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Brushing Up on Your Congress-ese

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
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August 26, 2008

While the kids are scrambling to finish the summer reading that they inevitably left to the last minute, we thought you might like to brush up on some vocab as well. No, there won’t be a quiz.

Well, there might be.

Sometimes it feels like those of us (trapped) inside the Beltway speak a foreign language, so we wanted to provide you with a glossary of common terms that we throw around, so the next time you read the Blog of Rights or search our site for press releases, you’ll know what we’re talking about. We’ll try not to sound too much like your high school civics class. In fact, we were inspired by two things: Schoolhouse Rock, which some of us grew up watching on ABC, and that famous quote by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (you know, when he said: “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.”)

First up to bat:

Regulations versus Laws: Alright, you know what a law is. You passed high school civics, and you know that a law is passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by the president (or passed by a super-majority of Congress over a president’s veto), and then we (the folks residing in the U.S.) have to obey it. But, laws are not the only rules governing our society. Regulations are rules promulgated (that’s a fancy word for “created”) by an administrative agency (a.k.a. part of the executive branch of the government) that guide how laws are implemented. For example, in 1973, Congress passed the Church Amendment, a law that allowed health care providers to refuse to provide abortions or sterilizations or information about abortion or sterilization. On Thursday, August 21, 2008, President Bush’s Department of Health and Human Services proposed regulations that would interpret this law to open up the possibility that institutions and individuals could deny women access to birth control or refuse to provide information and counseling about basic health care services.

The process for promulgating a regulation is different from that of developing a law. First, an administrative agency will propose a draft regulation and publish it in the Federal Register. Then, there will be a comment period of at least 30 days on the draft regulation. Organizations, as well as members of the public, will be welcome to submit comments on the proposal. And the ACLU usually does. After the comment period closes, the agency will consider the comments (or at least they say they do) and then, in due time, the agency will promulgate a final regulation, which will be binding. This process can sometimes take years, and at a minimum takes several months.

Occasionally, the government will pass emergency regulations, which are regulations that go into effect without a public comment period. (This is considered poor form.) The bad news is that, unlike a law which (typically) has the approval of two branches of government, a regulation is promulgated solely by the executive branch. The good news is that once a new president comes into office, his (or her) agencies can revoke old regulations and/or propose new ones that override the old ones. (Of course, this can work against us, as well as in our favor.)

Tune in tomorrow to learn about hotlining!