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What is the difference between hard money and soft money? Or between Medicare and Medicaid? These are just a few of the many well-used - but often misunderstood - terms in US politics.

H-M

H

Hanging / Pregnant chad A chad is the small piece of waste paper or card created when a hole is punched in a ballot.

Chads became famous in the 2000 presidential election, when the results in Florida were so close that a recount was necessary and electoral officials were forced to examine the ballot papers to determine voters' intentions.

Some voters had punched their preferences, but the chad had not fully separated from the ballot (a hanging chad). In other cases, and indentation had been made in the ballot but it had not been punched through (a pregnant or dimpled chad).

Hard money Money contributed by an individual directly to a particular campaign.

New legislation in 2002 raised the limit for individual contributions from $1,000 per candidate per federal (presidential or congressional) election to $2,000.

The first $250 donated to a candidate by an individual can be matched dollar-for-dollar from federal matching funds.

Limits on state-wide elections vary according to state laws.

House of Representatives (The House) The House of Representatives is the larger of the two houses of Congress.

The 435 members of the House - generally known as Congressmen and Congresswomen - serve two-year terms, as compared to the six-year term of senators.

The presiding member, the Speaker of the House, is elected by a majority vote of the members of the House at the beginning of each new Congress.

House members each represent approximately half a million citizens in their "districts". The number of districts per state is determined each decade by a proportional allocation based on the federal census.

House Majority leader The House Majority Leader is the second most powerful member of the majority party in the House of Representatives.

Unlike the speaker, he or she has no responsibility for the House as a whole, and focuses purely on advancing the interests of his or her party - for example, by organising members to support the party's political priorities.

House Minority Leader The leader of the minority party in the House of Representatives.

He or she acts as a spokesperson for the minority party's policy position and organises its legislative strategy.

I

Independent Registered voters who do not declare a particular party affiliation are grouped together under the term "independent".

Because most voters registered for a particular party will vote for that party's candidate, general election campaigns have tended to focus on winning over these groups.

Nationwide about a third of all voters consider themselves independent, however some key states have a higher proportion of independent voters than others. New Hampshire, for example, traditionally has a large number of independents and as a result has a reputation for producing unexpected results during its primary elections.

J

Joint chiefs of staff The Joint Chiefs are the leading military advisers to the president and the secretary of defence.

The panel is made up of the chiefs of staff of the US Army and Air Force, the chief of naval operations and - in cases involving marine corps issues - the commandant of the marine corps.

The group is headed by a chairman who is considered a spokesman for the US military as a whole as well as the president's principal military adviser.

M

McCain-Feingold A 2002 campaign finance reform law named after its main sponsors: Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold.

The law is designed to limit the underground system of fundraising and spending in federal election campaigns. The law bans "soft money" and restricts "issue ads" benefiting candidates. These two practices became increasingly common in elections after the 1974 Buckley vs Valeo Supreme Court decision left loopholes in campaign disclosure laws and limits on contributions.

Soft money donations are not subject to federal limits because they technically go to state parties. Issue ads are commercials financed by interest groups supposedly to promote causes, but which are in reality thinly disguised plugs for particular candidates. The law requires the funding of "electioneering communications" to be made public in the same way that other campaign spending is disclosed.

Opponents of the law say it violates First Amendment rights of free speech in political campaigns, but a Supreme Court decision rejected a challenge to it in December 2003. The law has angered political activists and pressure groups on both right and left concerned that their influence in federal elections will be restricted.

Medicaid A federally funded programme administered at state level to provide medical benefits and healthcare for some low-income people.

Created by amendments to the 1965 Social Security Act, it applies only to certain categories of people eligible for welfare programmes.

These include the old, the blind and the disabled, single-parent families and the children of disabled or unemployed parents.

It is up to states to determine matters of coverage, eligibility and the administration of the programme but they must conform to broad federal guidelines.

Medicare The national health insurance programme for the elderly and the disabled established in 1965 under an amendment to the Social Security Act.

Medicare breaks down into two parts:

  • hospital insurance

  • medical insurance

It is designed to help protect people aged 65 and over from the high costs of healthcare.

It also provides coverage for patients with permanent kidney failure and people with certain disabilities.

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