American Government Key Terms

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Term Explanation
trial balloon Leaking a proposed decision (such as a nomination by the president of someone to the U.S. Supreme Court) to the media so it can be publicized in order to see how the public reacts before the decision is finally made and officially announced. This enables changing the decision without embarrassment if the public reaction to the trial balloon is negative.
lame duck An elected official (or officials) who has not been reelected but still holds the official position until replaced by someone who was newly elected. Example: Congress in December 2010 is a "lame duck Congress" because the new representatives who were elected on Nov. 2 are not sworn into office until early January 2011.
interest group An association or organization having a common political goal and a legal or political strategy for achieving that goal. Examples include unions like the SEIU and NEA, and conservative groups like the Gun Owners of America.
Citizens United v. FEC (Jan. 2010) The U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations (like Wal-Mart) to spend directly for or against political candidates.
divided government When the House of Representatives, Senate and President are not controlled by the same political party; one or more is controlled by one party, while at least one is controlled by the other major party. (This is unique to the United States).
midterm elections The elections held in the middle of the four-year presidential term. Example: the elections held on Nov. 2, 2010, were "midterm elections." These elections give the public a way to vote on how the president and his political party are doing.
early voting The growing practice of voting prior to Election Day, which in some States (like Nevada and Colorado) now exceeds 50% of all votes cast.
judicial elections In local jurisdictions, judges can be elected instead of appointed. This helps prevent activist judges from getting appointed by liberal politicians.
initiative As in, "ballot initiative" - a way to vote on something other than candidates during an election.
referendum The process of allowing citizens to directly vote on a given piece of legislation. Some countries (like Switzerland) conduct most of their politics in this way.
granting cert. The term used when a court approves a given case to be heard.
turnout The percentage of eligible voters who actually vote. Turnout is typically lower for midterm elections than a presidential election.
federal Pertaining to the national government, as opposed to the state government.
Bill of Rights The first 10 amendments to the US constitution.
The Equal Access Act (1984)
impeachment
think tank An organization that analyzes political issues and provides suggestions and summaries of various scenarios.
political party An organization of people that have the same political beliefs. Each party puts up its own candidates for election.
Middle East Region of the world containing Israel and many arab countries.
Second Amendment Gives individuals the right to own guns.
Tenth Amendment Reserves power to the people (and to States) powers not given to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution.
judicial activism When judges go beyond their duties and essentially "legislate from the bench" in favor of their own political views.
U.S. Circuit Courts
incumbent A politician currently in office.
anti-Federalist
federalism
polling Conducting a survey of people's preferences for various candidates or proposed pieces of legislation. Very important before elections.
the Cabinet The top officials of the various major departments in the Executive Branch who also serve as top advisers to the president.
gerrymandering Making congressional district boundaries have very strange shapes (for the purpose of manipulating election results).
separation of powers The concept of separating the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government.
veto The President's power to singlehandedly override a given piece of legislation.
sound bite A brief statement (talking point) made by a politician that can be easily played by the media.
recall Removing an elected official from office.
progressive tax A tax system in which the wealthier are forced to pay more taxes (percentage wise).
open primary A political party's primary in which anyone can vote.
closed primary A political party's primary in which only members of the given party can vote.
platform The basic tenets of a political party's values and action plan.
executive order An order given directly by the President (bypassing Congress). Only possible for certain types of actions.
executive branch The branch of government responsible for executing laws. The President is head of this branch.
Electoral College The group of (currently 528) people (electors) who directly vote for the President after the general election.
enumerated powers The powers specifically written out in the Constitution.
cloture
filibuster A single senator's ability to block a piece of legislation by speaking (or threatening to speak) about it indefinitely.
gross domestic product The total economic output of a given country (typically given per year).
supply-side economics
gross domestic product
unemployment
Tea Party a groundswell movement that began in early 2009 in opposition to excessive government spending
media The "media" include almost any means of communication and publicity: television, newspapers, radio, and the internet.
conference committee
pocket veto
free speech
three strikes and you're out This is a criminal justice system that imprisons people for most of their lives if they break the law in a significant way for the third time; this was implemented in California.
peace dividend The savings and extra money (the "dividend") that is available when there is peace compared with when there is expensive war.
Constitutional Convention
grassroots
activism
pro-life
union
domino effect
regulation
electioneering
entitlement
ethnic voting
phone banking
globalism
liberal
conservative
homeschooling Educating children at home or via private classes in lieu of using public schools.
Speaker of the House The leader of the House of Representatives. Selected by the controlling political party.
Majority Leader The leading senator from the political party that controls the Senate.
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