option.”

Famously used by Senate Republicans to speed up Trump administration judicial nominees, the nuclear option allows a cloture vote to pass with a mere majority of Senators. Here’s how it’s characterized by Politico: “The nuclear option — a change of the Senate rules by a simple majority — gained its name because it was seen as an explosive maneuver that would leave political fallout for some time to come.”

Cloture, and its use to end objections to certain legislation or approvals of nominees, remains a lightning rod to this day, a contentious and highly partisan tool of the U.S. Senate.

filibuster

An informal term for any attempt to block or delay U.S. Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.

From the Senate Historical Office: “Using the filibuster to delay or block legislative action has a long history. The term filibuster — from a Dutch word meaning ‘pirate’ — became popular in the 1850s, when it was applied to efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent a vote on a bill.

In the early years of Congress, representatives as well as senators could filibuster. As the House of Representatives grew in numbers, however, revisions to the House rules limited debate. In the smaller Senate, unlimited debate continued on the grounds that any senator should have the right to speak as long as necessary on any issue.”

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) holds the record for the longest filibuster in his attempt to block the 1957 Civil Rights bill. Though he held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes, the bill passed just two hours after he stopped talking.