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American Government 101
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A Mystery No More
Talking to friends both in an out of the USA, I have found that the basic set up of America government is very much misunderstood. Being a Education Major focusing on History, Political Science and Sociology, as well as a lover of U.S. Constitutional Law, I feel this little article may just clear up the mystery people see in the United States government.
The Basic Setup
American government is broken down into 3 basic aspects. There are:
As a part of this introduction I will give you specifics about each branch including how people serving in each branch comes to that position, how long they serve and why it is set up that way. BUT, before we go further, I must tell you about the overall motivation and theory behind why the government is set up this way.
Balance of Powers
One of the key questions in politics is "How do you get stability in government without all the power plays, revolutions and chaos that has inundated history?"
Government's purpose is to provide stability and security, which is just a little difficult when the King becomes a tyrant, the nobles are extorting the peasants or the democracy you're in deteriorates to mob rule. Each form of government has its advantages and disadvantages. Here are some key words for you to simplify the many forms of government and keep track as well.
The One - a king, dictator or president.
The Few - an aristocracy, oligarcy or legislature.
The Many - a democracy, mob, or in some cases, tribes. In other words the people.
The One, the Few and the Many is key in American Government. Each form is opposite to the others, yet when combined into government, these different forms create a balance of powers, also know and "Checks and Balances." The Founding Fathers of the United States felt that this system would provide protection from infringements of Natural Rights (also known as Inalienable Rights or Human Rights) by the government.
The United States is a Bicameral system, meaning that there are 2 bodies of the legislative branch. When you hear someone say Congress or refer to a Congressman or woman, they are referring both groups combined.
The 2 groups are the House of Representatives (or the House for short) and the Senate.
The House: This legislative body is based off the population of each state. There are 435 representatives that serve in the House. This number will not change; however, distribution of representatives from states can change based off the census that is done every 10 years.
To give you an idea of the distribution of representatives per each state, California has 53, while Hawaii has 2 and Montana has 1. For a complete list of Representatives you can go to the House of Representatives Website. There is currently no term limit for those who serve in this capacity.
Each representative serves for 2 years and are elected by popular vote for the district they serve. This is an embodiment of The Many.
The Senate: This legislative body, on the other hand, is not population based. Each state is allowed 2 Senators. The Senators serve for 6 years and are currently elected by popular vote BUT this was not the original organization or means of election. The U.S. Constitution originally required that Senator be elected by the State Legislatures. These Legislatures are elected by the population of the state, yet the State Legislature represent the state's interest as a whole and so the State Senators were meant to represents The Few, meaning the states as a whole rather then just population. The 17th amendment to the Constitution was adopted on April 8, 1913 and changed the election of the Senators to the population of each state. The intent of this was to make the USA more democratic, but in reality it made it harder for a Senator who is not representing his constituents properly to be recalled. In the previous system, any Senator that did not do as the state needed could be recalled easily with a no confidence vote of the state legislature. For a complete list of those currently serving you can go to the U.S. Senate's Website. There is currently no term limit for those who serve in this capacity.
The Legislative branch is the law making branch as well as being the branch that holds the "purse strings" of the country. This group controls the money, so in many ways it is the most powerful of the 3 branches. This is also the only branch of the Federal government that can amend the Constitution. The state legislatures can call for and amend the constitution but there has to be a 2/3rds majority for such a change to take place, which is rather difficult when you have 50 states.
President Woodrow Wilson was the first elected official to refer to the United States as a Democracy.
The original meaning of the term Democracy was a governmental form where every person with Franchise Rights(the right to vote) had the option to cast their vote on ALL governmental issues. This was the from of government in some Greek cities at one point. This particular form of government had its draw backs because there were so many people involved. In today's governmental systems the only time classical Democracy is seen in in town meetings, and even then that is rare.
The term Democracy as it is used today actually refers to a Republic. A Republic is a governmental form where those with Franchise Rights vote for representatives. These representatives then vote for laws and manage government. This is why in the Pledge of Allegiance in the United States, the phrase, "And to the Republic for Which it Stands..." is in there. The United States is a Constitutional Republic. This literally means that the USA is a Republic because it's Constitution defines it as such. Many political science teachers will say that this is not the case because the term Democracy has been redefined. I feel the issue is easily solved by going back to the original definition.
The President of the United States is elected by an electoral college. While the system is some what complex, I will provide a simplification of it as follows. Long before the presidential election comes to the vote your local political groups meet together in what is called a caucus meeting. There the local members elect a representative to go to a country caucus, and this process is followed until there is the number of people needed for each states electoral vote is filled for each party involved. When the election for president takes place, the people cast their votes and the electors in the Electoral College use the mood of the populations vote to determine their vote; however, the electors do not have to vote for what the population votes for. There is a lot of criticism for this method of election because it is not democratic, but the United States is not a Democracy. It is a Republic. A Democratic-Republic is you want to get technical. The governmental system is a representative government and the Electoral College a perfect example of representative government at all levels. If you were to go to the Caucus meetings, which take place about a year before the presidential election, you would be in a democracy of sorts. All who attend and who are registered to vote may vote. But they vote for a representative of the local caucus. Those representatives go to a county Caucus meeting and elect a representative from all present for the County's population. This keeps happening until the number of elected officials equals the number assigned to each state according to population (which is the reason the US Census happens every 10 years). When the election happens the population votes. Those votes are tallied and the Electors at the Electoral College cast their votes according to what the population voted... usually. The elector can cast his or her vote in a different direction, but this is rare and hasn't happened for a long time. To add an additional level to the Electorial College, there are actually caucus meetings for ALL political parties within the given state. So if there were a John Paul Jones Party that had a candidate running, even if the party was not all that large there would be a Elector representing that party IF they held Caucus meetings etc.
The Judaical is the most interesting, simple, and complex of the branches of the U.S. Federal Government. It is complex in the relation the other branches because of how the different levels and even branches of the courts interact. There is the Federal Court System, the State Court System and other external courts such as Military Courts, the Claims Courts or the International Courts.
While I share the diagram below and to the right to explain the interactions of the courts, for the sake of simplicity I will focus only on the State and Federal Court Systems. The Supreme Court is just that, supreme. The highest court in the land. The Supreme Court Justices are appointed by the current president and approved by the Senate. In this way the power is balanced between the Executive and the Legislative. The Justices of the Supreme Court do not have a term. Appointment is for life or until mental or physical health is to the point where they cannot serve. This design point was intentional. The Supreme Court Justices are essentially an aristocracy. While the politicians who appointed them may leave office, the justices themselves will remain to counter balance the current politicians.
What the Supreme Court does is also simple and complex. Initially designed to be the highest judges of the land and so to act as the final court of appeals, there was something that the Supreme Court evolved into that was unintentional. In the case of Marbury v. Madison, essentially the Supreme Court assigned to themselves the power through precedents of Judicial Review. To sum up the case, Marbury was suppose to be appointed to a position before John Adams (the second U.S. President) left office and Thomas Jefferson took office but his appointment letter was never delivered. Marbury was told he should expect the letter but it never arrived. Madison was appointed as Jefferson's Secretary of State and when he got into office the letter was basically sitting on his desk. Instead of delivering it he threw it out. Marbury sued Madison and the case was taken to the Supreme Court. In layman's terms essentially the court decided that the Supreme Court does not have the right or authority to decide on the issue but they do have the right to review laws to determine if they are Constitutional (e.g. they abide by the intent of the U.S. Constitution).
So to sum up: The Supreme Court has the power of Final Appeal and Judicial Review.
All the courts below this are intended to handle cases and appeals to resolve the issues of society. They act as filters in what cases come up to the Supreme Court. The Federal Court justices are appointed through the Executive, while local court justices are either elected or appointed by locally elected political officials. In either case, the diagram posted will really help in understanding how the courts filter cases up. The Supreme Court has the right to refuse any case that they do not wish and that review process is complex to say the least. If you want to learn more about the Supreme Court, check out the Supreme Court's Website.
A Fun Song from School House Rock
The U.S. political system at initial glance seems convoluted and annoying, but the intent behind the system is to preserve stability and the rule of law. I often hear people say they hate the U.S.'s system because change happens so slowly. There are exceptions to that, but as a rule of thumb that was the intent and it is a good thing. Consider the result from quick change during the French Revolution or the Rise of the Soviet Union. The result from both was many lives lost and a system of government that was oppressive and short lived. The diagram to the right shows the major political offices in wave forms and how changing they are. Without the Checks and Balances built into the Federal system, the change resulting from the political office changes could destabilize society and threaten the life, liberty and happiness of its citizens. The Federal system is a system that is designed to self correct. The larges problem in recent years is the changing of the Senate from the State Legislatures to population because it took power away from the states and make it harder for the states to prevent senators from doing things that are not in the best interest of their given states. There needs to be a balancing of power so that the rights of the individual and family are not infringed upon. Does they system have its flaws? Yes. But that is the reason that the U.S. Constitution has the ability for the Legislature and States to amend it. The U.S. Constitution is designed so that it can change when change is needed. But that change by necessity needs to be gradual so that the individual's rights are protected.