As complex human beings do, we have built wildly complicated processes and systems for creating and implementing policy. These systems come with their own sets of rules that change depending on whether the policy lives in an international, federal, state, city, institutional, or departmental space. Oftentimes, those working in the policy space speak in technical terms or even short-hand, and I have found over the years that this language more than anything, is that of power, privilege, and social capital. If we in higher education administration want to level the proverbial playing field and provide access for our practitioners to understand meaningfully the implications of everything from Title IX to international visa restrictions that affect our work, we must begin with building a foundation for everyone to be included. To me that means demystifying some of the language used in public policy that can have the impact of excluding folx from participation.
Under the last two U.S. Presidential administrations, I have found myself digging through the internet to understand why one used a negotiated rulemaking process and the other a rule making process. What was the difference? I have been in meetings and jotted down terms I wanted to ensure I was interpreting correctly and then frantically searched for a definition because it didn’t seem like a good time to ask. I have learned in doctoral-level courses on public policy that one thing has always been true: public policy is often as clear as mud. In defining some of the most common policy terms that higher education administrators confront, I hope to bring clarity and empower the policy-curious with the tools to understand some of the foundational language used in public policy.
Before diving into definitions, it might be helpful to refresh on how a bill becomes a law with our old friend, School House Rock. If YouTube is not your jam, this flow chart tells the same story, though without the catchy tune. The rest of the definitions below are built from a variety of sources including government websites, old textbooks, and my own personal knowledge acquired over time.
Amicus Brief – can be pronounced either “uh MEEK kuss” or “AM uh kuss,” potato potahto.
In Latin, it means literally “friend of the court” and refers to an issue statement provided to lawmakers who have an interest in the subject matter but are not a directly involved party. For example, NASPA might file an amicus brief related to federal financial aid, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), or Title IX to describe the impact of the potential legislation on students and on the higher education industry.
Appropriation – in the context of federal and state governments, an appropriation is a provision of funds for a particular purpose. When higher education receives an appropriation, it is because Congress authorized funds for the treasury to release them. In the context of state and local processes, it’s the same but with different authorizers and disbursers of the funds. In student affairs terms, an authorization might be what the Vice President determines your department’s budget will be and the appropriation is what the central budget office actually distributes into a department’s accounts.
Bill/Omnibus Bill – pronounced “om nuh buss” or if you say it fast, sounds just like “on the bus.”
A bill is the vehicle by which an elected lawmaker pushes forward the possible law. The first iteration of the bill goes through scrutiny in committees and almost never looks like the original by the time it lands on the desk of the U.S. President. An omnibus bill is a package of a variety of issues in one bill. Usually there are multiple approaches to the same issue. However, an omnibus bill sometimes encompasses regulations for things that may not make sense together, like pesticide use and car insurance.
Executive Order – These come from the President of the United States of America, often abbreviated as “POTUS.” Executive orders carry the full force of federal law and are more controversial than the regular lawmaking process because they bypass Congress’ authority to be the lawmaking body. For your bar trivia, every POTUS except for William Henry Harrison issued at least one (though Harrison held the office just one month). Executive orders are subject to legal challenge and review and are easily reversed compared to the traditional lawmaking process through Congress.
Ranking committee member – this term applies only to the minority party in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the U.S. Senate. The ranking committee member is the person who holds the most seniority from the minority party. Their counterpart is the committee chairperson who comes from the majority party. Senators can only be the ranking committee member of one committee at a time.
Regulatory Guidance vs. Sub regulatory Guidance – both regulatory and sub regulatory guidance discuss the interpretation of the implementation of a law. Effectively, this type of guidance tells us how to do the thing the law demands. For example, we have a law that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex. How we implement that anti-discrimination protection is regulated by the United States Department of Education. For an in depth dive on this subject, I’m going to point you to an excellent and informative 2017 blog post by NASPA staffer, Diana Ali. Diana serves as associate director of policy research and advocacy.
Resolutions – this one I have always found confusing and there are three kinds: joint, concurrent, and simple. Simple resolutions apply only in the chamber they are introduced (House or Senate) and do not create law; whereas concurrent resolutions have independent roles in both chambers and do not have the force of law; and joint resolutions are truly the voice of the entirety of Congress and do have the force of law. Congress itself notes that there is not really a practical difference between a bill and a joint resolution in terms of force of law. In practice, resolutions tend to emerge for continuing laws that might expire soon, like reauthorizing an expiring act or appropriating emergency funds, like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Senate HELP Committee – HELP is an abbreviation for health, education, labor and pensions. Higher education as an industry is deeply impacted by the work of the HELP committee. If you want to learn about the lawmaking process and are overwhelmed with where to begin, as a higher education administrator, this a great place to start.
These are just a few common terms that I have found key to understanding higher education policy from the national perspective. The United States Senate provides a helpful glossary of other commonly used terms in the legislative process. If there are other terms you’d like some clarity on, drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and we’ll get this blog post updated.