Decoding Policy Jargon

A sign on a fence reading, "All wagons MUST BE SHEETED."
Two perfectly intelligible signs without one bit of industry jargon. Credit: Gwydion M. Williams

The poets seldom write about short-term CRs. Full committee markups and community directed spending (a spiffed up way of saying earmarks) are also notably absent from the poetic canon.

Uninspired though legislative language may be, it can actually have some bearing on us. So let's open wide the Plain English dictionary to find out what some of this policy jargon means.

Short-Term CR (continuing resolution): Congress funds our federal government – from Yosemite National Park and air traffic controllers to food safety inspectors at meatpacking plants and OSHA inspectors in workplaces – in one-year increments that normally start October 1st and end September 30.

Recently, factions of Congress have been so busy professionalizing chaos that they haven't had a spare moment to get this funding across the finish line in time.

So in walks the continuing resolution, meaning Congress resolves to continue funding at the current level. A short-term CR could be one week, which is usually a tool to hash out differences on a proper one-year funding bill. If differences are sticky, a few short-term CRs might be in order. A longer term CR could be for one year.

CRs aren't a high art form. Each year brings its own unique issues - wildfires, doors blowing off airplanes, fentanyl overdoses, famines - that deserve a tailored funding response: bump ups in some programs, bump downs in others. CRs don't really do that. They are typically a blunt tool to prevent government shutdowns.

There can be a strategy to CRs. If one party loses the majority, they might want a CR to keep funding the government at the levels they set.

Appropriations (or approps): Since policy jargon takes pride in making the simple complex, let's think of appropriation as the word "funding" with a suit and tie on. So those funding bills (or CRs) that keep the government open? Those are appropriations bills.

For our purposes, there are two types of bills in Congress and statehouses: authorizations and appropriations (we'll focus on the state and federal level today, since it can play out differently on the local level).

Authorization bills make or change policy; a state senator has an authorizing bill requiring that all student IDs have the state suicide hotline on them, say. Appropriations bills provide (or don't) funding for that. You can authorize until the cows come home, but if you don't have appropriations to pay for it, no dice.

So appropriators are top bananas in legislatures, especially in Congress where a rockbottom 2% of bills are passing, and a chunk of those are for-Pete's-sakes-keep-the-government-open approps bills.

How can you tell if a legislator is an appropriator or an authorizer? Appropriators sit on the Appropriations Committee. Authorizers sit on subject matter Committees: the Agriculture Committee, the Judiciary Committee, etc. Some legislators sit on both.

Committee names vary between states - in Oregon, the Approps Committee is the Finance & Revenue Committee. And between the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate (complexity, thy name is Congress): the House has the Ways and Means Committee, the Senate has the Finance Committee. You say potato, I say poTAHto.

Why not see if your state legislators, U.S. Senators or House Member are appropriators. If they are, they're prime folks to ask for funding plus ups in programs you like (or reductions in programs you dislike). No clue who your legislators are? No finer day than this one to find out! Just click here.

Pass (or approve): This workaday word is probably familiar to most of us, but what's key is what body passes a bill. For not all passes are created equal.

A quick refresher on how a bill becomes a law (which few bills do): a bill is introduced -> referred to a Committee -> passes out of Committee -> passes one chamber -> passes the other chamber -> President/governor signs it into law.

There are a 99 caveats to this, but that's the quick and dirty. So let's pluck out a few headlines to decode what pass means in context.

"House Passes Bill That Could Lead to TikTok Ban." The bill's the law of the land, right?

Not so! Only the House passed it; a bill needs to pass both chambers before heading to the Big Boss's desk. If the bill had passed both chambers, the headline would read more like, "Congress Passes TikTok Ban." (Though it still needs to be signed into law by the President.)

"$1T Infrastructure Bill Passes Key Test Vote." This is about the bill that became the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passing a gnarly Senate floor vote that led to...another floor vote. Then a few more. After which the bill was hurled back to the House for another round of votes.

Headlines like "moves closer" or "clears hurdle" signal that a bill has passed a preliminary stage of the legislative process (often passed out of Committee).

So for a bill we care about, lift up the hood under the headline to see who passed it: Subcommittee, Committee, one chamber, both chambers, etc. Then read the article where there's usually a line to the tune of, "The bill now goes to the floor/Senate/back to the House/etc for a vote." This gives us an idea of who the next set of powerbrokers are in determining the bill's fate, should we want to reach out.

The word "jargon" comes, fittingly, from "unintelligible talk, gibberish; chattering, jabbering." The more we can make unintelligible policy jargon intelligible, the more power we can have to take intelligent policy action.

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