The government of the United States of America is federal in structure. In addition to a national government, there are fifty state governments. Federalism refers to the system of relations between these levels of government. The state governments are not mere administrative units of the national government; they each have well-defined governmental structures of their own: constitutions, legislatures, supreme courts, etc. Many of the major events in American History have involved questions about the proper relation between the national government and the states.
In terms of governments around the world, the federal bicameral republic is a fairly rare form of governance. The majority of democracies around the world tend toward parliamentary systems, so what is it about this particular system that makes it stand so well yet rarely attempted? This particular topic will engage students into several aspects of American Government in order to bring about some understanding of the process. Emphasis is placed upon historical events leading up to the foundation of the republic and the drafting of the constitution. Later on, a study of several key cases about federal powers (typically through court cases) will tie the experience to a close.
Key Roles of Government
Historically, the key power of any government has been the ability to collect taxes from the people (in form of money, goods, and/or labor) and redistribute those resources in such a way as to benefit the community as a whole. Government can exist in a variety of styles, from dictatorships to monarchies to different forms of democracy. Being that this topic is based on the American form of democratic republic we are going to look at what key roles are defined as per the Constitution:
|“||We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.||”|
- Preamble, US Constitution
This paragraph is the opening statement of the Constitution, also known as the Preamble. Looking into this statement it can be seen that the framers had a few particular goals in mind:
- "form a more perfect union" - obviously stemming from the fact that the Articles of Confederation were not working out as planned, something new needed to be enacted.
- "establish justice" - to create fair and equitable courts, fairly self-explanatory.
- "insure domestic tranquility" - the creation of laws to ensure an orderly society.
- "provide for the common defense" - self-explanatory.
- "promote the general welfare" - to do what is best for America and Americans.
- "secure the blessing of liberty" - as a country we value the rights of the individual over monarchial/dictatorial rule.
Branches of Government
At the federal level, there is a tripartite structure, or what is usually referred to as the three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. In theory, the legislature makes the law, the executive enforces or executes the law, and the judiciary interprets the law.
|“||Section 1: All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.||”|
-Article 1, US Constitution
The Legislative Branch of the United States government is divided in the House of Representatives and the Senate. This bicameral legislature was designed as a compromise between the constitutional delegates of the state of New Jersey (who preferred equal representation for all states) and Virginia (who preferred representation based on population). All bills concerning taxes must begin in the House of Representatives while the Senate alone approves treaties and confirms presidential appointments. Ultimately all bills passed in either the House or the Senate must be sent to the other legislative house and pass before the bill is sent to the President to sign.
The House of Representatives
- The number of representatives for each state is based on population. Today, all citizens of a state are counted.
- All delegates to the House of Representatives are elected every two years. There is no term limit.
- To be eligible, delegates must be citizens of the state in which they are running, must have been a citizen for at least seven years, and must be at least 25 years old.
The current number of representatives is fixed at 435.
- Each state is entitled to two senators, each with a six year term. There is no term limit.
- Senators used to be appointed from the state legislatures, however an amendment changed senator appointment to general election by the people.
- To be eligible, canidates must be citizens of the state in which they are running, must have been a citizen for nine years, and be at least 30 years old.
|“||Section 1 - The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice-President chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows:[…]||”|
-Article 2, US Constitution
The Executive Branch consists of a hierarchal organization starting with the President and branching down to every federal government employee (excepting those working for Congress or the Courts). Historically, the powers of the presidency have shifted over time; typically on the personal power each executive brings to the office. For more information, please refer to the actual Constitution for details; the important thing to mention is that this branch 'carries out' the laws and decisions made by the other two branches (Legislative and Judicial). The military, intelligence, police, and public services all fall under administration from this branch of the government. Under the President are 15 'department heads', also known as Secretaries (except for the Attorney General). These are the leading officers of each major department that the administration has control of. Also in the cabinet are six other members who only attend meetings (VP, Chief of Staff, EPA, OMB, National Drug Control, and Trade Representative but it's not important to understand in this discussion).
Together with the President, the cabinet carries out all the tasks required of them and forwards the policies of the President in determining future actions.
|“||Section 1 - The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behavior, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services a compensation which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.||”|
-Article 3, US Constitution
It's surprising to most people today, but in fact the Supreme Court is the only judicial entity that is specifically mentioned in the Constitution. All the other courts have been sprung from acts of Congress. The main role of the judicial branch is to evaluate the legal standing of constitutional issues (ie: does this law go against the Constitution?) Some have argued that because of this charge, the Supreme Court is the most powerful branch in government (in terms of Constitutional authority). However, others have pointed out that the judicial branch is tied to the laws that Congress passes and is dependent upon the President enforcing the decisions handed out. Without those two branches working in sync with the judicial branch, it's debatable on how useful the court would be at all.
Notable Supreme Court Cases Involving the Constitution
Marbury v. Madison (1803) was the earliest landmark decision of the Supreme Court. It established the doctrine of judical review, meaning that the Supreme Court had the authority to declare an act of Congress or the executive branch unconstitutional.
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