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Glossary of terms

January 12, 2001
Web posted at: 4:23 PM EST (2123 GMT)

Bicameral -- a legislature made up of two houses.

Bipartisan -- of, consisting of or supported by members of two parties, especially two major political parties.

Cabinet -- a body of persons appointed by a head of state or a prime minister to head the executive departments of the government and to act as official advisers.

Capitol Hill -- a hill in Washington where the Capitol building sits and Congress meets.

Checks and balances -- a system that gives each branch the means to restrain the powers of the other two.

Concurrent powers -- powers held jointly by the federal and state government.

Congress -- the national legislative body of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Conservative -- traditionally, a person who prefers stability or the status quo vs. rapid and extensive changes in all aspects of society. Today, a political conservative in America usually believes in the limited authority of government, greater power to the states instead of the federal government, lower taxes and less government spending. On social issues, most conservatives are opposed to abortion and gun control legislation, while supporting the death penalty and tougher laws against criminal behavior.

Delegated powers -- powers granted to the federal government.

Democracy -- government of the people, by the people and for the people. In other words, a political system that is characterized by protected individual rights/liberties against government interference, equality under the law, free, frequent and competitive elections, majority rule and respect for the minority.

Economic advisers -- experts in the field of economics who are appointed by the president, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Elastic clause -- a clause that allows Congress to exert its powers in ways not specifically outlined in the Constitution. For example, Congress has the power to pass laws relating to new technology that may affect other items covered in the Constitution, such as commerce. This is how the government stretches the Constitution to fit the changing times.

Electors -- individuals who actually vote for the president and vice president after the popular vote totals have been established in each state on Election Day in November. Presidential electors are normally prominent political figures in each state who have pledged to support a party's ticket before the election. When citizens cast their popular votes in a presidential election, they are actually voting for these individual electors. A few electors in the past have actually changed their minds when they vote in their respective state capitals in December, but this has not changed an election's outcome.

Executive branch -- the branch of government that sees that laws are carried out.

Executive privilege -- the principle that members of the executive branch of government cannot legally be forced to disclose their confidential communications when such disclosure would adversely affect the operations or procedures of the executive branch.

Federal -- of or describing a constitutionally delineated union of states having a central government. In the American system, a federal union is ultimately based upon national supremacy but is also a political arrangement that reserves powers to the states.

Federalism -- division of power between a strong central government and state governments.

GOP -- letters that stand for Grand Old Party, the nickname of the Republican Party.

House/House of Representatives -- the lower house of the U.S. Congress (and of most state legislatures). The number elected by each state depends on the state's population.

Impeachment -- the process of bringing charges against the president.

Inauguration -- the formal induction into office.

Independent -- a candidate/voter not belonging to or identifying with either of the two major political parties. The number of independent voters has increased substantially in recent decades, as electoral allegiance to the two major parties has waned among Americans.

Judicial branch -- the branch of government that interprets and applies the laws.

Legislative branch -- the lawmaking branch of the U.S. federal government.

Liberal -- today, an individual who generally believes in the power of an activist federal government to resolve society's many domestic problems, protect the interests of the poor and improve the lives of individual citizens through specific governmental programs.

Nonpartisan -- a term that generally refers to a candidate, cause or election that is not directly connected to a specific political party. For example, nonpartisan elections are frequently employed in choosing local and state judges.

Override -- to overrule.

Partisan -- in general terms, a strong, often emotional supporter (an individual or group) of a person or cause. In political terms, an election that is essentially a contest between the candidates of rival parties.

Party -- an organization of like-minded individuals that wishes to recruit appealing candidates, win elections, operate the machinery of government and influence public policy. Political parties exist at the local, state and national levels of government.

Public -- of or having to do with the people as a whole.

Ratified -- formal approval by voters or other persons of proposed policies, laws or decisions.

Referendum -- the legal process of submitting to the voters proposed state laws, local policies or constitutional amendments for their approval or rejection.

Reserved powers -- powers retained by state government.

Secretary of defense -- the principal defense policy adviser to the president who is responsible for the formulation of general defense policy and policy related to all matters of direct concern to the Department of Defense, and for the execution of approved policy. Under the direction of the president, the secretary exercises authority, direction and control over the Department of Defense.

Senate -- the upper house of the U.S. Congress to which two members are elected from each state by popular vote for a six-year term.

Separation of powers -- allocation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branch of government; prevents any one branch from becoming too powerful.

Sound bite -- in the reporting of TV news, a very short statement, lasting no more than a few seconds, that tries to convey a specific idea, image or perception that will attract the viewing audience's attention.

State of the Union address -- a formal speech given by a U.S. president in the beginning of a new year that was historically addressed to Congress but now is televised for public viewing. In that address, the president expresses his philosophy relative to the governance of the nation and sets forth the most pressing and important matters facing the nation.

Supremacy clause -- a clause that was added to the Constitution that clearly ranks the U.S. Constitution and all federal laws above state constitutions and state laws: "This Constitution, and the laws … and all treaties…of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land."

Unbiased -- without favor or blame; objective. Note that in political life, it is difficult to be totally objective, since politics involves the selection of choices that reflect personal values and ideologies.

Veto -- disapproval by the president (or governor or mayor) of a bill or joint resolution (other than one proposing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution). When the president vetoes a bill, he sends it back to the house of origin along with a message stating his objections. From the Latin term veto that means "I forbid." A two-thirds override vote by the members present in both the House and Senate is needed for a vetoed bill to become a law in spite of the presidential objection. It is difficult for Congress to override a presidential veto.

Source: "The American Nation" by Paul Boyer ( Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2001)

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