Key Takeaways

  • Along with your member of Congress, there are support staff that assist them during their term in office. 

  • People who work on Capitol Hill also use specialized language and terminology.

  • If you want to be an effective public policy advocate, you need to be familiar with these roles, how you might interact with them, along with some commonly used terms.

Each member of Congress (member) has staff to assist them during a term in office. Offices are typically designed to be effective and efficient in addressing their constituents’ needs.

Chief of Staff: The Chief of Staff reports directly to the member of Congress, and usually is responsible for evaluating the political outcome of various legislative proposals and constituent requests. They are also usually in charge of overall office operations, including the assignment of work and the supervision of key staff. A similar leadership role in a Congressional State or District Office is held by a Staff Director.

Legislative Director, Legislative Assistant/Aide, Legislative Correspondent: The Legislative Director (LD) is usually the staff person who oversees the member’s policy priorities and legislative agenda, identifying opportunities to advance key proposals and advise the member’s positions on pending legislation. In most congressional offices, the day-to-day work on policy issues is divided among several Legislative Assistants/Aides (LAs). For example, depending on the responsibilities and interests of the member, an office may include a different Legislative Assistant for health issues, seniors issues, appropriations, etc. Legislative Correspondents (LCs) are junior staffers, typically not directly responsible for specific issue areas, who support LAs and have responsibility for constituent communications.

Scheduler or Appointment/Personal Secretary: The Scheduler is usually responsible for allocating a member’s time among the many demands that arise from congressional responsibilities, staff requirements, and constituent requests. They may also be responsible for making necessary travel arrangements, arranging speaking dates, coordinating visits to the district, etc. Some offices have a separate State or District Office Scheduler to manage the demands of a member’s schedule during Recesses and other times away from the Nation’s Capital.

Caseworker: The Caseworker is the staff member assigned to help with constituent requests, typically focused on helping to resolve problems constituents present in relation to federal agencies, e.g., Social Security and Medicare issues, veteran’s benefits, passports, etc. There are often several Caseworkers in a Congressional office, and they typically work in the State or District Offices.

Terms and Definitions Used on the Hill

People who work on Capitol Hill use some specialized language and terminology. If you want to be an effective public policy advocate, you need to be familiar with some of the commonly used terms.

Appropriations bill: A bill passed by Congress that provides the legal authority for annual federal discretionary spending. There are 12 regular annual appropriations bills, each one covering hundreds of programs or line items. The Senate and House Appropriations Committees each have separate Subcommittees that write the individual bills. In the event that unforeseen additional, often emergency, funding needs to be approved, Congress will also craft supplemental appropriations legislation.

Authorization bill: A bill passed by Congress that provides authority for a program or agency to exist and sets guidelines for its policies and activities. The bill may recommend spending levels for programs, but they are not binding. Generally, an authorization must be enacted before an appropriation is made for a program or agency, or for some mandatory spending to continue, though exceptions regularly occur. Most authorizations are multi-year, and subsequent versions are called reauthorizations or extentions.

Budget resolution: An annual Congressional document that provides a broad framework for federal spending for the upcoming year as well as long-term projections. The resolution sets the overall funding limit for the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the government, and in some cases sets reconciliation instructions. The Budget is not a law, but its assumptions and statements are a basis for future decisions, and its spending ceilings impose restrictions on the actions of Congressional committees.

Cloture: A process for ending debate in the Senate to allow a bill to be subject to a vote. Unlike the House, Senate rules permit unlimited debate on legislation; therefore, a single Senator has the power to delay floor action indefinitely (filibuster). At least 60 Senators most vote to invoke closure to end debate. With the current 50-50 split between the two parties, cloture, and hence, passing legislation is usually difficult to achieve.

Conference committee: A group of officially appointed Representatives and Senators that works out the differences between the versions of a given bill passed by the two chambers. Its leaders are the chairs and ranking minority members of the committees that wrote the bill in each chamber. Once agreed on, the conference committee report and the compromise legislation goes back to each chamber for final passage. Some conference committees leave much of the work to staff (who may “pre-conference” a bill before the conferees are appointed), and the committee is only convened when final approval is needed to advance the legislation.

Continuing Resolution (CR): A bill passed by Congress as a stop-gap when the new fiscal year begins. The CR sets continued spending levels for a specified period of time if any regular appropriations bill has not been signed into law. Often the CR continues spending at the previous year’s levels, though it may be at levels marked up by appropriations subcommittees.

Cosponsor: A Senator or Representative who formally lists his/her name as a supporter of another member’s bill. This is generally – but not always – done before committee debate and approval (markup) of the legislation.

Discretionary spending: Government spending enacted by annual appropriations. A government agency cannot spend more than the total appropriated for a discretionary program in a given fiscal year. Discretionary spending is split betweendefense  and non-defense activities. Non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending includes funding for: education, community and economic development, transportation, housing, national parks, energy, and, of course, the Older Americans Act and other programs serving older adults and their families. In 2019, NDD spending totaled $661 billion, or 14 percent of all federal spending.

Fiscal Year: The official year for the government runs from October 1 through September 30.

Mandatory spending: Sometimes called entitlement spending or nondiscretionary spending. These are government programs for which spending occurs automatically for as long as they are authorized. As events unfold and people qualify, the government allocates the money needed. The largest mandatory programs, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and payment on interest on the federal debt, are permanent mandatory programs. Some mandatory programs require an extension of their authorizations, such as SNAP and MIPPA, for spending to continue.

Markup: A business meeting of a subcommittee or full committee to debate, amend and approve a bill for further action in the chamber. A bill approved in a committee markup session advances to a vote by the full chamber.

Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO): Budgeting rules that require that most new spending (including revenue reductions due to tax cuts) is offset by corresponding spending cuts or increased revenues. Congress can waive PAYGO rules, as it did with, the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act of 2010, which automatically exempted over 150 programs, funds and activities.

Reconciliation: A complicated part of the Congressional budget process  which, in essence, is supposed to direct legislative changes in order to cut spending. Because reconciliation bills are not subject to a 60-vote cloture requirement in the Senate, and thus can move forward with only 51 votes, reconciliation is sometimes favored as a vehicle for moving complex or partisan legislation. Recent examples include health care reform and tax cuts. A reconciliation bill passed by is subject to a Presidential veto, similar to other legislation.

Scoring: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzes every bill and determines the effective cost of the proposed legislation. The score that CBO gives a bill may shape its future, e.g. whether it will attract cosponsors and whether the relevant committee chairman will hold a markup session.

Subcommittees and committees: All members of Congress serve on committees. Every member of a subcommittee is also a member of the full committee to which the subcommittee reports. All committees and subcommittees are chaired by someone from the majority party in that chamber, and they all (with minor exceptions) have a majority of members from the majority party. The lead member from the minority party is designated the ranking member. Traditionally, much of the work done to advance legislation, including hearings and markups, occurred at the subcommittee level before advancing to the full committee. In recent years, subcommittee leaders still lead the committee work and debate, but work tends to occur only at the full committee level to expedite legislative activity.