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Glossary of Terms



Accountability means that the government in a democracy is responsible to the people for its actions. This responsibility is primarily ensured by periodic public elections through which the people choose their representatives in government. If those elected to represent the people are insufficiently responsive to them, they are likely to be rejected at the next election and replaced by others who promise greater accountability.

Both elected and appointed officials in government are held accountable to the people by laws that regulate their actions. These laws limit the government’s use of power in order to protect the people from abuse. There also are laws that require transparency or openness in government so that the people may readily have information necessary to evaluate the performance of their elected and appointed officials.

The mass media of communication, such as newspapers, television, radio, and websites, provide the public with information about the performance of government. Laws that protect freedom of speech and of the press are therefore foundations of accountability in a democracy. In particular, the mass media regularly conduct public opinion polls to measure the people’s approval or disapproval of particular representatives or of the government in general. Thus, independent and privately owned media outlets provide the people and their representatives with information that prompts accountability by the government to the governed.

Some democratic governments, such as those in Sweden, Lithuania, and Estonia, include the office of ombudsman, an appointed official who responds directly to individuals with a grievance against the government and who is empowered to seek resolutions of complaints. Most democracies also include agencies that regularly conduct evaluations of the performances of different parts of the government and communicate their findings to the public.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Acid Rain

Also called acid precipitation or acid deposition, acid rain is precipitation containing harmful amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids formed primarily by sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned. It can be wet precipitation (rain, snow or fog) or dry precipitation (absorbed gaseous and particulate matter, aerosol particles or dust).

U.S. Department of Energy

Advice and Consent

Article II of the Constitution provides that Presidents may nominate judges and high-level executive branch officers and negotiate treaties with the "advice and consent of the Senate." The Constitution is clear about what constitutes "consent" (it requires a majority of the Senate to approve a nominee and two-thirds of the Senate to consent to a treaty) but ambiguous on "advice," leading to frequent quarrels with Presidents who acted without consulting with the Senate. The House plays no role in the advice and consent process.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


Something that has been declared, claimed, asserted or charged but not fully proved. Frequently used to describe legal charges that have been brought against a suspect who has not yet been tried in court, as in "Karpov allegedly murdered his wife in April after receiving word from an anonymous source that she lived a secret double life."

Alternative Minimum Tax

A special tax passed in 1969 targeting 155 high-income households that had, because of various deductions and credits, paid little to no tax that year. The AMT provides for tax rates of between 25 and 27 percent on taxpayers who have particularly large deductions.


A diplomatic official who serves as the representative of his or her government to another sovereign state or an international organization.

Amendment Process

Article V of the Constitution specifies that the Constitution can be modified but the process to change the charter has only occurred 27 times. Amendments can be proposed in one of two ways: passed by a two-thirds majority of Congress or when two-thirds of the states call for a national constitutional convention to make the change. Once the amendment is proposed, three-fourths of the state legislatures or state conventions must approve or ratify the change.


An appropriation is an amount of money designated for a specific purpose by the legislature in a state or federal budget process. In Congress, both the House and Senate have Appropriation Committees, which are responsible for designating how and when money may be spent by the federal government. The committees' designations are referred to as appropriations.


A person who has the authority to make a decision, judge or settle a dispute.


Left to chance or a person's judgment or preference; not based on rules or criteria.

Attorney General

The attorney general of the United States is the head of the Department of Justice and the federal government’s chief law enforcement officer, responsible for representing and advising the government in legal matters and overseeing the administration of federal laws. The office was established by the Judiciary Act of 1789, and attorney generals are nominated by the president and confirmed by Congress. U.S. states, commonwealths and territories have attorney generals as well; their authority includes enforcing state (or territory) laws, prosecuting state civil suits, proposing legislation and representing the state in court proceedings.


An official responsible for examining and verifying financial records.


Authority in a democracy, which is based on consent of the people, is distinct from authoritarianism. An authoritarian government exercises power on other grounds of legitimacy. For example, authoritarian justifications for legitimacy to rule have been aristocratic birth or the sanction of a supreme being (which is commonly known as the "divine right" to rule). In an authoritarian government, the military and police are commanded by rulers who are not directly accountable to the people they rule.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


Authority is the legitimate use of power by rulers over the individuals they rule. It is a government's justification for exercising power over the people within its jurisdiction. The people are willing to accept the power of rulers to command them if they perceive that this power has been acquired and used rightfully or legitimately.

When rulers have authority to use power through government, the consequence is political order and stability among the people. When rulers use power without authority, they may be resisted by the ruled, leading either to oppression by rulers over the ruled or to disorder and instability.

In a democracy, the source of authority or legitimacy for government is the consent of the people, who believe that their rulers have the right to exercise certain powers over them. This legitimacy of government in a democracy is based on the people's election of representatives in the government. If the people believe their rulers have been elected fairly, then they are likely to accept their authority and consent to the government that they control. All the power of military and police forces in a democracy is under the control of civilian authorities accountable to the people at large.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Average Tax Rate

The average tax rate is calculated by dividing the total amount of taxes paid by total income. Under 2006 U.S. law, for example, the rate on taxable income up to $7,500 is 10 percent, and the rate on taxable income between $7,500 and $30,650 is 15 percent. A person with $20,000 in taxable income would thus pay 10 percent on the first $7,500 of income (or $755) and 15 percent on the remaining $12,500 (or $1,875), for a total of $2,650 paid. Dividing the total taxes by the total income, one gets an average tax rate of 13.25 percent.

An average tax rate will usually be lower than a marginal tax rate, or the rate of tax paid on the last dollar earned. For those with extremely high incomes, average and marginal tax rates will be close to equal.


Ballot Initiative

A ballot initiative is a form of direct democracy in which citizens have the opportunity to propose and petition for new laws. Citizens may draft legislation and petition to get it on the ballot, and then voters decide whether it passes. A ballot initiative may also be a referendum vote to approve or reject laws passed by the legislature. Every state permits ballot initiatives, but the methods for proposing one vary.


A unit of volume equal to 42 U.S. gallons, used to measure oil.

U.S. Department of Energy


This is a draft of a law that is introduced by a legislator (called the bill’s sponsor). In Congress, a bill is introduced in either the House or Senate and then considered by a legislative committee. If it passes committee, it then goes to the full House or Senate for debate and a vote for or against the bill. A bill must pass both houses of Congress by a majority vote and any differences in language in the House and Senate versions must be resolved for the bill to be sent to the president. A bill becomes law if the president signs it; the president may also veto the bill.


Liquid fuels and blending components produced from biomass feedstocks, such as sugar cane, switchgrass, wood chips or solid waste.


This refers to cooperation between members of different political parties in order to address and resolve issues or pass legislation.


Bonds are assets that pay a fixed rate of return and are issued by large organizations, such as governments, companies or banks. Governments and other organizations issue bonds in order to raise capital; they are essentially borrowing money from those who purchase the bonds and agreeing to pay back that amount, with interest, at a later, set date. Stocks can yield a much higher return on investment than bonds, but bonds are less risky. Some types of bonds also pay interest over time, providing a periodic, reliable return.

British Thermal Unit

The quantity of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 pound of liquid water by 1 degree Fahrenheit at the temperature at which water has its greatest density (approximately 39 degrees Fahrenheit). Used as a measure of how much energy a source can provide.

U.S. Department of Energy


A budget is an annual statement that outlines expected revenue and the appropriation of that revenue for programs and expenses. In the U.S. federal government, the budget is passed by Congress.

Budget Deficit

A deficit is what results when a government (or other entity) spends more than it takes in, an act that often is called “deficit spending.” The deficit for any given year should not be confused with the national debt, which is the total amount owed by the government.



A formal collection of advisers to the president of the United States. Article II of the U.S. Constitution calls for executive-branch departments to be created by law when they might be needed. The heads of these departments and the vice president are all cabinet members. Under President George W. Bush, cabinet-level rank also has been accorded to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the director of National Drug Control Policy and the U.S. Trade Representative.

Capital Gains Tax

This is the tax assessed on capital gains, which are the profits realized on the sale of an asset (e.g., a house, a business or a stock) that was purchased at a lower price. Such profits generally are taxed at regular income tax rates if the asset was held for less than a year and at 15 percent for assets that have been held for longer than one year.

Carbon Dioxide

A colorless, odorless, non-poisonous gas that is a normal part of Earth's atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a product of fossil-fuel combustion as well as other processes. It is considered a greenhouse gas as it traps heat (infrared energy) radiated by Earth into the atmosphere and thereby contributes to the potential for global warming. The global warming potential of other greenhouse gases is measured in relation to that of carbon dioxide, which by international scientific convention is assigned a value of one (1).

U.S. Department of Energy

Carbon Sequestration

Carbon sequestration is the fixation of atmospheric carbon dioxide so it is not released into the atmosphere. The term is most frequently used in discussions of how to capture CO2 emitted by coal-fired power plants in order to slow global warming. Injection of captured CO2 is being tried deep in the ocean, in depleted oil and gas fields, and in underground saline aquifers.


This is a derogatory term coined during Reconstruction that referred to Northerners moving to the South after the Civil War to seek political power or fortune by taking advantage of the unstable postwar situation. The term is derived from “carpetbag,” a small suitcase, made of pieces of carpet, in which travelers in the 1800s carried their possessions. Today, carpetbagger is usually used to describe a politician who seeks office shortly after moving to the location where he or she is running.

Case Law

Law established by judicial decisions as distinguished from law created by legislation.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

Cases and Controversies Requirement

The requirement in Article III of the Constitution that the federal courts hear only those disputes which are actually presented to the court and which involve actual disagreements and harm to the parties. The requirement is intended to keep the federal courts from hearing hypothetical cases and avoid unnecessary court rulings.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide


Generally, a caucus is a meeting of a political party’s members to choose candidates for office or to form policy. In presidential politics, an informal caucus is a meeting in which potential voters and candidates talk about issues, and then voters decide which candidate they support and which delegates to send to their political party’s convention. In a layered caucus system, loyal party activists decide which candidate they support and select delegates to county meetings, who then select new delegates to state meetings, who then decide which delegates will go to national nominating conventions to select a candidate. The most well-known presidential caucus is the Iowa caucus, which, prior to the 2024 election, was the first test for both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates.

Another use of the term "caucus" refers to a group of legislators who convene to discuss particular issues or pursue common objectives. There are many caucuses in Congress, from the well-known, such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Senate Women’s Caucus, to the more obscure, such as the Congressional Kidney Caucus.


A centrist is a person or group that takes positions on policy issues that are neither liberal nor conservative, but rather in between. Centrists are also known as moderates.


This is the term used for the official rooms in the Capitol in which the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate meet. Each body has its own chamber in which to debate and vote on legislation.

Checks and Balances

Power is divided among the three branches of the federal government and the states, each of which checks - that is, restrains - and balances the others. By dividing power, the Constitution pitted the ambitions of one branch against the others to keep any one part of the government from becoming all-powerful and tyrannical. The branches share certain powers but also exercise some exclusive powers.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

That member of the Supreme Court who is in charge of court administration and proceedings and presides over both public and private meetings of the Court. Like other members of the Court, the chief justice is appointed to that position by the president upon good behavior (for a life term unless impeached for high crimes or misdeameanors). The chief justice assigns who on the court is to write the opinion if the chief is in the majority and presides over an impeachment trial of the president in the Senate.


To quote or refer as a precedent or authority.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web


A citizen is a full and equal member of a political community, such as a country or nation-state. Such membership is a necessary condition for the establishment and maintenance of a democracy. The citizens are “the people” to whom a democratic government is accountable.

In most countries, the status of a natural citizen is derived primarily or even exclusively from one’s parents; if the parents are citizens, then their children automatically become citizens. If one does not have a birthright to citizenship either through one’s parents or place of birth, there usually are legal procedures by which a person can become a naturalized citizen of a country. A country’s constitution and the laws based on it specify the means for obtaining the status of citizen. For example, the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

In a democracy, all citizens, both natural and naturalized, are equal before the law and have the same fundamental rights, duties, and responsibilities.

All citizens have a common civic identity based on their freely given consent to basic principles and values of their country’s constitutional democracy. In countries with great religious, racial, or ethnic diversity, a common civic identity among all citizens is the tie that binds them together under their constitutional and democratic government.

A passport is evidence of a person’s status as a citizen of a particular nation. A citizen of one country usually needs a passport to enter and depart legally from another country.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


Citizenship is the legal relationship between citizens and their government and country. Citizens owe their government loyalty, support, and service. The government owes the citizens the protection of constitutionally guaranteed rights to life, liberty, property, and equal justice under law.

The rights of citizenship are set forth in the constitution of a democratic government, which may distinguish between the rights of citizens and noncitizens within the country. For example, in the United States, only citizens have the right to vote, serve on juries, and be elected to certain offices of the government, and only a natural-born citizen can become President. Most other constitutional rights are guaranteed to citizens and noncitizens alike.

Citizenship in a democracy entails serious responsibilities. For example, good citizens in a democracy exhibit civic engagement, which means they are ready, willing, and able to use their constitutionally protected political rights to advance the common good. Citizens are expected to be loyal and patriotic, to assume responsibility for the defense of their country against internal and external threats or attacks. Citizenship also entails certain duties, such as paying taxes, serving on juries when summoned, joining the country’s armed forces if drafted, and obeying the laws.

In the world today, citizenship is the fundamental condition that connects individuals to the protective institutions of a democratic government and provides the means through which they can participate politically and civically in their governance. The rights, responsibilities, and duties of citizenship in a democracy have practical meaning today only within a particular kind of political order, a constitutional democracy. Only within the authority of a democratically governed country are there dependable institutional means to enforce constitutional guarantees of rights.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Civic Education

Democracy depends upon the competent participation of its citizens in government and civil society. This can only happen when the people are educated for citizenship in a democracy. Therefore, all democratic countries provide formal and informal opportunities for civic education, or teaching and learning about citizenship. Formal civic education is carried out through the curriculum of schools, and informal civic education occurs through the interaction of individuals in various societal organizations.

Civic education is teaching the knowledge, skills, and virtues needed for competent citizenship in a democracy. Unlike despotic forms of government in which the people are merely passive receivers of orders from their rulers, democracy involves a significant measure of independent thinking and popular decision-making. A democracy cannot be maintained unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to carry out certain duties and responsibilities of a self-governing people, such as voting intelligently, communicating effectively about public issues, cooperating with others to solve common problems, and making judgments about the performance of their government.

Wherever in the world democracy exists, schools are expected to prepare students for citizenship through civic education. The society outside the school also provides lifelong opportunities for civic education through the mass media and by participation in community service organizations and political parties.

The primary component of civic education is imparting the knowledge needed for citizens’ informed participation in their democracy. Informed citizens have basic knowledge of such subjects as history, economics, geography, and government or political science. They comprehend core concepts of democracy, the constitution and institutions of democracy in their own country, and public issues in the past and present pertaining to the practice of democracy.

A second component of civic education is developing the intellectual and practical skills that enable citizens to use knowledge effectively as they act individually and collectively in the public life of their democracy. These skills include the capacities of citizens to read, write, and speak effectively; to think critically; and to make and defend sound judgments about public issues. Skills of thinking and participating, in combination with civic knowledge, enable citizens with common interests to influence the decisions of their representatives in government.

A third component of civic education is encouraging the virtues that dispose citizens positively to the ideals and principles of their democracy. Examples of these civic virtues are civility, honesty, charity, compassion, courage, loyalty, patriotism, and self-restraint. These character traits prompt citizens to contribute to the well-being of their community and democracy.

Civic education is needed to maintain democracy, because citizens fit for self-government are made, not born. The preservation of democracy in any country requires that each generation of the people learn what their democracy is, how to participate responsibly and effectively in it, and why they should try to keep and improve it.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Civil Law

The body of law dealing with the private rights of individuals, as opposed to the criminal law.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

Civil Liberties

The basic individual rights of all citizens, as expressed in the Bill of Rights and reinforced by the 14th Amendment. These include such liberties as freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly; freedom from unreasonable search and seizure; and the right to privacy.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution

Civil Rights

Freedom from discrimination, particularly by race, but also by gender, religion, age, ethnicity, physical ability and sexuality. The constitutional basis of civil rights is centered in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution

Civil Society

Civil society is the network of voluntary associations, or nongovernmental organizations, that are separate from the institutions of the government but subject to the rule of law. Apart from the government, civil society is a private domain that serves the public good. Some examples of the nongovernmental organizations that comprise civil society are independent labor unions, churches and other formal religious organizations, professional and business associations, private schools, community service clubs, and the privately owned media (independent newspapers, radio stations, television stations, websites). Persons in a constitutional democracy are free to belong simultaneously to many nongovernmental organizations. Thus, they may freely associate with like-minded persons to promote mutual interests.

A vibrant civil society is an indicator of good civic behavior in a constitutional democracy. It shows that many citizens are willing to donate their time, energy, and money in order to improve their community. It also demonstrates that citizens are using their constitutional rights to freedom of association, assembly, speech, and the press. Through their civic participation in nongovernmental organizations, individuals develop the knowledge, skills, and virtues of citizenship in a democracy. Thus, the voluntary associations of civil society are community laboratories in which citizens learn democracy by doing it.

The maintenance of a lively civil society depends upon constitutionalism. The constitutional government in a democracy is the guarantor of the individual’s rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association, which are necessary to the formation and independent actions of civil society organizations. And the rule of law emanating from the constitution is the basis for public safety and order, which in turn enable civil society organizations to function and thrive. Civil society organizations, however, are not only protected by constitutionalism, but they are also protectors of it. Dynamic networks of free and independent nongovernmental organizations, including free and independent media, have resources that enable them to resist despotic tendencies of the government.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his classic work Democracy in America about the tension that exists between free civil associations and government:

An association for political, commercial or manufacturing purposes, or even for those of science and literature, is a powerful and enlightened member of the community . . . which, by defending its own rights against the encroachments of government, saves the common liberties of the country.

Civil society is an opponent of despotic tendencies in government and an ally of genuine constitutional democracy. Free and private civil associations often act in harmony with governmental institutions, but they also tend to check an abusive or liberty-threatening exercise of state power. Thus, the nongovernmental organizations that constitute civil society can collectively be a countervailing force against a government that tries to nullify the constitutional liberties of its people.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Class Action

A lawsuit brought by one person or group on behalf of all persons who have the same interests in the litigation and whose rights or liabilities can be more efficiently determined as a group than in a series of individual suits.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web


When a candidate gets votes because of another candidate's popularity; riding or coasting on the success of others.


A set of rules, adopted by a local government or administrative agency, arranged by subject matter. These codes cover a wide variety of issues, such as overgrown weeds and abandoned vehicles. They also provide regulation for building construction, fire prevention, historic preservation, health and sanitation, and various business activities, just to name a few.

Code of Federal Regulations

The Code of Federal Regulations is a document that codifies all rules of the executive departments and agencies of the federal government. The CFR runs to 50 volumes, known as titles, that are generally divided by subject. For instance, Title 40 of the CFR (referenced as 40 CFR) lists all environmental regulations.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Commander in Chief

The power given to the president in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution to be the civilian leader of the U.S. armed forces.

Commerce Clause

Article I, Section 8, which grants Congress the power to regulate commerce between the states, with Indian tribes, and with foreign nations. Congress and the courts have broadly interpreted this clause to cover almost any endeavor that crosses state lines, from transportation and other economic issues to equal accommodations and other such civil rights issues.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution

Common Good

The common good (sometimes called the public good) may refer to the collective welfare of the community. It also may refer to the individual welfare of each person in the community.

A communitarian view of the common good in a democracy is equated with the collective or general welfare of the people as a whole. The well-being of the entire community is considered to be greater than the sum of its parts, and the exemplary citizen is willing to sacrifice personal interests or resources for the good of the entire community. The good of the country or the community is always placed above the personal or private interests of particular groups or individuals. From this communitarian perspective, the ultimate expression of the common good is the elevation of public or community interests above private or individual interests.

When viewed individualistically, however, the common good is based on the well-being of each person in the community. In a democracy, the government is expected to establish conditions of liberty and order that enable each person to seek fulfillment and happiness on his or her own terms. The exemplary citizen respects and defends the individual rights of each person in the expectation of reciprocity from others. From the perspective of individualism, the ultimate achievement of the common good is when the rights of each person in the community are protected and enjoyed equally.

In most democracies today, both the communitarian and individualistic conceptions of the common good are expressed and somehow combined. In particular countries, however, there usually is a tendency to favor one idea of the common good more than the other. In the United States, for example, the individual interest model of the common or public good tends to prevail. By contrast, in Japan and Poland, for example, the collective sense of public good is dominant. In these democracies, the general good of the community, and the people as a whole, is usually considered to be more important than the interests or needs of any individual within that community.

In every democracy there is some degree of tension—in some countries higher and in others lower—between the perceived rights and interests of individuals and the communitarian idea of a common good. In the second volume of "Democracy in America," published in 1840, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the necessity for citizens to blend personal and public interests in order to achieve and maintain the common good. Tocqueville referred to this kind of citizenship as "self-interest rightly understood" because, through some reasonable voluntary contributions of time, effort, and money to the civil society and government, citizens cooperated to maintain the conditions of public safety, order, and stability needed to successfully pursue their personal interests and liberty. They recognized that their personal fulfillment could not be attained unless the general welfare of their community was strong.

Tocqueville wrote, "The principle of self-interest rightly understood is not a lofty one, but it is clear and sure . . . Each American knows when to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest."

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Common Law

The accumulated precedents set by court rulings in Britain and the United States, usually involving civil cases. The Seventh Amendment addresses suits rising from the common law.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


Some states such as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are officially known as commonwealths. This term is also used to describe territories such as Puerto Rico, which are controlled by the United States, but are not states. As a result, the Puerto Rican people do not enjoy the same rights as full U.S. citizens.


May refer to any local area whose residents share common interests or a group of people living in the same locality and under the same government.

Concurring Opinion

An opinion by a judge who agrees with the majority or plurality decision reached by the court in a case, but not with the reasoning used to reach it.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

Confirmation Hearing

The U.S. Senate holds confirmation hearings to interview candidates the president has nominated for federal offices. Article II of the Constitution specifies that the president may appoint judges, ambassadors and other federal executive branch officials, but that such appointments require the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Confirmation hearings are the method for carrying out this requirement.


The bicameral legislative body that is created by Article I of the Constitution and has the power to make federal laws. Congress includes the House of Representatives, with 435 members representing districts in each of the 50 states, and the Senate, with 100 members, two from each state. When the Constitution was adopted, Senators were selected by state legislators, but they are now selected by voters in their statewide elections.

Members of the House serve two-year terms. Members of the Senate serve six-year terms. They establish their own rules of operation in each body. The Constitution specifies that the Vice President also serves as the President of the Senate. The powers of Congress are limited, that is they only have those powers specifically set out in the Constitution.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

Congressional Black Caucus

The Congressional Black Caucus is an organization comprised of African Americans who serve in Congress and meet to discuss policy issues and objectives.

Congressional Budget Office

Created in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office is a support agency designed to give nonpartisan budget information and analyses to the Congress. In its advisory reports, the CBO provides economic projections, budget projections, cost estimates of legislation, an analysis of the president’s budget and other special studies.

Congressional District

A congressional district is a geographic area of about 700,000 people that elects a member of Congress (though some, such as Wyoming’s single district, contain many fewer people). In the U.S., there are 435 congressional districts represented in the House, divided among the states based on total population and reapportioned after each census.

Congressional Record

Article I, Section 5 requires Congress to maintain a journal of its proceedings, which is available as the Congressional Record.


Conscription refers to compulsory military service, usually called “the draft” in the United States. While several European democracies do use conscription for military service, currently the United States does not. Nevertheless, the Selective Service Act (most recently reactivated in 1980) does require all American males between the ages of 18 and 26 to register with the Selective Service in case the draft is reinstated.


From the Latin conservare, meaning “to keep or guard,” conservatism doesn’t refer to a clearly defined set of political beliefs. Conservatives hold that tradition is the fundamental political value. Conservatives may point to religious or to cultural traditions. Some argue for maintaining current traditions, while some seek to return to earlier traditions. In the U.S., conservatives are sometimes divided into two camps: Fiscal conservatives advocate for lower taxes and reduced government spending; social conservatives advocate for traditional (often religious) moral values.


A constituent is a resident of a House member’s district or a senator’s state.


A constitution is the basic law and general plan of government for a people within a country. The purposes, powers, and limitations of government are prescribed in the constitution. It thus sets forth the way a people is governed or ruled.

A constitution is the supreme law of a country. Laws later enacted by the government must conform to the provisions of the constitution. All institutions, groups, and individuals within the community are expected to obey the supreme law of the constitution.

A constitution is a framework for organizing and conducting the government of a country, but it is not a blueprint for the day-to-day operations of the government. The Constitution of the United States of America, for example, is less than 7,500 words long. It does not specify the details of how to run the government. The officials who carry out the business of the constitutional government supply the details, but these specifics must fit the general framework set forth in the U.S. Constitution.

A defining attribute of a democratic constitution is its granting and limiting of powers to the government in order to guarantee national safety and unity as well as individuals’ right to liberty. It sets forth generally what the constitutional government is and is not permitted to do. There cannot be an authentic democracy unless the powers of government are limited constitutionally to protect the people against tyranny of any kind.

Constitutions vary in length, design, and complexity, but all of them have at least seven common attributes:

  1. a statement of the purposes of government, usually in a preamble
  2. specification of the structure of government
  3. enumeration, distribution, and limitation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government
  4. provisions about citizenship
  5. guarantees of human rights
  6. means of electing and appointing government officials
  7. procedures for amendment

Most countries of the world today have a constitution that is written in a single document. Very few countries, such as Israel, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have “unwritten” constitutions. These so-called unwritten constitutions are composed of various fundamental legislative acts, court decisions, and customs, which have never been collected or summarized in a single document. However, as long as an unwritten constitution really limits and guides the actions of the government to provide the rule of law, then the conditions of constitutional government are fulfilled.

The Constitution of the United States, written in 1787 and ratified by the required nine states in 1788, is the oldest written constitution in use among the countries of the world today. However, the constitution of the State of Massachusetts was written and ratified in 1780 and, although extensively amended, is still operational, which makes it the world’s oldest written constitution in use today. Most of the world’s working constitutions have existed only since 1960, and many of the world’s democracies have adopted their constitutions since 1990.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


Constitutionalism is a way of thinking about the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in a community. It combines two concepts, limited government and the rule of law, that permeate the constitution, a country’s framework for government. The constitution in an authentic democracy both grants powers to the government and controls or harnesses them in order to protect the rights of the people.

Limited government means that officials cannot act arbitrarily when they make and enforce laws and enact other public decisions. Government officials cannot simply do as they please. Rather, they are guided and limited by the constitution of their country and the laws made in conformity with it as they carry out the duties of their public offices.

The rule of law means that neither government officials nor common citizens are allowed to violate the supreme law of the land, the constitution, or the laws enacted in accordance with it. People accused of crimes are treated equally under the law and given due process—that is, fair and proper legal proceedings—in all official actions against them. Under the rule of law, everyone in the community—public officials and private citizens, from the highest to the lowest ranks—must conform to the constitution.

In every democracy today, limited government and the rule of law are embedded in the constitution. A turning point in the history of constitutionalism occurred in 1787–88, when the U.S. Constitution was drafted and ratified. The Preamble stated the purposes of the constitutional government:

We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

In order to carry out its purposes in the Preamble, the government under this constitution was sufficiently empowered to protect the people. And the constitutional government was sufficiently limited so that the government would not be able to turn its power unjustly against the people. Thus, this simultaneously strong and limited government would "secure the Blessings of Liberty" to the people.

Article VI of the Constitution states the principle of constitutional supremacy that guarantees limited government and the rule of law: "The Constitution and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof . . . shall be the supreme Law of the Land." All laws enacted by any government in the United States must conform to the Constitution. As Alexander Hamilton explained in the 78th paper of The Federalist: "No legislative act contrary to the Constitution, therefore, can be valid." Moreover, any government action that violates the Constitution can be declared unconstitutional and voided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1787–88, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison claimed in The Federalist that limited government and the rule of law—principles essential to the U.S. Constitution—would guard the people from tyranny or unjust encroachments against their right to liberty. They feared equally any kind of unrestrained exercise of power. To them, the power of an insufficiently limited majority of the people was just as dangerous as the unlimited power of a king or military dictator.

Hamilton and Madison held that the best government is both constitutionally empowered and limited; it is "energetic"—strong enough to act decisively and effectively for the common good—and "limited by law" in order to protect the inherent rights of individuals. These principles of constitutionalism expressed by Americans in the late 18th century have become guides to the establishment of constitutional governments in many democracies of the world.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Contempt of Court

A court can hold a party either in civil or criminal contempt. A judge can find a party in civil contempt for the failure to do something for the benefit of another party after being ordered to do so by a court. Criminal contempt occurs when a person exhibits disrespect for a court or obstructs the administration of justice.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

Continuing Resolution

Commonly abbreviated as CR, this is a type of congressional legislation that provides budget authority for federal agencies and programs to continue operating until their formal appropriation bills are passed. Government departments and agencies are funded by Congress on a year-to-year basis by appropriation bills. When the bills are not passed by Oct. 1 (the beginning of the government’s fiscal year), both houses of Congress and the president must agree to a CR or the government cannot operate.


The chief financial officer of a county or city, responsible for supervising fiscal operations.


An elected official who investigates unexplained or accidental deaths, homicides, suicides and other deaths of questionable circumstances within the county.


In the U.S. House and Senate, legislation is submitted (or sponsored) by individual legislators. When multiple legislators sponsor a piece of legislation, each of them is referred to as a cosponsor.


The largest territorial division of a state.

County Board of Commissioners

Elected officials serving as the legislative branch of county government, with all the legislative powers that may be exercised by the county under the Constitution and the laws.

County Executive Director

An official responsible for the administration and management of departments of county government not directly managed by the council or board.

County Seat

A town or city that is the center of government for its county.

Criminal Law

The body of law that deals with the enforcement of laws and the punishment of people who break them.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

The Eighth Amendment prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment" in a measure designed to prevent torture and the deliberately painful systems of execution that had existed in the past. Definitions of "cruel and unusual" have been left to statutes and to court decisions. In recent years, some have argued that the death penalty itself constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


Dark Horse

A dark horse candidate is one whose nomination or victory is unexpected. Several U.S. presidents were dark horses, beginning with James K. Polk in 1844. The expression was coined by the British author and subsequent Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1831, and it was originally used to refer to an unknown horse who won a race.


In Congress, debate is the formal discussion of legislative business on the House or Senate floor. In a campaign context, a debate is an event in which two or more candidates answer questions from reporters or audience members and respond to each other’s statements.

Debt Limit

In the United States, a legal limit placed by law on the total amount of money the federal government can borrow. In practice, Congress routinely raises the debt limit rather than trigger automatic cuts in spending and borrowing. See National Debt.


Falling prices across the entire economy is deflation. A fall in prices in one sector of the economy does not count as deflation. It’s not necessarily bad; deflation might, for example, be the result of increased productivity that can lead to greater purchasing power. But when deflation is the result of decreased demand and excess capacity, it can lead to recession and even depression. Because consumers expect prices to be lower, they delay making purchases, leading to greater excess capacity and continued falling prices. Deflation also increases the real value of debt, leading to bankruptcy and bank failures.


A delegate is a representative of a U.S. territory or the District of Columbia who cannot vote on the floor of the House, but may vote in committee.


Democracy in the governments of countries today is representative, meaning that the people rule indirectly through their elected public officials. Democracy today is also constitutional, meaning that government by the people’s representatives is both limited and empowered to protect equally and justly the rights of everyone in the country.

Representatives elected by the people try to serve the interest of their constituents within the framework of a constitutionally limited government. The constitution ensures both majority rule and minority rights.

The U.S. government is a prime example of representative and constitutional democracy. It is a representative democracy because the people, the source of its authority, elect individuals to represent their interests in its institutions. The formation and function of the government is based on majority rule. The people, for example, elect their representatives by majority vote in free, fair, competitive, and periodic elections in which practically all adult citizens of the country have the right to vote. Further, the people’s representatives in Congress make laws by majority vote. A chief executive, the President, elected by the people, then enforces these laws.

Representative democracy in the United States is constitutional because it is both limited and empowered by the supreme law, the Constitution, for the ultimate purpose of protecting equally the rights of all the people. The periodic election by the people of their representatives in government is conducted according to the Constitution and the laws made under it. The votes of the majority decide the winners of the election, but the rights of the minority are constitutionally protected so that they can freely criticize the majority of the moment and attempt to replace their representatives in the next election. From time to time, there is a lawful and orderly transition of power from one group of leaders to another. Legitimate legal limitations on the people’s government make the United States a constitutional democracy, not an unlimited democracy in which the tyranny of the majority against political minorities could persist without effective challenges.

In earlier autocratic governments, the unrestrained power of a king or an aristocracy had typically threatened liberty. However, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and other framers of the U.S. Constitution feared that a tyrannical majority of the people could pose a new challenge to liberty. Madison expressed his fear of majority tyranny in an October 17, 1788, letter to Thomas Jefferson:

Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Governments, the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents. This is a truth of great importance, but not yet sufficiently attended to. . . . Whenever there is an interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done, and not less readily by [a majority of the people] than by a . . . prince.

Madison foresaw that in a representative democracy a threat to individuals' liberty could come from an unrestrained majority. Unless they are effectively limited by a well-constructed constitution, which the people observe faithfully, the winners of a democratic election could persecute the losers and prevent them from competing for control of the government in a future election. This kind of danger to liberty and justice can be overcome by constructing and enforcing constitutional limits on majority rule in order to protect minority rights.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is one of two major U.S. political parties. First organized as the Democratic-Republican Party by Thomas Jefferson in 1792, the party splintered and then reorganized under Andrew Jackson in 1828. The party officially shortened its name to the Democratic Party in 1844. Since the mid-20th century, the Democratic Party has consistently adopted a more liberal stance, both socially and fiscally, than the Republican Party.


A depression is a lengthy and severe recession. Economists define a slump as a 10-percent, across-the-board decline in economic activity. A depression is a particularly severe slump. The most famous example of a depression is the Great Depression, when economic output fell by 30 percent and the unemployment rate rose to 17 percent.


Deprived of the rights of citizenship, especially the right to vote 


A court order ending a case.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

Dissenting Opinion

An opinion by a judge who disagrees with the result reached by the court in a case.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

Distributive Justice

Like procedural justice, this type of justice is pursued in every constitutional democracy, and it pertains to the government’s enactment of laws to distribute benefits to the people under its authority. Distributive justice certainly is achieved when equals receive the same allocation of benefits. For example, public programs that provide social security or medical care to all elderly and retired persons are examples of distributive justice in a constitutional democracy. Public schools, which all children have an equal opportunity to attend, are another example.

When the government of a constitutional democracy protects individuals’ rights to liberty, order, and safety, individuals can freely use their talents to produce wealth and enjoy the results of their labor. Thus, they are able to provide for their basic human needs and to satisfy many, if not all, of their wants. But some persons in every democracy are unable for various reasons to care adequately for themselves. Therefore, the government provides programs to distribute such basic benefits for disadvantaged persons as medical care, housing, food, and other necessities. These public programs for needy persons are examples of distributive justice in a constitutional democracy.

In the various democracies of our world, people debate the extent and kind of distributive justice there should be to meet adequately the social and economic needs of all the people. Should the regulatory power of government be increased greatly so that it can bring about greater social and economic equality through redistribution of resources? Countries that provide extensive social and economic benefits through the redistribution of resources are known as social democracies or welfare states. The consequences of distributive justice in a social democracy, such as Sweden, are to diminish greatly unequal social and economic conditions and to move toward parity in general standards of living among the people.

However, the achievement of this kind of social justice requires a substantial increase in the power of government to regulate the society and economy. Thus, as social and economic equality increase through government intervention in the lives of individuals, there is a decrease in personal and private rights to freedom. People in democracies throughout the world debate whether justice is generally served or denied by big public programs that extensively redistribute resources in order to equalize standards of living among the people.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

District Attorney

An elected official responsible for prosecuting those who violate criminal laws within the county.


In a constitutional democracy there is bound to be diversity among the people. It may be expressed as diversity in ideas and interests, diversity in social and political groups, diversity in religion, race, and ethnicity, and diversity in centers of power.

Diversity in the expression of ideas and interests is a product of the guaranteed rights to free speech, press, and religion that typify a constitutional democracy. In a constitutional democracy, there is a free marketplace of ideas in which differences of opinion may compete for public acceptance. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a great Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, recognized that constitutionally protected freedom to exchange ideas can point the way to truth and progress. He wrote in his dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States, 1919, "The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market. . . . That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution."

In a free society, there will always be a diversity of competing interests voiced openly by different individuals and groups. Interests will vary, for example, according to occupation, social status, and gender. Owners of businesses are likely to express and campaign for different interests in comparison to members of trade unions or agricultural groups. Lower-income persons are likely to favor and actively seek some kinds of public assistance that would be of less interest to individuals in higher earning brackets who are likely to pursue other kinds of benefits from the government. Women have some interests that differ from those of men, and they are free to advance those interests through public discussion and debate.

A constitutional democracy protects rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, which encourage diversity among groups. Like-minded individuals choose to form and join civic and political associations in order to promote their opinions and interests. There is a multiplicity of cooperating and competing nongovernmental organizations that comprise a free and open civil society.

Political parties are a prominent example of the freedom to associate and assemble, a freedom that prevails in every genuine constitutional democracy. The Constitution protects the political right of people with similar ideas and interests to organize and participate in political parties which compete to advance their ideas and interests about how to conduct the government.

Many democracies include a diversity of religious, ethnic, or racial groups. In India, for example, there are many different ethnic groups with different languages and customs. The Indian constitution protects the rights of these different groups to express openly and freely their diverse ways of life. It recognizes the multicultural diversity of the country by reserving a certain number of seats in parliament for representatives of different ethnic groups.

Some democracies, such as Switzerland, are constituted to accommodate the special interests of constituent ethnic groups. The preamble to Switzerland’s constitution asserts that the Swiss people will live its diversity in unity." The constitution formally preserves the three major ethnic groups of Switzerland: French, Italian, and German. There is a constitutional guarantee of two kinds of identities. First, every citizen possesses in common a Swiss civic identity, regardless of differences in ethnicity. Second, citizens of Switzerland also possess a distinct ethnic identity connected with one of their country’s constituent cultural groups.

Like India, Switzerland, and other democracies, there is freedom in the United States for diversity to flourish among different ethnic, racial, and religious groups. There are constitutional guarantees of rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, which protect everyone - including members of vulnerable minority groups - against certain kinds of unjust treatment. In order to protect the civil liberties and rights of black Americans who had endured particular injustices, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War. These amendments prohibit slavery or involuntary servitude, guarantee citizenship and basic legal procedural rights on equal terms to all individuals, and prohibit the federal or state governments from denying the right to vote due to race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Despite these constitutional guarantees of equal treatment under the Constitution, black Americans continued to suffer various kinds of unfair treatment. Through the heroic efforts of the 20th century civil rights movement, black Americans used their rights under the Constitution to achieve a greater measure of justice under the law. However, unlike the constitutional democracies of India and Switzerland, the U.S. Constitution does not require special representation of ethnic or racial groups in the government. Constitutional rights in the United States are guaranteed generally to individuals and not to particular social groups.

A most important kind of diversity in an authentic constitutional democracy is variation in centers of power. The primary center of authority and power, of course, is the government, but there are other centers of power that are vital to diversity in a Democracy. For example, a diverse democracy includes a free and open civil society in which various nongovernmental groups collectively form a center of power that protects individuals’ liberty from excessively centralized government power. Another constitutionally secured center of power in a democracy is the free and open market economy through which the diverse owners of private property and wealth can be a countervailing force against the danger of despotism.

Yet another type of diversity in centers of power is the constitutionally guaranteed autonomy or quasi-independence of local government units, which share power with the central government of the country. For example, in the Federal Republic of Germany there is a division of powers between the federal government in Berlin and the various constituent states of the federal system. Such a division of power among different levels and units of government is a means to limit power and protect liberty in a democracy.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Divided Government

Divided government exists when one political party controls the White House and the other controls at least one of the two chambers of Congress.


A dividend is a share of a company’s profits paid to stockholders or a share of a surplus paid to an individual by a participating insurance company. Dividends are usually given in the form of cash; however they can also be given in the form of stocks and other property. A dividend can also be a benefit or reward, normally received as a result of work or effort.

Double Jeopardy

The Fifth Amendment protects people from being tried again on charges for which they have been acquitted. It does not prevent a second trial if there is a hung jury - one unable to render a verdict - or if a convicted person seeks a retrial based on new evidence.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution



These are the allocations of revenue in a bill that are directed to a specific project or recipient typically in a legislator’s home state or district. (The process itself is known as “earmarking,” and earmarks could also be called “earmarked funds.”) They are often slipped into bills without the review typically given to pending legislation. See also PorkBarrel spending.

Elastic Clause

After providing Congress with a long list of specific powers, Article I, Section 8 granted Congress authority to make all laws that are "necessary and proper" to implement those powers. Because this broad phrase covers such an extensive sweep of activities, it has been called the "elastic clause."

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


A primary defining characteristic of democracy is the regular occurrence of free, fair, competitive elections in which practically all the people of a country can vote to select their representatives in government. Elections are not authentically democratic if there is only one candidate for each office or if only one political party is permitted to present candidates. Nor can a genuine electoral democracy stop or discourage significant numbers of persons from becoming citizens or from voting by using such onerous methods as physical intimidation, difficult procedures, and unfair tests of knowledge. If the government or a single political party controls or dominates the mass media, there cannot be the free flow of reliable information required for fair competition between rival candidates and political parties, and the consequence is a less than fully democratic election.

In the United States, there is a two-party system. Candidates from the two major political parties, Democratic and Republican, are the dominant competitors for election to positions in government, and candidates of minor political parties have little or no chance to win an election. However, minority parties can influence the outcome of an election by attracting a significant number of voters away from one of the major parties. In most democracies, there is a multiple-party system in which candidates from several political parties have a chance to win an election.

Elections in a democracy usually contribute to the stability and legitimacy of government. Citizens who participate in the elections have a sense of connection to their government and an expectation that it will be responsive to them. In return, they are likely to obey laws readily, pay taxes promptly, and contribute voluntarily to the common good of their country.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Electoral College

The Electoral College is the formal body, created by Article 2, Section 1, in the Constitution, that elects the president. Each state has as many electors in the Electoral College as it has senators and representatives in Congress. When people vote in a presidential election, they are actually voting for electors pledged to vote for their candidate.

State election laws decide the method of choosing electors. Eventually, all states left the election of presidential electors to popular vote.

There is no constitutional requirement that all the electors of a state vote for a single candidate, but all states except Michigan in the 1890s and Maine and Nebraska in modern times have had a winner-take-all system: The candidate who receives a majority of the popular vote receives all the state's electoral votes. Maine has adopted a “congressional district” system that chooses electors based on the plurality (the most votes but not necessarily a majority) in each district. This means that a candidate might win 3 rather than all 4 electoral votes if he or she loses in one of the districts. The winner of the statewide vote in Maine also receives the two “senatorial” electors.

Electronic Voting

This is the process of voting using electronic machines, as opposed to paper ballots. In the U.S., electronic voting machines became popular after the 2000 presidential election but have since become controversial because some research shows – and many voters believe – they are susceptible to election fraud attempts.

Emergency Spending

This is authorized when Congress votes to respond to critical needs in the U.S. and abroad, usually on a onetime, unexpected basis.


The Constitution gives Congress the power to set salaries, or emoluments, for the other branches of government, but prohibits it from cutting the salary of Presidents or judges as a form of punishment or intimidation. The 27th Amendment also requires that any increase in Congressional salary be delayed until after the next election, to give the voters a chance to react.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


Entitlements are government programs that provide monetary or other benefits to people who meet eligibility requirements established by law. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps are all examples of entitlement programs. Currently, entitlements account for slightly less than two-thirds of the budget. The word also refers to the funds required to support these programs.

Enumerated Powers

The Constitution grants specific powers to the government, particularly to the Congress, which are known as the enumerated powers. They are the opposite of implied powers, which are known as unenumerated.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution

Enumerated Rights

The Constitution in the articles and amendments specifically defines many rights enjoyed by the people, such as the right of free speech, religion, etc. Rights that are specifically mentioned are enumerated rights, but other rights not specifically mentioned but which are considered fundamental to the operation of the nation and liberties enjoyed by the people are also protected. These are known as implied or unenumerated rights.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


Equality in a constitutional democracy means equal justice under the law. No one is above or beyond the reach of the law, and no one is entitled to unfair advantages or subjected to unequal penalties based on the law. Three main examples of equality in a democracy are constitutionally guaranteed protection for equality of treatment according to the law, equality in fundamental human rights, and equality of citizenship.

Statements about equality of treatment under the law are found in the constitutions of every democratic state. For example, Article 29 of the Lithuanian constitution says: All people shall be equal before the law, the court, and other State institutions and officers. A person may not have his or her rights restricted in any way, or be granted any privileges, on the basis of his or her sex, race, nationality, language, origin, social status, religion, convictions, or opinions.

The Fifth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution guarantee legal equality as well. The due process clauses of the Fifth and 14th Amendments require that the federal and state governments must follow fair and equal legal procedures in matters pertaining to an individual’s right to life, liberty, and property. The 14th Amendment says, “No state shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Equality in the possession of fundamental human rights is another essential attribute of every constitutional democracy. This idea of equality was dramatically put forward in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed to the international community the emergence of a newly independent country, the United States of America. The declaration asserted a self-evident truth: that each person is born with equal possession of certain inherent rights, such as the right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Further, this declaration held, “That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”

The founders of the United States were not claiming that all individuals are equal in their personal attributes, such as physical strength, intelligence, or artistic talent. They were not saying that a government is established to enforce equality or uniformity in the way people think, act, or live. Rather, the founders were committed to establishing a government that would guarantee equally, to all individuals under its authority, security for liberty based on the rule of law. The idea of natural equality in rights, that every person inherently possesses fundamental rights stemming from his or her equal membership in the human species, has been expressed in the constitutions of democracies throughout the world.

Equality of citizenship is another characteristic of constitutional democracies today. There are not degrees of citizenship whereby, for example, some persons have first-class citizenship with superior rights and privileges relative to different classes of citizens with different rights. Thus, Article IV of the U.S. Constitution says, “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.”

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


Equity refers to value or ownership rights. It is the value of a property or business or of an interest in either, minus any debts owed. Equity is also common stock or preferred stock in a corporation. For consumers, the term most often arises in the context of homeownership. An individual’s equity in his or her home is the fair market value minus whatever amount is still owed on the mortgage. Another meaning of equity is something that is impartial, fair and just.

Estate Tax

A tax on an individual’s assets at the time of death. The Internal Revenue Service lists possible deductions and exemptions from the estate tax and provides the necessary forms.

Internal Revenue Service


Ethanol is a type of alcohol (called ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol) that is used as an alternative fuel in automobiles. It is produced using grain and corn. Ethanol is most often blended with gasoline for use in flexible-fuel vehicles. The fuel E85 is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Ethanol has also been found to reduce greenhouse gases, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Exploratory Committee

Candidates who are considering a run for office can form legal organizations known as exploratory committees. Presidential office-seekers in particular use this practice, though candidates for House and Senate may do so as well. The maneuver is popular because it allows a candidate to raise money under less stringent rules than those that apply once he or she is an official candidate, and may also get more news coverage (first by forming an exploratory committee, then by announcing a formal candidacy). Individuals wishing to form exploratory committees must files papers with the Federal Election Committee, which oversees their activity.

Federal Election Commission


Goods or products that are sent to another country for sale.


Federal Election Commission

The Federal Election Commission administers and enforces campaign election law. It was created by Congress with the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1975 to enforce and oversee the campaign finance regulations in that law. The body is made up of six members, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and at least four votes are required for any official action. This structure was created to encourage nonpartisan decisions, although it has been criticized for also promoting gridlock. Each member serves a six-year term, and two seats are subject to appointment every two years. The chairmanship of the commission rotates among the members each year, with no member serving as chairman more than once during his or her term.

Fiscal Policy

A government’s fiscal policy is its set of principles for determining its public expenditures and its methods for funding those expenditures. Fiscal policy includes changing the amount of government spending or government revenues (by raising or lower taxes) to affect the economy. Fiscal policy and monetary policy are the two primary tools a government has to create changes in economic growth.

In the United States, fiscal policy is set through a collaborative process. Although the president proposes a budget, it is Congress that determines spending and sets tax regulations. The president may either sign or veto the proposed budget, but he or she cannot make specific changes.

Fiscal Year

A fiscal year is a 12-month period selected for accounting purposes by governments or businesses, which may or may not coincide with the calendar year. The U.S. government’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and ends the following Sept. 30.

Foreign Policy

A defined set of political and diplomatic goals that a nation has regarding other nations.

Framers of the Constitution or Founding Fathers

The framers of the Constitution can refer alternatively to the 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution or to the 55 delegates present at the Constitutional Convention (16 did not sign). In the Preamble to the Constitution, the framers outlined their general goals: to create a just government and to insure peace, an adequate national defense, and a healthy, free nation.

Free Exercise Clause

The First Amendment to the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Through its free exercise clause, the First Amendment protects against governmental interference, the individual’s right to freedom of conscience, free expression of religious beliefs, and the right to practice the religion of one’s choosing or no religion at all.

The free exercise clause enables a person to hold whatever religious beliefs he or she wants and to exercise that belief by attending religious services, praying in public or in private, proselytizing or wearing religious clothing such as yarmulkes or headscarves. Also included in the free exercise clause is the right not to believe in any religion and the right not to participate in religious activities.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

Free Trade

The name for an economic policy that encourages countries to lift restrictions on goods being imported or exported. Free trade is intended to reduce international trade barriers, such as import taxes or controls on the number of goods that can be imported or exported.

Freedom of Assembly

The First Amendment protects the freedom of assembly, which can mean physically gathering with a group of people to picket or protest, or associating with one another in groups for economic, political, or religious purposes.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

Freedom of Association

The First Amendment protects both the right to associate, either formally through an organization or informally, and the right not to associate, which means the government cannot force people to join a group they do not wish to join.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

Freedom of Religion

Generally includes the rights guaranteed by the Constitution under both the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and its establishment clause. The free exercise clause enables a person to hold whatever religious beliefs he or she wants and to exercise that belief by attending religious services, praying in public or in private, proselytizing or wearing religious clothing such as yarmulkes or headscarves. Also included in the free exercise clause is the right not to believe in any religion and the right not to participate in religious activities.

Second, the establishment clause prevents the government from creating a church, endorsing religion in general, or favoring one set of religious beliefs over another. As the Supreme Court decided in 1947 in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, the establishment clause was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and state,” although the degree to which government should accommodate religion in public life has been debated in numerous Supreme Court decisions since then.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

Freedom of Speech

The First Amendment allows citizens to express and to be exposed to a wide range of opinions and views. It was intended to ensure a free exchange of ideas even if the ideas are unpopular. Freedom of speech encompasses not only the spoken and written word, but also all kinds of expression (including non-verbal communications, like sit-ins, art, photographs, films, and advertisements).

The amendment protects not only the speaker, but also the person who receives the information. The right to read, hear, see and obtain different points of view is a First Amendment right as well.

The right to free speech is not absolute. The Supreme Court has ruled that the government may sometimes be allowed to limit speech. For example, the government may limit or ban libel (the communication of false statements about a person that many injure his or her reputation), obscenity, fighting words, and words that present a clear and present danger of causing violence.

The government also may regulate speech by limiting the time, place or manner in which it is made. For example, the government may require activists to obtain a permit before holding a large protest rally on a public street

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

Freedom of the Press

Under the provisions of the First Amendment, the media—including television, radio, newspapers, magazines and the Internet—are free to distribute a wide range of news, facts, opinions, and pictures, even if those sources are critical of the government itself.

The government can, however, subject the media to the same restrictions on free speech as the rest of society: a limit or ban on libel, obscenities, fighting words, and words that present a clear and present danger of causing violence. In addition, where the government regulates the broadcast medium, such as the television or radio airwaves, it can regulate some ownership interests and content distributed as a condition of ownership.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

Front Runner

The candidate who, according to polling results, is considered the most likely to win an election is the front-runner.


A person who flees one jurisdiction (such as a state or country) in order to avoid law enforcement personnel.

Fugitives from Labor Provision

The fugitive from labor provision refers to a clause in Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution that gave slave owners a nearly absolute right to recapture runaway slaves who fled to another state, even if slavery was outlawed in that state. This also meant that state laws in free states intended to protect runaway slaves were unconstitutional because they interfered with the slave owner’s right to the slave’s return. The adoption of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and prohibited involuntary servitude, nullified this provision.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

Full Faith and Credit

Article IV, Section 1 provides that all state governments and courts must respect the laws, records, and court rulings of other states, giving them "Full Faith and Credit."

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution



This is a method for converting coal, petroleum, biomass, wastes or other carbon-containing materials into a gas that can be burned to generate power or processed into chemicals and fuels.

U.S. Department of Energy

Geneva Conventions

A series of international treaties signed by almost every nation in the world, designed to protect human rights during warfare. The conventions protect civilians and soldiers from torture and ensure that they are humanely treated. The first convention established that hospitals and other medical facilities were not to be targeted during war, and that those facilities should treat all wounded people the same. The third convention establishes that prison camps should be open to inspection by neutral countries.


This is the practice of redrawing political district boundaries to gain an electoral advantage. For instance, Republicans might design districts so that Democratic voters are underrepresented in each one, or Democrats might draw boundaries that keep Republican voters concentrated in one district to minimize GOP voting strength elsewhere. Gerrymandering can result in districts with wildly irregular shapes, and the practice has sparked several important Supreme Court decisions.

Global Warming

Global warming is an increase in the near surface temperature of the Earth. It has occurred in the distant past as the result of natural influences, but the term is today most often used to refer to the warming triggered by increased emissions of greenhouse gases as a result of human activity.


The widespread integration of economic, political and social forces in the world. Factors such as new communications technologies, the establishment of major international governing organizations such as the World Bank, and increased trade among countries, have increased global interdependency.


GOP is an acronym that stands for “Gallant Old Party” but is popularly taken to mean “Grand Old Party.” Originally coined in 1875, the term refers to the Republican Party.


Government is the institutional authority that rules a community of people. The primary purpose of government is to maintain order and stability so that people can live safely, productively, and happily. In a democracy, the source of a government’s authority is the people, the collective body of citizens by and for whom the government is established. The ultimate goal of government in a democracy is to protect individual rights to liberty within conditions of order and stability.

Every government exercises three main functions: making laws, executing or implementing laws, and interpreting and applying laws. These functions correspond to the legislative, executive, and judicial institutions and agencies of any government.

In an authentic democracy the government is constitutional and limited. A constitution of the people, written by their representatives and approved directly or indirectly by them, restrains or harnesses the powers of government to make sure they are used only to secure the freedom and common good of the people. There are at least five means to limit the powers of government through a well-constructed constitution.

First, the constitution can limit the government by enumerating or listing its powers. The government may not assume powers that are not listed or granted to it.

Second, the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government can be separated. Different individuals and agencies in the government have responsibility for different functions and are granted constitutional authority to check and balance the exercise of power by others in order to prevent any person or group from using its power abusively or despotically.

An independent judiciary that can declare null and void an act of the government it deems contrary to the constitution is an especially important means to prevent illegal use of power by any government official. The legislature can use its powers of investigation and oversight to prevent excessive or corrupt actions by executive officials and agencies.

Third, power can be decentralized throughout the society by some kind of federal system that enables the sharing of powers by national and local units of government. Widespread distribution of power to various individuals, groups, and institutions throughout a country can also be accomplished by constitutional protections of individuals’ rights to form and maintain the voluntary associations of civil society and the economic institutions of a free-market economy.

Fourth, the people can limit the power of government by holding their representatives accountable to them through periodic elections, which are conducted freely, fairly, and competitively according to provisions of the constitution. The people can also use their constitutionally protected rights of free speech, press, assembly, and association to mobilize force against abusive or irresponsible exercise of power by their government.

Fifth, a broad range of human rights can be included in the constitution, which the government is prohibited from denying to the people. In addition to such political rights as voting and expressing opinions through the media, the constitution can guarantee personal rights to private property, freedom of conscience, and so forth.

The existence of a written constitution does not always dignify the practice of constitutional and limited government. There were written constitutions in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but there was not constitutional government. Instead, there was arbitrary use of power as it suited the rulers, irrespective of the wishes of the people. Thus, only governments that usually, if not perfectly, function according to the terms of a constitution may be considered examples of constitutional and limited government.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Government Accountability Office

This impartial, independent arm of the U.S. government is responsible for auditing and investigating government programs and expenditures. The GAO issues reports and recommendations based on its findings to Congress. Once known as the General Accounting Office, its name was changed to the Government Accountability Office in 2004.

Grand Jury

A panel of 16 to 23 citizens who review prosecutorial evidence to determine if there are sufficient grounds to issue an indictment binding an individual over for trial on criminal charges.

Grand Jury Protection

The Fifth Amendment requirement that serious federal criminal charges be started by a grand jury (a group of citizens who hear evidence from a prosecutor about potential crimes) is rooted in English common law. Its basic purpose is to provide a fair method for beginning criminal proceedings against those accused of committing crimes.

Grand jury charges can be issued against anyone except members of the military, who are instead subject to courts-martial in the military justice system. A significant number of states do not use grand juries; instead they begin criminal proceedings using informations or indictments. The right to a grand jury is one of only a few protections in the Bill of Rights that has not been applied to the states by the 14th Amendment.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

Greenhouse Effect

The result of water vapor, carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases trapping radiant (infrared) energy, thereby keeping the Earth's surface warmer than it would otherwise be. Greenhouse gases within the lower levels of the atmosphere trap this radiation, which would otherwise escape into space, and subsequent re-radiation of some of this energy back to the Earth maintains higher surface temperatures than would occur if the gases were absent.

U.S. Department of Energy


In politics, gridlock is a situation in which no political or congressional action can be taken one way or the other due to a lack of consensus or other impediment. The term is most often used when Republicans or Democrats in Congress block action by the other party.

Gross Domestic Product

The total market value of goods and services produced within the borders of a country. This is the single broadest measure of a nation’s economy. When real GDP (adjusted for inflation) is rising, the economy is growing. When it is falling, the economy is shrinking. U.S. GDP estimates are produced by the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Gross National Product

Gross National Product is the total market value of final goods and services produced by the residents of a nation, even if those residents live abroad. Before 1991, this was the primary measure of the economy used by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. Since then, {gross domestic product} has been used. The BEA said at the time that GDP was a more appropriate measure of the nation’s production and most other countries had already begun using it as their primary benchmark. The difference is that GDP includes goods and services produced by all those living within a country’s borders, regardless of their nationality. U.S. residents’ earnings from overseas investments would be part of GNP but not GDP; whereas, earnings from foreign-owned investments on U.S. land would be part of GDP but not GNP.

Guarantee Clause

Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution states that “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.” Scholars believe that this clause ensures that each state be run as a representative democracy, as opposed to a monarchy or a dictatorship. Courts, however, have been reluctant to specify what exactly a republican form of government means, leaving that decision exclusively to Congress.

This section also gives Congress the power (and obligation) to protect the states from an invasion by a foreign country or from significant violent uprisings within each state. It authorizes the legislature of each state (or the executive, if the legislature cannot be assembled in time) to request federal help with riots or other violence.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide


High Crimes and Misdemeanors

According to the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives holds the power to impeach, or charge with improper conduct, a President, Vice President, federal judge, or any other civil officer of the United States with “Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

As the legal definition of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” is not specified, it generally means a serious offense. Congress has broad discretion to determine which offenses are worthy or not worthy of impeachment.

Home Rule Charter

Similar to a constitution; written and adopted by the citizens. It defines the city's boundaries, form of government and powers.

House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is one of the two houses of the Congress of the United States, which possesses the legislative power of the federal government. Unlike the Senate, the House of Representatives uses a system of proportional representation to determine its composition; seats are allocated to each state on the basis of that state’s population.

The state legislature then divides the state into Congressional districts, each of which elects one representative every two years. Today, each Congressional district must contain roughly the same number of people in order to ensure that one person’s vote in a Congressional election is worth as much as another’s. The original House of Representatives started with 60 members. The number of representatives grew over time but was fixed at 435 in 1929.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide


This is one of the abbreviations that precedes a Congressional bill number. The Government Publishing Office, formerly the Government Printing Office, is responsible for printing all legislative materials. The abbreviations are as follows: House Bill (H.R.), Senate Bill (S.), House Joint Resolution (H.J. Res.), Senate joint Resolution (S.J.Res.), House Concurrent Resolution (H.Con.Res.), Senate Concurrent Resolution (S.Con.Res.), House Simple Resolution (H.Res.), Senate Simple Resolution (S.Res.). The GPO provides extensive definitions for these various types of legislation.

The Government Publishing Office

Human Rights

Following the tragedies of World War II, which involved gross abuses by some governments and their armies—Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, for example—against millions of individuals and peoples of the world, there was a worldwide movement in favor of the idea of human rights. The United Nations, an organization of the world’s nation-states established after World War II in order to promote international peace and justice, became a leader in the promotion of human rights throughout the world.

In 1948, this international body issued the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is a statement of the rights every human being should have in order to achieve a minimally acceptable quality of life. Its first article says, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood."

Article 2 continues, "Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." The remainder of the document details the human rights that ideally should be enjoyed by each person in the world.

Since 1948, the United Nations has issued several other documents on human rights, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The U.N. documents are statements of ideals about human rights intended to guide the actions of the world’s nation-states, but the United Nations cannot enforce them in the way that a sovereign nation-state can compel obedience to laws within its territory. Thus, practical protection for human rights is possible today only through the governmental institutions of the world’s independent nation-states.

The quality of the protection of human rights varies significantly from country to country. It depends upon what the nation’s constitution says about rights and the capacity of the government to enforce the rights guaranteed in its constitution. There is general international agreement that there are two basic categories of human rights.

First, there are rights pertaining to what should not be done to any human being. Second, there are rights pertaining to what should be done for every human being. The first category of human rights involves constitutional guarantees that prohibit the government from depriving people of some political or personal rights. For example, the government cannot constitutionally take away someone’s right to participate freely and independently in an election or to freely practice a particular religion.

The second category of human rights requires positive action by the government to provide someone with a social or economic right that otherwise would not be available to her or him. Thus, the government may be expected to provide opportunities for individuals to go to school or to receive healthcare benefits.

The constitutions of many democracies specify certain social and economic rights that the government is expected to provide. In other democracies, for example the United States, programs that provide social and economic rights or entitlements, such as Social Security benefits for elderly persons and medical care for indigent persons, are established through legislation that is permitted but not required by the constitution.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


Implied Powers

The Constitution suggests, rather than specifies, some powers, particularly in considering what might be "necessary and proper" to implement them. Implied powers are the opposite of enumerated or specified powers.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


A person who occupies a particular political position or elected office is an incumbent. For example: If a first-term U.S. president runs for a second term, he or she is the incumbent presidential candidate.


An independent is an individual or group that is not beholden or bound to a political party.

Independent Expenditure

A campaign expenditure made on behalf of a specific candidate by an outside group without the candidate’s knowledge, assistance, or approval. In the United States, independent expenditures are often funded by political party committees, 527 organizations and political action committees.


Inflation is a persistent increase in the prices of goods and services. Inflation results in less bang for the buck. And, if wages fail to keep pace with inflation, the result is a decrease in real wages (i.e., purchasing power decreases as a given income can purchase less and less). Inflation is usually measured as an annual percentage rate of change. In the United States, the inflation rate is measured by the Consumer Price Index, which is published each month by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


In some democracies, citizens use the initiative and referendum to participate with the legislature in making laws under certain conditions specified by the constitution. The initiative is the right of citizens to propose a law or a constitutional amendment either directly for public vote, or via a vote of the legislature through the submission of a petition signed by a requisite number of eligible voters. The initiative is a means by which citizens can place items directly on the lawmaking agenda or force their representatives in government to consider the matter.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


A court order prohibiting an individual or group from performing a particular act. A defendant who violates an injunction is subject to a penalty for contempt or monetary damages.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

Insurgent or Terrorist

An insurgent is an individual who specifically rebels against an established government or civil authority. A terrorist, on the other hand, uses weaponry and other tools as a means to affect the general populace.

Intermediate Scrutiny

A level of judicial scrutiny courts apply to statutes involving the classification of people, such as gender or immigration status, to ensure equal protection of the law. Intermediate scrutiny is a tougher standard to meet than the rational basis test, but not as severe as strict scrutiny.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

Internal Revenue Service

The Internal Revenue Service is a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and dates back to 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln created the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In 2006 the IRS, responsible for collecting constitutionally mandated taxes from U.S. citizens and corporations, collected more than $2.5 trillion in various types of taxes.

Internal Revenue Service

Involuntary Servitude

The condition of being coerced to labor against one’s will. While slavery is a form of involuntary servitude, involuntary servitude has a broader meaning, including the vestiges of slavery, peonage or a coolie labor system, or work forced by the use or threat of physical restraint or injury or through law. The 13th Amendment outlawed involuntary servitude in 1865.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide



The official decision or determination of a court in a case. Can also be called a "decision," "opinion" or "order" of the court.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

Judicial Independence

The judicial component of government is independent in order to insulate its members from punitive or coercive actions by the legislative and executive departments of the government. If the judiciary is independent, then it can make fair decisions that uphold the rule of law, an essential element of any genuine constitutional democracy.

The U.S. Constitution, for example, protects judicial independence in two ways. First, Article III says that federal judges may hold their positions "during good Behaviour." In effect, they have lifetime appointments as long as they satisfy the ethical and legal standards of their judicial office. Second, Article III says that the legislative and executive branches may not combine to punish judges by decreasing payments for their services. The constitutions of some democratic countries provide appointments to the judges for a specific period of time, but invariably they protect their independence of action during their terms of office.

Alexander Hamilton, a framer of the U.S. Constitution, offered justification for an independent judiciary in the 78th paper of "The Federalist." He wrote, "The complete independence of the courts of justice is peculiarly essential in a limited Constitution." Hamilton claimed that only an independent judicial branch of government would be able to impartially check an excessive exercise of power by the other branches of government. Thus, the judiciary guards the rule of law in a constitutional democracy.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Judicial Review

Judicial review is the power of an independent judiciary, or courts of law, to determine whether the acts of other components of the government are in accordance with the constitution. Any action that conflicts with the constitution is declared unconstitutional and therefore nullified. Thus, the judicial department of government may check or limit the legislative and executive departments by preventing them from exceeding the limits set by the constitution.

The concept of judicial review was created during the founding of the United States and specifically included in the constitutional governments of some of the 13 original American states, such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. Judicial review is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but most constitutional experts claim that it is implied in Articles III and VI of the document.

Article III says that the federal judiciary has power to make judgments in all cases pertaining to the Constitution, statutes, and treaties of the United States. Article VI implies that the judicial power of the federal courts of law must be used to protect and defend the supreme authority of the Constitution against acts in government that violate or contradict it.

Article VI says: "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United Sates which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

Furthermore, Article VI states that all officials of the federal and state governments, including all judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States; shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this Constitution."

In 1788, in the 78th paper of The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton argued for judicial review by an independent judiciary as a necessary means to void all governmental actions contrary to the Constitution. He maintained that limits placed on the power of the federal legislative and executive branches in order to protect the rights of individuals & can be preserved in practice no other way than through . . . courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to . . . the Constitution void.’’ Without this power of judicial review, Hamilton asserted, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing." Hamilton concluded: "No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution can be valid . . . [T]he interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is . . . a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to [judges] to ascertain its meaning as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body.

John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, applied the ideas about judicial review put forth in The Federalist in the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court declared one part of a federal law to be unconstitutional. In so doing, it set a precedent for the Court’s use of judicial review, which became an essential part of constitutional democracy in the United States.

In the 20th century, judicial review was incorporated into constitutional democracies around the world. In most of them, however, the power to declare acts of government unconstitutional is called constitutional review — not judicial review — and it works a bit differently than it does in the United States. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court exercises judicial review, as do federal circuit courts of appeal and district courts, which also deal with various other cases that have nothing to do with constitutional issues.

In most other democracies, a special constitutional court, whose sole function is to consider the constitutionality of government actions, exercises constitutional review. Meanwhile, other courts resolve issues that pertain strictly to statutory interpretation, without any involvement of the constitutional court. The constitutional courts of other democracies may provide advisory or binding opinions about the constitutionality of an act separate from the adversarial process in which a real case involving the act at issue is brought to the court by a prosecutor or someone filing suit against another party. However, the essence of judicial review, as invented and practiced in the United States, is similar to constitutional review used in other democratic countries.

Several constitutional democracies, such as the Netherlands and Great Britain, do not practice judicial review. The rule of law is maintained in these countries through the democratic political process, especially elections, whereby the government is held accountable to the people. However, judicial review or constitutional review seems to be an especially strong means to protect the rights of minorities against the threat of oppression by a tyrannical majority of the people acting through its representatives in the government.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

Justice Department

The Justice Department is a cabinet department of the government. The department is charged with enforcing federal law and oversees the entire federal criminal process, from policing (through agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations) to prosecuting (via the U.S. Attorney General and Assistant Attorneys General) to housing those convicted (the responsibility of the Federal Bureau of Prisons). The Justice Department is also charged with defending federal laws in court challenges.

Justice Department


K Street

This street in Washington, D.C., is where a number of lobbyists have their offices. The term also is used to generally refer to lobbying organizations or groups – those not located on the actual street.

Keynesian Economics

This is an economic theory based on the idea that demand, or consumption of goods and services, drives the economy. (Supply-side economics focuses on supply.) It is named after John Maynard Keynes, a British economist who lived from 1883 to 1946. He put forth his school of thought as a way to explain recessions and depressions, and how governments could enact policies to encourage economic growth.

Keynes said that in normal economic times, money flows in a circular way: One consumer’s spending (or demand) becomes another’s earnings. In an economic slump, consumers save money instead of spending it. To encourage spending (and thus demand), Keynes said, the government should step up to the plate by putting more money into circulation. It can do this either by changing Federal Reserve policies that would put more money into circulation (monetary policy) or by spending government money itself (fiscal policy) or by cutting taxes.

Keynesian theory is that governments should manage demand, pumping more money into the economy in a recession or depression and spending less in an economic boom. Keynes’ theory, which came to be called the Keynesian Revolution, was a response to classical economics. He focused on short-term solutions to economic problems. “In the long run we are all dead,” is an oft-quoted Keynes phrase.


Laissez Faire Economics

From the French term meaning “let it be,” laissez-faire economics is the view that states shouldn’t intervene in the workings of the free market. Less extreme versions hold that states ought to regulate markets and tax its citizens only to the extent necessary to preserve individual freedom and property rights. Most libertarians believe in some version of laissez-faire economics.


A law is a public rule that is issued by an established authority, backed by an institutional structure and enforced by sanctions. In the United States, a federal law is typically enacted when a measure passes a majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and is then signed by the president. A measure can become law without the president’s signature if it passes by a 2/3 vote in both the House and the Senate. State laws are usually created by a similar process, with legislatures and governors taking the place of Congress and the president.

Legislative Branch

Article I in the U.S. Constitution establishes the legislative branch, which is sole possessor of legislative power and the principal forum for deliberating and debating federal laws. The legislative branch is divided into two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate, which share legislative power but also each have particular rights and responsibilities. Specifically, the House of Representatives has the sole authority to introduce spending and taxation bills, while the Senate has the sole authority confirm Presidential appointments and approve treaties.

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide


There are two different senses of the word liberal.

1. One who believes that (a) people ought to be free to live their lives as they so choose, (b) that the government should not promote any particular way of living one’s life, and (c) that real freedom requires a redistribution of wealth, facilitated by government. This is the most common contemporary meaning of “liberal.”

2. One who believes that individuals should be free to do as they like with their lives and their property without interference from other individuals or from the government. This meaning of “liberal” is usually called classical liberalism, or libertarianism. See libertarian.

Line Item Veto

A line-item veto is a veto by the president or a governor of only parts of a bill passed by Congress or the legislature. For instance, an executive with line-item veto authority might approve a budget as a whole but reject certain items in it, like funding for a particular highway. Most state governors have line-item veto authority. The president was briefly granted limited line-item veto power beginning in 1996, but in 1998 the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional.


A lobbyist's job is to persuade politicians to vote in a certain way, usually to maximize the interests of the particular group that employs him or her. A lobbyist typically provides information to politicians and their staffs that is favorable to his or her employer’s point of view. Some lobbyists also attempt to wine and dine politicians and take them on trips, a practice that, at the federal level, has been limited by recent ethics rules. While a lobbyist cannot directly offer money to a politician in exchange for a vote, executives of the interest groups that lobbyists represent are often campaign contributors.

Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program

The purpose of LIHEAP is to assist eligible households to meet the cost of heating or cooling in residential dwellings. The federal government provides the funds to the states that administer the program.

U.S. Department of Energy


Marginal Tax Rate

The marginal rate is the rate of taxation on the last dollar earned. In the United States, income taxes are progressive, meaning that as income increases, tax rates increase. Under 2006 law, for example, the rate on taxable income up to $7,500 is 10 percent, and the rate on taxable income between $7,500 and $30,650 is 15 percent. A person with $20,000 in taxable income would thus pay 10 percent on the first $7,500 of income and 15 percent on the remaining $12,500. The person’s marginal tax rate (or the highest rate paid) would be 15 percent.

Marginal Utility

Utility is the value or benefit that a good has to the individual consuming that good. Marginal utility is the value or benefit one receives from buying one more unit of a good or service.


Medicare is a federally-funded health care program primarily for people over age 65. Individuals with disability or end-stage kidney failure can also qualify for it. Like Social Security, Medicare is funded by the government and by payroll taxes, which are withheld from each paycheck during a person’s employment. Medicare is similar to privately funded health insurance in that beneficiaries have some out-of-pocket costs, such as deductibles and co-pays. Some types of Medicare require beneficiaries to pay a premium; in other Medicare programs, premiums are waived if the beneficiaries have paid sufficient payroll taxes.


Methanol, like ethanol, is an alcohol used as an alternative fuel or gasoline additive. But it is poisonous to humans and animals when ingested. It is most often produced using natural gas, but it can be made using biomass, such as wood. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methanol is less volatile than gasoline, and when it is blended with gasoline, methanol lowers carbon monoxide emissions but increases hydrocarbon emissions. When it is used on its own, methanol causes less ground-level ozone to form than gasoline does. Methanol is not commonly used; estimates in 2001 placed the number of methanol vehicles at 1,000 or fewer, according to the EPA.

Minority Leader

The minority leader is elected by the members of the party with the fewest seats in the Senate to serve as their leader and spokesperson. The minority leader has second recognition rights for any bill that is brought to the floor. This privilege allows him or her to be the second to speak about the legislation, after the majority leader, during debate.


A misdemeanor is a less serious type of crime than a felony and thus generally merits a less stringent punishment. Common misdemeanors include criminal acts such as petty theft, prostitution, disorderly conduct, and vandalism. Offenders may be subject to brief incarceration or civil fines.


A state or nation in which supreme power is held by a single person, often a hereditary figure such as a king or queen.


A moot question is one that is not material or already has been resolved, and has become abstract or purely academic.

Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web


Principles of right and wrong in behavior.

Municipal Administration

Employees who are entrusted with the execution of laws and public affairs of the municipality.


A local government unit within a county, such as a city, township, or borough.


National Debt

The total amount owed by a national government. The U.S. debt was $32.66 trillion as of August 2023, not counting money owed by one federal agency to another. That’s roughly 36 percent of the output of the entire U.S. economy for that year. Generally, the debt rises each year by the amount of the budget deficit, or declines by the amount of the budget surplus. Information about the debt can be found at the website of the Bureau of the Public Debt, an arm of the US Treasury.

(A technical note: When speaking of the national debt, economists and news reporters generally mean only money the government owes to others, not to itself. Congress, however, has enacted a debt limit that applies to the combined total of the debt owed to outsiders, technically called “debt held by the public," and to itself, termed "intergovernmental holdings." The latter is made up mostly of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. The total of the two debts is the “total public debt outstanding.” That amount was $8.51 trillion as of the end of fiscal year 2006. The amount actually subject to the debt limit was somewhat less, $8.42 trillion, due to a variety of minor exceptions.)

National Security Adviser

The Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, commonly identified as the national security adviser, serves as the chief adviser to the president on security issues and the head of the National Security Council, which exists within the Executive Office of the President. The national security adviser is appointed by the president to offer independent advice.

The White House

National Security Agency

The National Security Agency, under the auspices of the Department of Defense, is the highly secretive collector of signals intelligence and code-cracking arm of the U.S. government. The NSA was created in 1952 via a presidential directive. The agency director is always a military officer (awarded three or more stars); the deputy director is always a “technically experienced civilian.”


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in 1949 to defend the collective security of its member nations by both political and military means. Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, the group was formed in response to the growing threat and spread of Communism.

Currently, NATO consists of 31 member countries from North America and Europe, and it works primarily in crisis management and peace-keeping roles around the world. NATO also has 8 partner nations with whom it works to develop and recruit forces that could work alongside NATO troops on peacekeeping missions.


Process through which immigrants can become citizens. The Constitution charges Congress with the responsibility of determining naturalization.

Necessary and Proper Clause

After providing Congress with a long list of specific powers, Article I, Section 8 granted Congress authority to make all laws that are "necessary and proper" to implement those powers. Because this broad phrase covers such an extensive sweep of activities, it has been called the "elastic clause."

The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

Neoclassical Economics

Like its predecessor, classical economics, neoclassical economics uses the principles of supply and demand to explain the price of goods, the level of output and the distribution of income in markets. But instead of focusing on costs associated with producing goods, neoclassical economics focuses largely on the choices of individuals. Neoclassical economics is grounded in three assumptions:

  1. That individuals have rational preferences and that preferences can be identified and assigned a value.
  2. That individuals maximize utility (i.e., that they aim to satisfy their preferences) and that business firms maximize profits.
  3. That individuals make independent and informed choices.

Neoclassical economics is distinguished by its focus on marginal utility.


Neoconservatives follow an ideology developed by former liberals who advocated in the ’60s and ’70s for a more aggressive foreign policy. Today they endorse active military intervention. According to author and editor Irving Kristol, widely acknowledged to be the father of the neoconservative movement, its adherents share three core beliefs:

  1. That continuous economic growth is good and that tax cuts stimulate economic growth;
  2. That a strong central state is a good and even desirable thing;
  3. That the concept “national interest” should be understood to include more than just the defense of the nation’s borders, but also its economic and ideological interests.


The National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee's mission is to help Republicans get elected to the House of Representatives. The NRCC recruits candidates for office, helps with fund-raising and offers advice and resources. The group also runs campaign ads, subject to certain rules and restrictions issued by Congress and the Federal Election Commission.

National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee


The National Republican Senatorial Committee works to get Republicans elected to the Senate by recruiting candidates for office, assisting in fundraising, and offering advice and resources. The group runs campaign ads, as well, subject to certain rules and restrictions issued by Congress and the Federal Election Commission.

National Republican Senatorial Committee

Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty

An international agreement intended to prevent the spread of nuclear technology. It was signed by the U.S., Britain, the Soviet Union, and 59 other countries in 1968. The three major signatories agreed not to assist states lacking nuclear weapons to obtain or produce them; the non-nuclear signatories agreed not to attempt to obtain nuclear weapons in exchange for assistance in developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes. France and China, both nuclear powers, declined to ratify the treaty until 1992, and some nuclear powers, including Israel and Pakistan, have never signed it. In 1995, when the treaty was due to expire, it was extended indefinitely by a consensus vote of 174 countries at the United Nations.


Oath of Office

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides an oath of office for the president. The president must solemnly swear (or affirm if he or she cannot swear for religious reasons) to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States and will, to the best of his or her ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. All other federal officers take a different oath, created by statute rather than by the Constitution, where they swear (or affirm) that they will uphold the Constitution of the United States.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


A local statute passed by a town, city, or county government.

Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries

OPEC is an intergovernmental organization whose stated objective is to coordinate and unify petroleum policies among member countries.

Original Intent

The effort to determine precisely what the framers of the Constitution and its amendments had in mind is called the search for "original intent." As the delegates to the Constitutional Convention left little in the way of official minutes, this search has usually involved reading the notes of the individual delegates, "The Federalist," and the records of Congress. Those who believe in finding "original intent" usually prefer a stricter rather than a flexible interpretation of the Constitution.

Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


Ozone is a molecule made up of three atoms of oxygen. It occurs naturally in the stratosphere and provides a protective layer shielding the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Below the stratosphere, in the troposphere, it is a chemical oxidant, a greenhouse gas and a major component of photochemical smog.

U.S. Department of Energy



A release from the official penalties of an offense. The president has the power to pardon any person who has committed a federal offense, except in cases of impeachment.

Parliamentary System

Countries around the world practice democracy through different types of institutions. However, most democracies in the world today use the parliamentary system as opposed to a presidential system like that used in the United States. A few examples among the many parliamentary democracies are Canada, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Latvia, the Netherlands, and New Zealand.

Defining characteristics of the parliamentary system are the supremacy of the legislative branch within the three functions of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—and blurring or merging of the executive and legislative functions. The legislative function is conducted through a unicameral (one-chamber) or bicameral (two-chamber) parliament composed of members accountable to the people they represent. A prime minister and the ministers of several executive departments of the government primarily carry out the executive function.

The political party or coalition of parties that make up a majority of the parliament’s membership select the prime minister and department ministers. The prime minister usually is the leader of the majority party, if there is one, or the leader of one of the parties in the ruling coalition. Some ceremonial executive duties are carried out by a symbolic head of state — a hereditary king or queen in a democratic constitutional monarchy, such as Great Britain, Japan, Norway, or Spain, or an elected president or chancellor in a democratic constitutional republic such as Germany, Italy, or Latvia. The judicial function typically is independent of the legislative and executive components of the system.

In a parliamentary system, laws are made by majority vote of the legislature and signed by the head of state, who does not have an effective veto power. In most parliamentary democracies, the head of state can return a bill to the legislative body to signify disagreement with it. But the parliament can override this ‘veto’ with a simple majority vote.

In most parliamentary systems, there is a special constitutional court that can declare a law unconstitutional if it violates provisions of the supreme law of the land, the constitution. In a few parliamentary systems, such as Great Britain, New Zealand, and the Netherlands, there is no provision for constitutional or judicial review, and the people collectively possess the only check on the otherwise supreme legislature, which is to vote members of the majority party or parties out of office at the next election.

A parliamentary democracy is directly and immediately responsive to popular influence through the electoral process. Members of parliament may hold their positions during an established period between regularly scheduled elections. However, they can be turned out of office at any point between the periodic parliamentary elections if the government formed by the majority party loses the support of the majority of the legislative body. If the governing body, the prime minister and his cabinet of executive ministers, suffers a no confidence" vote against it in the parliament, then it is dissolved and an election may be called immediately to establish a new parliamentary membership. A new prime minister and cabinet of executive ministers may be selected by newly elected members of the parliament.

A few parliamentary democracies function as semi-presidential systems. They have a president, elected by direct vote of the people, who exercises significant foreign policy powers apart from the prime minister. They also have a constitutional court with strong powers of constitutional or judicial review. For example, the constitutional democracy of Lithuania is a parliamentary system with characteristics of a presidential system, such as a president of the republic who is directly elected by the people and who has significant powers regarding national defense, military command, and international relations.

Advocates of the parliamentary system claim it is more efficient than the presidential alternative because it is not encumbered by checks and balances among power-sharing departments, which usually slow down the operations of government and sometimes create paralyzing gridlocks. Further, in the parliamentary system, a government that has lost favor with the people can be voted out of office immediately.

Advocates claim that by responding more readily to the will of the people the parliamentary system is more democratic than the presidential alternative. However, both parliamentary and presidential systems can be genuine democracies so long as they conform to the essential characteristics by which a democracy is distinguished from a non-democracy, including constitutionalism, representation based on democratic elections, and guaranteed rights to liberty for all citizens.

John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


Participation by citizens in their civil society and government is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition of democracy. Civic participation refers to the voluntary activities of citizens in forming and sustaining independent nongovernmental organizations that contribute to the well-being of the community. Political participation pertains to the activities of individuals and groups aimed at influencing the public policy decisions of their government. Through their political participation, citizens prompt their representatives in government to be accountable to the people.

Unless there is some significant level of free and independent participation by citizens in the work of their civil society and government, there cannot be an authentic democracy. In addition to voting for representatives in government and using the initiative and referendum process to make laws, other kinds of political participation in a democracy include:

  • working in an election campaign to support a political candidate or political party,
  • contacting a legislator in order to influence her or his decision about a public policy issue,
  • writing a letter to a newspaper or writing a blog to influence public opinion about an issue,
  • donating money to the election campaign of a candidate or a political party,
  • organizing or joining a lawful public demonstration to support or oppose a public policy option or decision,
  • supporting an interest group in order to promote particular public policies.
  • Proponents of a participatory model of democracy advocate a high level of citizen participation in order to make sure that the government is responsive and accountable to the people it represents. They want citizens to be involved to the maximum extent in activities that might influence decisions in government in order to ensure that democracy is based on the will of the people. In particular, they favor constitutional provisions for citizens to participate directly in the legislative process, such as the initiative and referendum.

    By contrast, some advocates of the liberal model of democracy, while supporting the political participation of citizens, are most concerned with establishing and maintaining constitutional protections for individuals’ personal rights to seek fulfillment on their own terms. This approach may encourage citizens to emphasize private pursuits instead of intense political participation. Some advocates of the liberal model emphasize the individual’s freedom to choose, without undue public pressure, the extent to which he or she will participate politically and civically. By contrast, advocates of the participatory model of democracy claim that intensive and continuous participation by citizens is the best means both to personal fulfillment and to promotion of the common good.

    An ongoing question about democracy concerns the extent, intensity, and immediacy of participation that is necessary to make democracy work for the benefit of the people. If democracy is not extensively participatory, can it really be government of, by, and for the people? Or is a heavy reliance on the representatives of the people, who are judged periodically by citizens through public elections, sufficient to sustain an authentic constitutional democracy?

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


    A partisan is someone who strongly adheres to the ideology or goals of a political party, faction or cause. The word is both a noun and an adjective. It also is commonly used to describe organizations such as think tanks and nonprofit groups that focus on particular causes.


    Patents make it illegal for anyone other than the inventor of a product from being able to make, use or sell that product without the inventor’s permission. Patents are distributed by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and come in three different types: utility, design and plant patents. A patent, if it is granted, lasts for 20 years after the application is filed and can only be recognized in the United States and its territories and possessions.

    U.S. Patent and Trademark Office


    Someone who files a petition with a court seeking action or relief, including the plaintiff or appellant. When a writ of certiorari is granted by the Supreme Court, the party seeking review is called the petitioner, and the party responding is called the respondent.

    Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web


    An individual or group that institutes a legal action or claim.

    Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web


    Pluralism in a democracy is the widespread distribution of political power and influence within the state and civil society. Individuals and groups can express different points of view freely, independently, and effectively in order to influence public opinion and the decisions of government.

    One indicator of pluralism in a democracy is a variety of interest groups, which put forward in the public domain competing points of view about public issues and policies. An interest group is an independent, nongovernmental organization that puts pressure on government officials to make decisions that collectively favor the members of the group. Sometimes an interest group is called a pressure group, because of the intensity of its effort to influence government decisions.

    Unlike a political party, an interest group neither nominates candidates for election to public office nor tries to win control of the government through the electoral process. However, interest groups do participate in election campaigns by supporting individual candidates and political parties that favor their point of view. Interest group members also use the mass media and face-to-face interactions with people to influence public opinion in favor of their positions on public issues.

    Interest groups are formed in a democracy in order to represent and advance the competing interests of different segments of the society and economy. For example, in the United States, there are many interest groups that promote the viewpoints of particular industries, such as the producers or sellers of petroleum, firearms, timber, dairy products, and coal. Labor unions are interest groups that represent workers in various occupations. Still other interest groups address particular topical concerns such as environmental protection, conservation of natural resources, needs of consumers, and the rights of women.

    Pluralism in a democracy is exhibited by the existence of multiple competing centers of power. Various nongovernmental organizations, including interest groups, compete to promote their particular goals and their different visions of the common good. These private organizations are subject to the rule of law under a constitution, but they are beyond the direct control of government officials.

    By contrast, the robust pluralism of a constitutional democracy is weak or absent in non-democratic systems. In a totalitarian regime, such as the defunct Soviet Union, pluralism is not permitted. It is against the law to form free and independent nongovernmental organizations. Civic and political participation is encouraged, but only on the restrictive terms of the ruling party, which controls all social organizations and political groups in its regime.

    Pluralism is also diminished under the authoritarian regimes in countries such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Iran. Political and social groups, especially religious groups outside the Islamic mainstreams of these societies, are either outlawed, suppressed, or otherwise marginalized.

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Plurality Opinion

    A decision in which a majority of judges on the court agree with the result reached but not with the reasons given.

    Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

    Police Chief or Police Commissioner

    The official in charge of the local police department. Generally the mayor has final say over this appointment.

    Political Party

    A political party in a democracy is an independent and freely formed organization that nominates candidates for positions in government with the purpose of winning elections in order to form or control the government. Competition between candidates and political factions or parties is an essential characteristic of a genuine constitutional democracy. If only one political party is permitted to function in a country, or if there is only one officially approved slate of candidates, then there is not a democracy.

    During the period between elections in a democratic country, the political parties that failed to win control of the government are free to criticize or otherwise legally oppose the ideas of the ruling party or coalition of parties. Thus, they try to win support among voters that will enable them to win the next election. If opposition to the ruling party is silenced, then there is not a democracy.

    In a few democracies, such as Great Britain and the United States of America, there are only two major political parties that compete to win control of the national government. In the United States, for example, there are the Democrats and the Republicans, and in Great Britain, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.

    Minor parties may exist in a two-party system, but rarely does one or more of their candidates win a position in national government. From time to time, however,a major party will adopt ideas put forward by a minor party. Sometimes a minor party grows strong enough to replace one of the major parties in a two-party system. During the 20th century, for example, the Labour Party in Great Britain was a minor party that grew strong enough to replace the Liberal Party as one of the two major parties.

    In most democracies, there is a multiple-party system; there are several major political parties whose candidates have a realistic chance to win election to the government, and there are many other minor parties that rarely if ever win representation in the government. For example, there are at least eight political parties that usually win seats in the parliament of Estonia. But Estonia also has more than 30 minor parties that typically do not attract enough voters to be represented at all in the parliament. Nonetheless, they are free to express their ideas in the continuing hope of winning greater support among the voters.

    Multiple political party systems prevail in parliamentary democracies that use proportional representation. Under proportional representation, the members of parliament do not represent constituents in a particular district of the country. Instead, candidates run for office as members of their political party’s slate or list of candidates, which represent the country as a whole and not a single constituency. Thus, voters cast their ballots for one party’s list of candidates in preference to the lists of competing political parties.

    The number of seats that a party wins in the parliament is based on the percentage of votes cast for the party’s list of candidates. For example, suppose there are one hundred members of the parliament. A political party that wins 16 percent of the votes will have 16 members in the parliament; another party that wins 25 percent of the votes will have 25 members of the legislative body.

    In electoral systems based on proportional representation, there is usually a rule that in order to win at least one seat in the parliament, a party must win at least 5 percent of the total votes cast in the election. Thus, political parties with very little support cannot hope to be represented in the parliament. This rule enhances the possibility that one party or a coalition of only two or three parties will gain the majority of seats in the parliament necessary to form a government.

    Two-party systems prevail in democracies with an electoral system based on single-representative districts, such as in the United States, Great Britain, and some other countries founded and formerly ruled by Britain, such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. The candidate for the legislative body (in Britain the House of Commons, in the U.S. the Congress) with a majority or plurality of votes cast in each electoral district wins the seat for that district. This system discourages multiple political parties from competing in the single-representative districts upon which the election is based because only the candidate with the most votes wins a seat in the legislature and the losing party or parties get no seats, as might be the case in the proportional representation system.

    Some multiple-party democracies have an electoral system that is a mixture of two electoral systems: the proportional representation system and the single-representative district system. In all genuine democracies, more than one political party has the constitutional right to compete periodically in elections in order to form and conduct the government. However, if genuine democracy would prevail, the winners of majority support among the people must respect equally and fairly the rights of parties in the minority.

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Poll Tax

    A tax levied on those who vote. Poll taxes were primarily used to impede African Americans and Native Americans from voting in late 19th and 20th centuries. The 24th Amendment, which was ratified in 1964, prohibits any form of poll tax.

    PorkBarrel Spending

    This is the nickname given to lawmakers' allocation of funds to pet projects and programs, usually without public hearings or the review typically given to pending legislation. Pork-barrel spending in its classic form directs government funds into projects that benefit a legislator’s state or district, thus increasing voter satisfaction and improving his or her chances of reelection. See also Earmarks.


    Dealing with the facts or looking at things from a practical point of view or consideration.


    An individual who institutes and carries on a civil or criminal action.

    Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web



    The number of members who must be present for a legislative body to legally do business. In the Congress, a majority of the members must be present to have a quorum.


    A quota is a specific numerical requirement (either a set percentage or a particular number). In policy discussions, it has been used most frequently to describe a target for hiring or admitting members of specific minority groups.


    Rational Basis Test

    A test used to determine whether a law or governmental regulation or action violates the equal protection clause. The rational basis test is used in most circumstances, such as reviewing economic regulations. The test is less intensive than "strict scrutiny" or "intermediate review," which are used when legislation affects certain types of persons that the Supreme Court has found are due additional protection because they have been discriminated against historically.

    For example, laws that affect persons on account of their race, a "suspect class," are subject to strict scrutiny and must be justified by the government with a compelling reason. Laws affecting women differently receive intermediate scrutiny and also must be justified by the government by exceedingly persuasive justification.


    Every ten years, after each census is taken, the House of Representatives is reapportioned to make Congressional districts contain as mathematically equal a number of residents as possible. Originally, the House expanded in size to reflect population growth, but in 1929, the number of seats was fixed at 435. Thus reapportionment has required some states to gain seats and some to lose them. Each state must have at least one representative.

    Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


    A recess is any period during which a legislature takes a break. The U.S. House and the Senate typically recess during the month of August. The term can also refer to periods during which a court is not in session.


    A recession is a decline in economic growth that is spread across the economy. A recession requires at least two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth. It is typically accompanied by falling gross domestic product, real income, industrial activity and wholesale-retail sales, and by rising unemployment. Historically, periods of recession were nearly as lengthy as periods of economic expansion. But since World War II, periods of expansion have lasted approximately five times as long as periods of recession. Most recently, the National Bureau of Economic Research found in December 2008 that a recession had begun in the U.S. during the previous December.

    Red Herring

    A red herring is irrelevant information used in a debate or argument to confuse the issue at hand. A red herring could be a response that doesn't address the original issue, instead diverting the argument onto another topic. For example, a driver who was speeding might argue that he or she shouldn’t get a ticket because there are worse crimes being committed that should occupy the police. The argument is a red herring, a classic logical fallacy – the fact that worse crimes occur isn’t relevant to the fact that the driver was speeding.


    An alternate term for reapportionment.

    Renewable Energy

    Renewable energy is derived from sources that can be replenished or those that are not finite. This type of energy produces smaller amounts of greenhouse gases and pollutants than energy from fossil fuels, such as oil and coal. Common renewable energy resources include water, wind and solar energy.


    A republic is a form of government based on the consent of the people and operated by representatives elected by the people. Hereditary rule by a monarchy or an aristocratic class is prohibited.

    Most democracies in the world today style themselves as republics or democratic republics . . . However, not all democracies are republics, and not all republics are democracies. For example, the United Kingdom, one of the leading democracies of the world, is not a republic but a constitutional monarchy. Other prominent constitutional monarchies that are authentic democracies include Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden.

    The defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the Soviet Union) consisted of 15 constituent socialist republics of which the Soviet Socialist Republic of Russia was most prominent. However, the Soviet Union did not fulfill the criteria by which democracy is defined among the countries of our world. Likewise, the current communist states of China, Cuba, and North Korea are non-democractic republics because they neither conduct democratic elections nor justly protect the rights of particular minorities.

    Prominent among the non-democratic republics of the world today are such authoritarian or despotic countries as Algeria, Angola, Burma (Myanmar), Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan, and Zimbabwe. In some non-democratic republics, such as Iran, there are periodic elections of representatives to a parliament that makes laws by majority vote of the members. However, because there is majority rule without adequate protection of minority rights, elections are not sufficiently inclusive, and all groups in the country do not possess citizenship on equal terms.

    The founders of the United States proclaimed their country to be a republic. And Article IV, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution promised that every state within the country would be a republic. It says, “The United States [federal government] shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” Article I, Section 9 emphatically disassociates the United States of America from any form of aristocracy or hereditary nobility.

    It says, “No title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” In the 39th paper of The Federalist, written in 1788, James Madison explained the idea of a republic or republican form of government that is embodied in the U.S. Constitution. He wrote:

    What, then, are the distinctive characters of the republican form? . . . If we resort for a criterion . . . we may define a republic to be . . . a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class of it . . . It is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed either directly or indirectly by the people; and that they hold their appointments by either of the tenures just specified.

    In the world of the 1770s and 1780s, such a republican form of government was rare; hereditary monarchies and aristocracies prevailed. These non-republican forms of government functioned without representation of or participation by the common people. Unlike most peoples of the world in the late 18th century, Americans were committed to representative, popular, and free government based on the consent of the governed. They established constitutional and representative government in their republic, the United States of America, which is the foundation of democracy in that country today.

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


    A resolution is a formal expression of the opinion or will of one house of the U.S. Congress, adopted by vote and presented in the form of a bill. Unlike a bill, a resolution has no actual enforcement clause and is often a symbolic gesture.


    Language used to persuade or influence others. Politicians tend to rely heavily on rhetoric in speeches, producing notable lines such as President John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural quote, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."


    A rider is a provision, unlikely to pass on its own merits, that is added to an important bill so that it will “ride” through the legislative process.

    Right to an Attorney

    The Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to have an attorney defend him or her at trial. That right is not dependent on the defendant’s ability to pay an attorney; if a defendant cannot afford a lawyer, the government is required to provide one.

    The right to counsel is more than just the right to have an attorney physically present at criminal proceedings. The assistance provided by the attorney must be effective. This does not mean that the defendant has a right to an attorney who will win his or her case. A defendant can receive effective assistance of counsel and still be convicted and sent to jail. However, if an attorney’s performance is not up to reasonable standards for the profession or if the attorney’s ability to put on a full defense is hindered by the prosecutor’s misconduct, then the defendant may be able to challenge his or her conviction.

    This provision does not guarantee the right to an attorney in most civil cases.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Right to Be Informed of the Charges Against You

    The Sixth Amendment right to “be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation” is another protection meant to ensure that the accused receives a fair trial. A speedy, public trial that is heard by an impartial jury is meaningless if a defendant is left in the dark about exactly the crime with which he or she is charged.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Right to Bear Arms

    The Second Amendment states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The principal debate surrounding the Second Amendment concerns whether the right to use and buy guns belongs to individuals or only to a militia. Although the courts generally have held that the right applies to individuals, they have permitted the government to limit some rights of gun manufacturers, owners and sellers.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Right to Jury Trial

    In a criminal case, the government prosecutes or charges a defendant with a violation of the criminal law and begins proceedings (bail hearings, arraignments and trials) to prove that charge beyond a reasonable doubt.

    The Sixth Amendment provides many protections and rights to a person accused of a crime. One right is to have his or her case heard by an impartial jury—independent people from the surrounding community who are willing to decide the case based only on the evidence. In some cases where there has been a significant amount of news coverage, the Supreme Court has ruled that jury members may be picked from another location in order to ensure that the jurors are impartial.

    When choosing a jury, both prosecutors and defense attorneys may object to certain people being included. Some of these objections, called challenges, are for cause (the potential juror has said or done something that shows he or she may not act fairly). Others are peremptory (no real reason need be given, but one side does not want to have that person serve). Lawyers cannot use peremptory challenges to keep people off a jury because of race or gender.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Right to Petition the Government

    The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making a law prohibiting the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The right to petition includes lobbying, letter writing campaigns, peaceful protests, and collecting signatures for ballot initiatives as well as the right to initiate a case against the government in court.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Right to Privacy

    The Constitution does not specifically include a right to privacy, but the Supreme Court has found that it is implied in the Bill of Rights, particularly in the Fourth Amendment's protection against reasonable searches of a person's property. The Ninth Amendment also specifies that rights are not void because they are not enumerated.

    Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution

    Right to Public Trial

    The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a public trial. Like the right to a speedy trial, the right to a public trial serves the interests of both criminal defendants and the public. Defendants are protected from secret proceedings that might encourage abuse of the justice system, and the public is kept informed about how the criminal justice system works.

    Like most constitutional protections, however, the right to a public trial is not absolute. A criminal defendant may voluntarily give up (waive) his or her right to a public proceeding or the judge may limit public access in certain circumstances. For example, a judge might order a closed hearing to prevent intimidation of a witness or to keep order in the courtroom.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Right to Speedy Trial

    The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial. This right is considered one of the most important in the Constitution. Without it, criminal defendants could be held indefinitely under a cloud of unproven criminal accusations. The right to a speedy trial also is crucial to ensuring that a criminal defendant receives a fair trial. If too much time elapses between the alleged crime and the trial, witnesses may die or leave the area, their memories may fade, and physical evidence may be lost.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Right to Travel

    The Supreme Court has over the years defined the right to travel (or the freedom of movement) as one of the “unenumerated rights” of the Constitution. Specifically, the Supreme Court has ruled that this right to travel includes the right of citizens to move freely between states, the right to be treated equally in all states when visiting, and the rights of new citizens to be treated like longtime citizens of a state.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Rights or Individual Rights

    The constitution of a democracy guarantees the rights of the people. A right is a person’s justifiable claim, protected by law, to act or be treated in a certain way. For example, the constitutions of democracies throughout the world guarantee the political rights of individuals, such as the rights of free speech, press, assembly, association, and petition. These rights must be guaranteed in order for there to be free, fair, competitive, and periodic elections by the people of their representatives in government, which is a minimal condition for the existence of a democracy.

    If a democracy is to be maintained from one election to the next, then the political rights of parties and persons outside the government must be constitutionally protected in order for there to be authentic criticism and opposition of those in charge of the government. Thus, the losers in one election can use their political rights to gain public support and win the next election.

    In addition to political rights, the constitutions of democracies throughout the world protect the rights of people accused of crimes from arbitrary or abusive treatment by the government. Individuals are guaranteed due process of law in their dealings with the government. Today, constitutional democracies protect the personal and private rights of all individuals under their authority. These rights include:

    • freedom of conscience or belief
    • free exercise of religion
    • privacy in one’s home or place of work from unwarranted or unreasonable intrusions by the government
    • ownership and use of private property for personal benefit
    • general freedom of expression by individuals, so long as they do not interfere with or impede unjustly the freedom or well-being of others in the community

    A turning point in the history of constitutionally protected rights was the founding of the United States of America in the late 18th century. The United States was born with a declaration of independence that proclaimed as a self-evident truth that every member of the human species was equal in possession of “certain unalienable rights” among which are the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

    The founders declared that the primary reason for establishing a government is “to secure these rights.” And, if governments would act legitimately to protect the rights of individuals, then they must derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” Further, if the government established by the people fails to protect their rights and acts abusively against them, then “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government” that will succeed in fulfilling its reason for existence—the protection of individual rights.

    Ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence about rights and government were derived from the writings of political philosophers of the European Enlightenment, especially those of the Englishman John Locke. Enlightenment philosophers stressed that rights belonged equally and naturally to each person because of their equal membership in the human species.

    According to Locke, for example, persons should not believe that the government granted their rights, or that they should be grateful to the government for them. Instead, they should expect government to protect these equally possessed rights, which existed prior to the establishment of civil society and government. Thus, the rights of individuals, based on the natural equality of human nature, were called natural rights.

    This Declaration of Independence, based on this natural-rights philosophy, explained to the world that Americans severed their legal relationship with the United Kingdom because the mother country had violated the rights of the people in her North American colonies. As a result, the Americans declared they would independently form their own free government to protect their natural rights. In 1787, the Americans framed a constitution to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” and fulfill the primary purpose of any good government as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the protection of natural rights, and they ratified this in the Constitution in 1788.

    In 1789, the U.S. Congress proposed constitutional amendments to express explicitly the rights of individuals that the government was bound to secure; in 1791, the requisite number of states ratified 10 of these amendments, which became part of the U.S. Constitution. Thus, the American Bill of Rights was born. Since then, the American Bill of Rights has been an example and inspiration to people throughout the world who wish to enjoy liberty and equality in a constitutional democracy.

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Roll Call Vote

    A roll-call vote is one in which each member of a legislature must vote yes or no, either by answering a roll call or by means of electronic voting.

    Rule of Law

    In a limited government administered according to the rule of law, the rulers use power following established principles and procedures based on a constitution. By contrast, when the rulers wield power capriciously, there is rule by the unbridled will of individuals without regard for established law. The rule of law is an essential characteristic of every constitutional democracy that guarantees rights to liberty. It prevails in the government, civil society, and market economy of every state with a functional constitution.

    The rule of law exists when a state’s constitution functions as the supreme law of the land, when the statutes enacted and enforced by the government invariably conform to the constitution. For example, the second clause of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution says:

    This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

    The third clause of Article VI says, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation to support this Constitution.” These statements about constitutional supremacy have been functional throughout the history of the United States, which is the reason that the rule of law has prevailed from the country’s founding era until the present.

    The rule of law, however, is not merely rule by law; rather, it demands equal justice for each person under the authority of a constitutional government. So, the rule of law exists in a democracy or any other kind of political system only when the following standards are met:

    • laws are enforced equally and impartially
    • no one is above the law, and everyone under the authority of the constitution is obligated equally to obey the law
    • laws are made and enforced according to established procedures, not the rulers’ arbitrary will
    • there is a common understanding among the people about the requirements of the law and the consequences of violating the law
    • laws are not enacted or enforced retroactively
    • laws are reasonable and enforceable

    There is a traditional saying about the rule of law in government: “It is a government of laws and not of men and women.” When the rule of law prevails in a democracy, there is equal justice and ordered liberty in the lives of the people. In this case, there is an authentic constitutional democracy. When rule of law does not prevail, there is some form of despotism in which power is wielded arbitrarily by a single person or party.

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


    Securities and Exchange Commission

    The SEC's mission is to protect investors and ensure efficient capital markets within the United States. The SEC is the nation's primary securities regulator, overseeing financial reports prepared by public traded companies. Created by Congress in 1934 following the stock market crash of 1929, the SEC now consists of five commissioners appointed by the president and eleven district and regional offices across the country.

    Self Incrimination

    Witnesses in criminal trials, or those whose testimony before Congress might result in a criminal charges, are not required to give testimony against themselves. As this protection against self-incrimination is specified in the Fifth Amendment, declining to testify is sometimes called "taking the Fifth."

    Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


    The Senate is one of the two chambers of the U.S. Congress that possess the legislative power of the federal government. The Senate, which now has one hundred members, has two senators from each state. Until 1913, senators were elected by their state legislatures. But with the adoption of the 17th Amendment, senators have been elected directly by the people of each state.

    There are several exclusive requirements to be a senator: he or she must be over thirty years of age, must have been an American citizen for at least nine years, and must live in the state he or she represents. Senators can serve for an unlimited number of six-year terms. Senatorial elections are held on a staggered basis so that one-third of the Senate is elected every two years.

    If a senator leaves office before the end of his or her term, the 17th Amendment now provides that the governor of his or her state sets the time for a new election. The state legislature may authorize the governor to temporarily fill the vacant seat.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Separation of Church and State

    The separation of religion and government required under the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the government from establishing a religion or preferring one religion over another.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Separation of Powers

    The constitutional doctrine that allocates the powers of national government among three branches: the legislative, which is empowered to make laws; the executive, which is required to carry out the laws; and the judicial, whose job it is to interpret and adjudicate (hear and decide) legal disputes. Some powers belong exclusively to a single branch; others are shared among the branches. For example, the president is commander in chief of the armed forces, but Congress has the power to declare war and to raise and fund the armies. The framers believed that this separation of powers would ensure that no one person or group of persons would be able to create, administer and enforce the laws at the same time and thereby become too powerful. Each branch would be a check on the power of the other two branches.

    The Constitution also requires that no one person serve in more than one branch simultaneously. During the founding era of the United States, James Madison expressed the importance of separated powers in a constitutional government. In the 47th paper of "The Federalist," Madison wrote, "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the hands of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elected, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny."

    Defenders of separated and shared powers emphasize the importance of deliberate decision-making in support of their system of constitutional democracy. They believe that the compromises necessary to achieve agreement among different groups empowered with checks on the actions of the other groups result in a government that cannot act recklessly. Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court nicely summed up the justification for separated and shared powers in the Constitution. In his dissenting opinion in the 1926 case Myers v. United States, Justice Brandeis wrote, “The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted by the Convention of 1787, not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was not to avoid friction but, by means of the inevitable friction incident to the distribution of the governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy.”

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


    A session is the time period during which the U.S. Congress or state legislatures meet. The term also refers to periods during which a court or legislative body is meeting.


    In many disputes, the two sides may agree to resolve their differences before the case is completed. These agreements are called settlements. Often one side will agree to pay the other money. Sometimes all or parts of the agreements are kept secret so that neither side is forced to publicly admit guilt or wrongdoing.

    Single Member District

    A single-member district is an electoral district from which a single legislator is chosen, usually by a plurality vote. This system of representation is used in the U.S. House of Representatives and in most state legislatures. The U.S. Senate represents multi-member districts.

    Solar Energy

    This energy comes from the radiant energy of the sun. It can be converted into other forms of energy, such as heat or electricity.

    U.S. Department of Energy

    Speaker of the House

    The speaker of the House is the presiding officer of the House of Representatives, as dictated by the U.S. Constitution. Although the individual is elected by the full House, the majority party chooses a candidate beforehand to ensure victory. According to the statute for presidential succession, the speaker is third in line to the presidency, behind the vice president.

    Special Prosecutor

    A lawyer from outside the government appointed by the attorney general or Congress to investigate a federal official for misconduct while in office. The reason for appointing an outsider is that the Department of Justice may have political connections to those it might be asked to investigate. This creates a conflict of interest.

    In 1978, following the Watergate scandal and the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox by President Nixon, Congress drafted the Ethics in Government Act, creating a special prosecutor (later called independent counsel) position that would be appointed by a special panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and could be dismissed only by the attorney general or a panel of three federal judges. The special prosecutor was to investigate allegations of misconduct with no budget or deadline. However, critics of this law argued that the independent counsel’s office was a sort of “fourth branch” of government that had virtually unlimited powers and was answerable to no one. The constitutionality of the new office was ultimately upheld in the 1988 Supreme Court case Morrison vs. Olson.

    One of the most famous independent counsels was Kenneth Starr, whose Whitewater investigation led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Many argued that Starr went too far in his investigation. Following the impeachment battle in the Senate where President Clinton was not convicted, the independent counsel law was allowed to expire in 1999. It was effectively replaced by a Department of Justice regulation that created a “special counsel” position that is more limited (must follow Department of Justice approval procedures for investigative actions) than the independent counsel position.

    Stem Cells

    Stem cells are unspecialized cells that are capable of turning into other specific, specialized cells of the body. They come from two main sources: adults and embryos. Human embryonic stem cells (often abbreviated hESC) are harvested from embryos, typically from fertilized eggs left over after in vitro fertilization procedures. An hESC is able to turn into any other type of cell and will grow easily in laboratory conditions. Adult stem cells, which have been used for years to treat lymphoma and leukemia, are relatively difficult to grow in laboratories and have a limited ability to change into different types of cells, although there is some very preliminary evidence that adult stem cells may be more flexible than was previously thought.

    Stem cells have become a topic of political debate because harvesting embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of the embryo, and many people believe that killing an embryo is morally wrong. Scientists study stem cells to learn how they become specialized cells in the human body and to modify them for use in transplantation or the treatment of diseases. A few scientists say that research should be limited to adult stem cells, but most stem cell researchers believe that adult stem cells show less promise for curing some diseases than do embryonic stem cells. Researchers say the study of stem cells could possibly lead to treatments for various ailments, including Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and heart disease.

    Some scientists have suggested that it might be possible to produce hESCs through cloning. To date, no one has succeeded in cloning humans. Human cloning is illegal in the United States.


    A stock is a share of ownership, or equity, in a corporation. Owners of stock have a claim on a share of the corporation’s earnings and assets. If a company is highly profitable or the demand for its stock goes up, the value of its stock increases; if it doesn’t do well, stock values drop. Common stock also gives owners a right to vote in some corporate decisions. Preferred stock doesn’t grant voting rights but pays periodic dividends in the form of cash or additional stock.

    Strategic Petroleum Reserve

    The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is petroleum stocks maintained by the federal government for use during periods of major supply interruption.

    U.S. Department of Energy

    Straw Poll or Straw Vote

    Straw polls, or straw votes, are unofficial votes used to predict results in upcoming elections. They are usually taken in the early stages of a race, and are often administered by political parties or news agencies.


    Financial aid given by a government or public organization to a business or industry to keep it from declining or to keep it competitive, especially if it is in the public interest.

    Supply Side Economics

    Supply-side economics is an economic theory based on the idea that “supply” (goods and services) drives economic growth. According to this theory, putting more money into the hands of business people, investors and individuals – accomplished by cutting tax rates – creates incentives to save, invest, work and produce, thereby creating a stronger economy and a larger tax base (the total wealth subject to taxation). Ronald Reagan was a supply-sider, and the theory became known as “Reaganomics” or “trickle-down economics.”

    The concept is illustrated by the Laffer curve, named for economist Arthur B. Laffer. The Laffer curve shows the relationship between the tax rate and tax revenue. The government receives no revenue at both ends of the curve, when tax rates are at 0 percent (no taxes are collected) and 100 percent (there’s no incentive to work if all money goes to pay taxes). The curve demonstrates the theory that a high tax rate on a small base and a lower tax rate on a large base can produce the same amount of revenue. Supply-siders, therefore, believe that lower government revenues due to lower tax rates could be at least partly offset – opinions differ as to how much – by a higher tax base made possible by higher incomes and lower unemployment. In the ’70s, supply-side economics was a counter to Keynesian economics, a “demand-side” school of thought.


    Tax Collector

    An official responsible for the collection, management, and distribution of delinquent real estate tax money.

    Term Limits

    Term limits are imposed restrictions on the time that a politician may hold office. For instance, under the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, a person can serve as president of the United States for two four-year terms at most.


    Territories of the United States are non-state regions that Congress has the power to sell off or regulate as it sees fits. Similarly, Congress can also allow U.S. territories to become states (such as the Dakota Territory) or independent countries (such as the Philippines).


    According to the Department of Defense, terrorism is “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”

    Third Party

    This is a political party that is neither affiliated with the Democratic nor Republican Party. In the U.S. system, third parties, such as the Green Party, Libertarian Party and Communist Party, are poorly represented in politics, but they can still take votes away from major party candidates, influencing the outcome of elections, as some studies showed that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader did in 2000.

    Three Fifths Compromise

    A difficult and critical sticking point at the Constitutional Convention was how to count a state’s population, particularly whether slaves would be counted for purposes of both representation and taxation. If slaves were considered property, they would not be counted at all; if they were considered persons, they would be counted fully — just as women, children, and others who could not vote were counted.

    Ironically, Southern slave-owners, who considered slaves their property, wanted slaves to be fully counted to increase their own political power in Congress. After extended debate, the framers agreed to the three-fifths compromise — three-fifths of the total number of slaves would be included in a state’s population total (note that the framers never use the word "slaves" in the document).

    After the Civil War, the formula was changed with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, which specifically repealed the three-fifths rule.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide

    Ticket Splitting

    Ticket-splitting is when, in a single election, citizens vote for candidates of opposing political parties; for example, they may vote for a Republican for president and Democrats for seats in Congress, instead of voting for a straight one-party ticket.

    Town Hall

    A town hall literally is a government building where administrative offices of a town government are located. The term is also used to describe a meeting of voters to discuss politics or other issues. Many politicians hold “town hall meetings,” which are talks, with question-and-answer periods, with groups of voters.


    A subdivision of a county, having the status of a unit of local government with varying governmental powers. Townships are the oldest form of government in the United States, dating back to the 17th century.

    Township Board of Supervisors/Board of Commissioners

    Elected officials of townships with executive and legislative responsibilities, such as executing legislation, creating policies, levying taxes, authorizing expenditures, and overseeing management for a township.


    This crime, established by Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution, is the only one specifically created by the document. The crime occurs when one "levies war" against the United States or gives "aid and comfort" to its enemies.

    A person can be convicted of treason only if he or she confesses, or if there are two witnesses to the act of treason. Treason is also a ground for impeachment of the President or other federal officials.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide


    An official responsible for collecting, investing, disbursing and reconciling funds for a county, city, township, or borough.


    A contract between two independent, sovereign political entities (such as the United States or France). The president has the authority to negotiate treaties with other countries, but the treaty cannot go into effect until it is approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.Senators can amend a treaty (change its wording) or enact reservations (change its interpretation) by a simple majority, which enables them to build a consensus to achieve a two-thirds vote.

    The United States Constitution, What It Says, What It Means, A Hip Pocket Guide


    Characterized by oppressive or unjust behavior; ruling irrationally with absolute power.


    U.S. Attorneys

    These are the principal litigators of the nation, serving nearly all of the judicial districts in the United States and its territories under the direction of the U.S. Attorney General. There are 93 U.S. attorneys who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and they are the chief federal law enforcement officers in their districts. They prosecute and defend cases in which the United States is a party.

    Unemployment Rate

    The percentage of those aged 16 and over who say they are available for work but without a job. In the U.S., the rate is calculated monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, based on a survey of 60,000 households called the Current Population Survey, which is conducted by the Census Bureau. People age 16 and over are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job and say they are available for employment and have made at least one attempt to find a job in the prior four weeks. Official statistics are available on the BLS website.

    (Caution: Persons are counted as unemployed regardless of whether or not they qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. A common but false notion is that only insured jobless people are counted. This is not so.

    On the other hand, many who are without regular jobs are still not counted as “unemployed.” These include people in prison, retirees, stay-at-home spouses, full-time students, or anyone aged 15 or under, among others.)

    Unenumerated Rights

    The Ninth Amendment of the Constitution states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Because the rights protected by the Ninth Amendment are not specified, they are referred to as “unenumerated.” The Supreme Court has found that unenumerated rights include such important rights as the right to travel, the right to vote, the right to keep personal matters private and to make important decisions about one’s health care or body.


    An organization of workers that negotiates with employers to maintain or improve wages, benefits and working conditions. A union represents workers in a particular industry, such as teachers in a local school district. In the United States, unions have the legal right, under the National Labor Relations Act, to negotiate collectively with employers over the terms and conditions of their workers’ employment. Both sides must agree on these terms. This is called “collective bargaining.” In some circumstances, workers feel their rights are being violated and may threaten strikes (mass refusal by the workers to perform their work) or other collective action through their union to try to force employers to agree to what they want. Similarly, employers can close the workplaces and hire new workers to force the unions to agree to their terms.

    Unitary Executive Theory

    This theory holds that Congress cannot limit the president’s control of the executive branch because the Constitution sets up a hierarchical system whereby the president has the most power. Supporters argue that Congress can’t set up independent executive agencies and counsels that aren’t controlled by the president. Moreover, different parts of the executive branch can’t sue each other because it would be a violation of separation of powers for the courts to intervene in such disputes.

    Unitary State

    In a unitary state, the central or national government has complete authority over all other political divisions or administrative units. For example, the Republic of France is a unitary state in which the French national government in Paris has total authority over several provinces, known as departments, which are the subordinate administrative components of the nation-state. The local governments of a unitary state carry out the directives of the central government, but they do not act independently.

    The federal system of political organization is the exact opposite of the unitary state. For example, in contrast to the unitary state of France, Germany is a federal republic, which means that the national or federal government in Berlin shares political authority with the governments of several Lander, or political units within the nation-state. However, as in all federal states, including Australia, India, and the United States of America, the central or national government of Germany is supreme within the sphere of authority granted to it through the constitution.

    Unitary states, like federal states, can be constitutional democracies or unfree non-democracies. Both the unitary Republic of France and the Federal Republic of Germany, for example, are constitutional democracies, but the unitary states of Algeria, Libya, and Swaziland are unfree non-democracies. The Republic of Sudan is an example of an unfree and non-democratic federal state.

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide

    User Fee

    A charge made to persons for using a governmental service such as water.



    To make void, annul, or rescind the decision of a lower court.

    Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web


    The power of the head of the executive branch (e.g., the president, governor, or mayor) to kill a piece of legislation by refusing to sign it. A presidential veto can be overridden by a 2/3 majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Latin term “veto” translates as “I forbid.”

    Vice President

    The official next in rank to the president and the president’s successor in case of death, resignation, or impeachment. Pursuant to Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, the vice president also serves as the president of the Senate but has no vote unless the Senate is equally divided.


    Virtue is excellence in the character of a person. It refers to a desirable disposition, which can prompt individuals to be good persons and to do good things in regard to others and the community in general. Civic virtue refers to the dispositions or habits of behavior that direct citizens to subordinate their personal interests when necessary to contribute significantly to the common good of their community.

    Since ancient times, political philosophers have stressed the importance of civic virtue in the establishment and maintenance of good government. For example, Aristotle, the great philosopher of ancient Greece, identified four main virtues that a good citizen of a republic should exhibit: temperance (meaning self-restraint), prudence, fortitude, and justice.

    Political thinkers and actors in modern times have also emphasized the importance of civic virtue in the character of the citizens and the institutions of a constitutional democracy or democratic republic. They have recognized that the practical effectiveness of constitutionalism—limited government and the rule of law—is dependent upon the character of the people. After all, in a democracy—government of, by, and for the people—the quality of constitutionalism can be no better than the character of the people. For example, citizens who possess the civic virtue of temperance are habitually disposed to limit their behavior and respect the rule of law, and to influence others to do the same.

    Citizens who have cultivated the virtue of fortitude are likely to oppose persistently and strenuously government officials who behave corruptly or unconstitutionally, and to encourage other citizens to do likewise. Citizens who have learned the virtue of prudence are inclined to deliberation and reflection in making decisions, rather than to reckless and destructive action, and they influence other citizens by the excellence of their civic behavior.

    Citizens with a well-formed sense of justice are habitually disposed to support community-wide standards for the protection of human rights and the promotion of the common good, and to prompt others to behave similarly. The core civic virtues are integrated within the character of the good citizen, who brings them in concert with other citizens of similar disposition to civic and political participation in a constitutional democracy.

    During the founding of the United States of America, James Madison noted the close connection between civic morality and good constitutional government in a republic. In a speech at the Virginia Convention to ratify the U.S.Constitution, Madison said, “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not . . . no theoretical checks, no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people is a chimerical [unrealistic] idea.”

    Later, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville concurred with Madison in his great book "Democracy in America." Tocqueville observed how the good character of citizens buttressed the institutions of constitutional government, enabling democracy to succeed in the United States during the 1830s. He recognized that if most citizens in the community have learned certain habits of the heart" or civic virtues compatible with constitutionalism then there will be good constitutional government in a democracy. If not, however, even the most adroitly designed constitution, institutions of government, and statutes will fail to yield the desired results of liberty, order, and equal justice under law.

    Democracy is not a self-sufficient system of government. It is a way of political and civic life that can thrive only among people with sufficient virtue to nurture and sustain it.

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


    A visa is a document that authorizes a noncitizen to enter and stay in a country for a specific time period and purpose. Visas are generally issued by a country’s embassy or consulate and processing may include a fee, fingerprinting and background checks. There are many types of visas, including those for tourists, temporary workers and students.

    Voter Turnout

    Voter turnout is the number of votes cast or the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. As a percentage, voter turnout has largely declined in the U.S. since the 1960s.


    The most common form of political participation by citizens is voting in elections for their representatives in government. By voting for or against particular candidates or political parties, citizens signify their approval or rejection of their representatives’ performances. Thus, participation in elections is one way citizens can make their government responsive and accountable to the people.

    John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide


    War Powers

    Among the more ambiguous provisions of the Constitution are the war powers. Only Congress can declare a war and appropriate the funds necessary to fight it, but the president as commander in chief of the military has considerable latitude in sending American troops into combat. Congress has not formally declared war since World War II, although the United States has fought many wars since then.

    Donald Ritchie, Our Constitution


    The" whip" is a legislator who assists a political party leader in organizing fellow members to support the party's position and keep them from "crossing the aisle" and voting with the other side. The majority and minority parties in both the House and the Senate have legislators designated as whips.

    White House Press Secretary

    The White House press secretary is the chief spokesperson for the president of the United States. The press secretary is appointed by the president, but is not a member of the cabinet. He or she gives regular briefings and to news outlets.


    A written order issued in the name of a court telling someone to perform or not perform acts specified in the order.

    Kolbert and Mettger, Censoring the Web

    Writ of Certiorari

    A writ of certiorari is a formal, written order from a superior court to one of lower jurisdiction demanding the record of a particular case that the superior court will hear on appeal. The term most frequently refers to a decision by the Supreme Court to hear an appeal from a lower court. The Latin term “certiorari” translates as “to be informed of, or to be made certain in regard to.”



    Xenophobia is prejudice against foreigners. The word combines the prefix “xeno-”, which means “foreigner” or “other,” and “phobia,” which means “fear, horror or strong dislike.” Xenophobia is a term that has surfaced in policy debates over revamping the nation’s immigration laws.


    Yellow Dog Democrat

    The term used to describe particularly loyal members of the Democratic Party. It came about during the 1928 presidential election. At the time, Southern Democrats were reluctant to vote for their party’s chosen presidential candidate, Al Smith, but they voted for him anyway out of loyalty. One Democratic senator, Howell Thomas Heflin of Alabama, refused to vote for Smith, which upset the South’s party loyalists. Heflin voted for Republican Herbert Hoover instead. Hoover won, and retaliation against Heflin’s vote prompted this phrase from Democratic party loyalists: “I’d vote for a yellow dog if he ran on the Democratic ticket!” Today the term is used as a compliment to refer to any loyal Democrat regardless of the region of the country they are from.

    Yellow Journalism

    Yellow journalism refers to reporting that is sensationalistic and may not be entirely factual. The derogatory term was first used to describe the reporting in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, two rival newspapers that were competing for readers in the 1890s. The World featured a comic strip with a character that wore yellow and was named “the yellow kid.” Hearst lured the artist of the strip to work for the Journal, prompting Pulitzer to hire another cartoonist to launch a similar “yellow kid” comic. Hence, the ultra-competitive papers were the “yellow-kid papers.” Both papers were accused of dramatizing the news in order to increase circulation. They also were charged with prompting the start of the Spanish American War, when Hearst’s papers printed stories that blamed Spain for the sinking of the battleship Maine.



    The genius, spirit, character or preoccupation of a particular time period. The word is German and literally means “spirit of the times.”


    Dividing a community into zones for different types of uses, such as business, residential subdivisions and agriculture.