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Lost in Translation: From Legislature to English

The Legislature has its own jargon, and it sometimes feels like members are speaking a different language. Blocker bills? WADA? Chubbing? LARS? Here's a guide — in the form of a multiple-choice quiz — to what they're saying.

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The 83rd legislative session's celebrations and organizing rituals are nearly over now, and Texas lawmakers will soon be making laws. Not that they’ll be comprehensible about it.

The people in government have their own language. Sometimes it sounds like English, and sometimes it doesn’t seem to make any sense at all.

It’s not that lawmakers are trying to evade clarity and understanding. It’s just that — like everybody else — they’ve got their own way of saying things. For outsiders — as well as for the dozens of new legislators doing this for the first time — the jargon can seem impenetrable.

“Reading” a bill? That comes from the days before the iPad, the computer, the typewriter — the days when the way most people learned what was in a bill was by listening to someone read the thing.

“Three several days?” That means three regular old days of the sort you're accustomed to, and not the kinds of parliamentary contrivances that somehow allow more than one day within a 24-hour period.

Enrolling? Engrossing? Points of order?

Below is a multiple-choice quiz — don’t worry, nobody will see how well you do — to test your knowledge and re-familiarize yourself with the terminology of the Pink Building. Some questions have more than one correct answer. When you're done, click the "See All Answers" button to see how you did.

Choose the proper definition — when it comes to the legislative session — for each of the following terms:

  1. Back Mic
    A) The last guy in a line of Michaels
    B) A listening device that attaches to the spine
    C) The podium for speakers at the rear of the Texas House
  2. Biennium
    A) The regular two-year cycle of government and politics in Texas
    B) A plant that blooms every 24 months
    C) The food court at a shopping mall
  3. Blocker Bill
    A) William, an offensive tackle.
    B) The invoice for services rendered by William, the offensive tackle
    C) A piece of legislation designed to impede other legislation unless a two-thirds majority of senators agrees to ignore “the regular order of business”
  4. Calendar
    A) A monthly listing of dates, with pictures of puppies, frogs or firemen
    B) A way of breaking time into easily understood pieces
    C) An official listing of legislation up for consideration by the House or Senate
  5. Chapters 41 & 42
    A) A point in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables where something awful takes place
    B) The part of the Texas Education Code that prescribes funding for property-rich and property-poor school districts
    C) The part of the federal bankruptcy law that applies to banks that are too small to rescue
  6. Chili Parlor talk
    A) Gossip of the type heard at a well-known restaurant and beer joint near the Capitol
    B) Particularly noisy indigestion
    C) Conversation when the heating is out at Downton Abbey
  7. Christmas Tree
    A) O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum
    B) What’s added to the top of a skyscraper when the structure of the last floor is done
    C) Legislation susceptible to heavy ornamentation in the form of apparently unrelated amendments
  8. Chubbing
    A) Talking for the purpose of delay during a legislative debate
    B) People-watching at a community swimming pool
    C) Guzzling a high-octane beverage in the members' lounge adjacent to the Texas House
  9. Cloak Room
    A) An underground drinking establishment within crawling distance of the Texas Capitol
    B) A room where senators don their capes and powdered wigs
    C) A secret chamber where lawmakers hide from constituents angry about their votes
  10. COW
    A) A large farm animal, twitchy around french fries
    B) The Committee of the Whole, a committee made up of the entire House or entire Senate when they want to follow committee rules instead of the normal rules
    C) The milk dispenser in the Capitol cafeteria
  11. Committee Substitute
    A) A replacement for a committee that has gone rogue
    B) The name for legislation unveiled in committee to entirely replace an original version
    C) A legislator who fills in for a colleague who is at the Cloak Room
  12. Conference
    A) A meeting with your child's teacher or principal
    B) A junket
    C) A special committee designed to reconcile House and Senate versions of a particular piece of legislation
  13. Does the gentleman/gentle lady yield?
    A) A parliamentary request to interrupt the senator or representative who currently has the floor
    B) A formal way to request a date with an elected official
    C) A lobbyist’s inquiry into the flexibility of a particular legislator
  14. Engrossed
    A) Someone with a really good book
    B) Lawmakers discussing redistricting maps
    C) Legislation in final form in the chamber where it originated, with its amendments attached
  15. Enrolled
    A) A lawmaker who has signed up for a conference
    B) Legislation in its final form, whether amended or not
    C) A student whose summer has come to a tragic end
  16. Fund 006
    A) The money jar on the bar in the members' lounge behind the Senate
    B) The account where the state’s transportation money is kept
    C) The top half-dozen campaign donors in the state
  17. Gubernatorial
    A) A swimming pool for legislators
    B) Involving the governor
    C) A conjugation of the word Goober and the word Natural that refers to the native condition of political people
  18. Hold Harmless
    A) Securing an infant in your arms
    B) Reaching a resolution, as is common in school finance legislation, that protects all parties from losing money
    C) Looking down your nose at an vastly inferior opponent
  19. Invited testimony only
    A) When lawmakers don’t want to listen to the rest of us
    B) Setting aside time for expert witnesses, usually at the beginning of committee consideration of legislation
    C) A way of scripting a committee hearing to frame an issue favorably at the beginning of debate
  20. LARS
    A) A Nordic gentleman
    B) Legislative Appropriations Requests, where state agencies outline their ideal budgets
    C) The Lasagna and Rigatoni Special in the Capitol cafeteria
  21. Local Bill
    A) Legislation with no impact outside a small geographic area
    B) Legislation mislabeled to avoid the more hazardous path designed for bills with wide-reaching impact
    C) A bar tab
  22. Mark Up
    A) What happens when you give a Sharpie to a 5-year-old
    B) Scribbling in the margins of legislation during debate
    C) The line-by-line process of settling differences in a budget bill at the end of committee hearings and debate
  23. Outside the bounds
    A) Flirting with legislative pages
    B) Allowing a conference committee to agree to terms that weren’t included in the original legislation
    C) Parking an SUV in a space set aside for compact cars
  24. Parliamentary Inquiry
    A) An internal investigation of legislators, by legislators
    B) Interruption of a legislator during floor debate for informational purposes
    C) An investigation of legislators, by nonlegislators
  25. Personal Privilege Speech
    A) An uninterruptible, time-limited speech in which a lawmaker may express views on anything from legislation to personal matters, often with deep emotion, and during which no one in the room is permitted to talk, walk around or make noise.
    B) A forum for a lawmaker to make the sort of speech rarely seen outside of movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Dave
    C) A parliamentary rule that allows House members to imitate senators, but with time limits.
  26. Point of Order
    A) The term for calling foul when another lawmaker has broken a procedural rule; when sustained by the chair, it sends a piece of legislation back one step in the process, delaying consideration (sometimes killing the bill)
    B) A rare moment when everything seems to fall into place
    C) When a legislator makes a formal plea for quiet and restraint
  27. PSF
    A) The price per square foot for a piece of land or other real estate
    B) The Permanent School Fund, an endowment set aside for public schools in Texas
    C) A controversial performance-enhancing drug for politicians
  28. Quorum
    A) What was missing when legislative Democrats went to Oklahoma or New Mexico in 2003
    B) The number of legislators who have to be present to conduct official business — two thirds of the members of each chamber
    C) The size of a group of legislators that forms 15 to 30 minutes after the posted time of a meeting
  29. Rainy Day Fund
    A) The amount set aside to pay The Cat in the Hat for entertaining the kids
    B) A state fund established to offset the effects of economic downturns on state revenue
    C) Money collected from taxpayers for everything except basic needs
  30. Record Vote
    A) An antiquated term for decisions about what music to play
    B) A vote where every legislator’s preference is entered into the records
    C) A historically high turnout in an election
  31. Regular Order of Business
    A) The required sequence of legislation to be considered unless lawmakers vote to skip ahead, which generally takes two-thirds of the members
    B) A disdainful description of the Legislature’s work, as in, “Oh, that’s the regular order of business up there.”
    C) The rankings of members of the established business trade groups and lobbyists
  32. Rider
    A) A politician swept into office on someone else’s electoral coattails
    B) A descriptive special provision in the budget applying to a particular agency, source of revenue, or program
    C) Another word for a reporter, pronounced with a proper Texas accent
  33. Sine Die
    A) A Latin phrase (pronounced sigh-knee-dye) meaning “without a day,” as when the Legislature adjourns at the end of a session for the final time, leaving without setting another time to come back
    B) A Latin phrase (pronounced sigh-knee-dye) signaling a temporary abatement of legislating and a jolting return to politicking and fundraising
    C) A Latin phrase (pronounced sigh-knee-dye) that is the biennial signal to Texans that, barring some state emergency or court order, the Legislature is going home for 19 months.
  34. Sunset
    A) What the hero rides off into
    B) The lovely thing in the West, right before nightfall
    C) An expiration date on state agencies, most of which are required to survive a review every 12 years in order to stay in business; in practice, agencies are rarely closed, but often undergo major remodeling
  35. Supplemental Appropriations
    A) The pile of money used to fill a hole in a budget drafted in the previous session, to pay for programs and services that ended up costing more than the previous Legislature set aside
    B) A method of coming back after an election to pad a budget originally kept skinny to help win that election
    C) A biennial acknowledgement that accurately predicting costs and revenues two years ahead is just about impossible
  36. The Rail
    A) The brass bar encircling the House and Senate that protects members from the media, their own staff and other riffraff
    B) A bar near the Capitol
    C) The fastest way out of town for lawmakers who fall into disfavor with the powers that be
  37. Two-Thirds Rule
    A) A Senate rule that requires two-thirds of senators to consent before legislation can be considered outside the regular order of business, typically because a blocker bill has been put into place. The rule empowers political minorities, to the frequent frustration of political majorities.
    B) The requirement that you can’t have dessert until you finish at least two-thirds of the food on your plate
    C) In baseball, the injunction that everyone on base runs when a batter hits with two outs
  38. Vendor Bill
    A) Legislation that cuts someone new into an existing business where another has a traditional advantage, often involving two groups that have greater or lesser professional requirements, like architects and interior designers, ophthalmologists and optometrists, doctors and nurses, etc. ad nauseum
    B) Legislation promoted entirely by a business interest, often to gain advantage over another business interest; or legislation designed to put a particular outfit in a sweet spot for a state contract or a private monopoly
    C) An invoice for services rendered to the government for goods or privatized services
  39. Verification
    A) The process of making sure, at checkpoints at each entrance of the Texas Capitol, that every entrant is property armed and licensed to carry concealed handguns
    B) Recounting votes, member by member, to make sure they were recorded properly, and that they were actually in the room to vote when their preference was initially recorded
    C) The art of determining whether a Republican legislator is conservative enough to keep activists at bay
  40. WADA
    A) An acronym for Weighted Average Daily Attendance, or the basic unit that determines how much money goes to each school in the state based on how many kids are in class on a given day
    B) An acronym for What A Disaster Area, used to describe any scene in the Capitol where things have gone seriously awry
    C) An acronym for Why Aren’t Democrats Alive, used to describe the current influence of the minority party in legislative affairs in Texas


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State government 83rd Legislative Session Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate