Useful Notes: American Political System
"Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hard-working, honest Americans. It's the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them."The United States is a federal republic consisting principally of 50 states and the District of Columbia, which is made up entirely of one city, Washington, DC. It's often called simply "DC" in common usage and is the seat of the federal government. Note that distinction: DC is in the United States, but not of them.note The result includes the oddity that the citizens of DC - despite paying taxes - have no voting representation in the Legislative Branch (merely a non-voting representative), and until 1961 couldn't vote in Presidential elections. This from the country that revolted under the battle cry, "No taxation without representation!" The city's residents are disgruntled about it enough that the official DC automobile license plate reads "Taxation Without Representation".
There is a feeling among some Americans that there may be a reality distortion field of some sort that follows the outer edge of the Capital Beltway (a highway that circles DC). Attempts to prove this fail to obtain federal funding. Since the United States is a republic, you will occasionally find people trying to tell you that the United States "is not a democracy." This may or may not be true, since a republic and a democracy are technically two different forms of government, but a republic can still use democratic processes. So ask the person doing the claiming what he means before nodding sagely. The essential issue here is that the founders thought direct democracy (after the fashion of, say, ancient Athens) was a generally bad idea; for example, Thomas Jefferson claimed "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine." More colloquially, "Democracy is three wolves and a sheep voting on dinner." When people of other nations are trying to understand the rather odd political behavior of the USA, they would do well to remember that the United States is literally just that: fifty individual states, each with their own constitution, all under the aegis of a central federal government. The relationship between the federal government and the state governments can get contentious, to the point that there was a civil war about it. Unlike many other nations, the US has had precisely one written constitution since independence in 1776,note which is referred to simply as "the Constitution". This makes it the second-oldest written national constitution still in effect,note and the third-oldest still in effect overall.note The Constitution defines itself as "the supreme law of the land", and all other statutes and acts of government must defer to it or be rendered null and void. Since its drafting, the US Constitution has served as an inspiration for many other written constitutions around the globe, and, indeed, it was the USA that popularized the codified constitutiton - of the nations of the world, only Britain, New Zealand, and Israel have uncodified constitutions, something which law students from those countries continue to bitterly lament come finals time. The Constitution is not set in stone. To date there are 27 amendments, the first ten of which are referred to as the Bill of Rights and were adopted before the Constitution was ratified. This gives you an idea of how hard the amendment process is — 17 afterthoughts, one of which is in there to repeal an earlier afterthought. Not only that, but the 27th Amendment was actually proposed with the Bill of Rights — it took some 200 years between proposal and ratification. As a result of its stability and endurance, Americans have a deep respect for the Constitution—a respect that can become downright reverential for some people. This makes it really quite difficult to even get a movement to propose an amendment, to the frustration of many reformers. The structure of the federal government is delineated in the Constitution. It sets up a separation of powers between three separate branches; the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Following that lead, we will chunk up this article along those lines.
The Executive BranchThe executive branch of government consists of the President, Vice President, and the Cabinet. Unlike in many other nations, the US President is both head of state and head of government. His principal powers are to sign or veto bills approved by Congress and to appoint Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, Supreme Court judges and other federal judges (all with Senate approval), to sign treaties (subject to Congressional approval) and to issue pardons, which are not subject to anyone's approval. The president is also the Commander-in-Chief of the military and is the highest-ranking individual in the chain of command, though he is not himself considered part of the military. note The president may issue "executive orders," directives to the Cabinet instructing them on the enforcement of laws. Most executive orders are kept running by the next President in line. Presidents protect the prerogatives of the office. Go figure. All those powers and responsibilities get summed up under the amorphous heading of "leadership", with all the free credit and lightning-rod for dissatisfaction that that entails. You don't have to be crazy to run for President. That benefit will be provided by the Office. The Vice President, in contrast, has little authority and more often functions as a government spokesman. He has the cushiest job in the world because he has absolutely nothing to do unless one of two things fails: the President's heartbeat, and the Senate. To be more precise, he officially has two jobs. The first is basically to sit around and wait for the President of the United States to drop dead; the second is to act as President of the Senate with nothing to do and no right to vote, except cast a tie-breaking vote if there is a deadlock. Unofficially, however, the vice president does have more important work to do. In general, there are three kinds of veep: the advisor/enforcer, the ticket-balancer, and the consolation prize, or as Chris Matthews has called them, the Januarynote , the Novembernote , and the Augustnote .
- The first kind has become increasingly common since World War II, particularly when the president is a highly-electable populistic type, and most particularly when the President is more or less new to Washington. This sort of VP is effectively chosen to be a Secretary Without Portfolio, providing advice on anything and everything and/or bringing political muscle and Washington connections to the administration.
The only major-party Vice Presidential candidates since 1948note who had neither served in Congress nor held high-level executive-branch positions were Sarah Palin (Governor of Alaska), Spiro Agnew (Governor of Maryland), and Earl Warren (Governor of California). Almost all the rest have been sitting members of Congress (usually Senators); the exceptions are Sargent Shrivernote , George H.W. Bushnote , and Dick Cheneynote .
The best examples are probably Dick Cheney and Al Gore. Regarding the former, Dubya is well known to have been a bit of a lightweight on some issues, and certainly wasn't a policy wonk. Cheney, on the other hand, had been a Congressman from Wyoming and House Minority Whip, and had also been Gerald Ford's Chief of Staff and Bush Sr.'s Secretary of Defense, while the younger Bush had no direct Washington experience. For the latter, Bill Clinton actually was quite wonkish, but he wasn't quite as policy-oriented as Gore. Gore also brought political muscle to the table, as he was a confirmed Washington insider (not only had he been in Congress for ten years when he was elected, his father had been a powerful Senator from Tennessee), while Clinton had only ever been Governor of Arkansas.
A case can also be made that Joe Biden was chosen for this reason. While Barack Obama was a Senator before becoming President, he had only been in DC for four years at time of election, while Biden was a six-term (36-year!) Senator with far more connections, and has been almost as famous for his foreign policy expertise as he is for his gaffes.
- The second kind has historically been the most common: the presidential candidate's running mate would be of a different region or ideological orientation from the candidate himself. So if the Democratic presidential candidate was a Northern liberal, you'd expect the running mate to be a Southern or Western moderate or conservative—or any combination of these terms. The classic example is Lyndon Johnson, a pragmatic Protestant Texan specifically chosen to capture the Southern vote that John F. Kennedy as a liberal Catholic Yankee might not have gotten otherwise.
In addition, this was the reasoning behind the choices of the two women who have served as major-party Vice Presidential candidates: Walter Mondale's pick of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin in 2008. Ferraro was added to the Democratic ticket in '84 mainly to build support in the future; it was thought that Mondale's campaign against popular incumbent Ronald Reagan was hopeless (and it ultimately was), so putting a woman on the ticket would help the Democrats curry favor with female voters in the future. Meanwhile, McCain was under pressure on both the left and the right. From the right, he had a reputation for being a very moderate Republican, so much so that many conservatives declared that they'd vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton or a third party over him. From the left, McCain had the misfortune of being a stuffy old white guy running against Barack "Hope and Change" Obama, who himself had just emerged from a tough campaign against a Democratic rival who also wasn't an old white guy — the aforementioned Hillary Clinton, who still had a large base of supporters in the party. It was thought that Palin, being both ultra-conservative and a woman, would solve both problems simultaneously.
Both times it backfired. In Ferraro's case, she and her husband's obtuse finances became a major issue in the campaign, and the revelation that she had a maid and a few million dollars tied up in real estate greatly undermined her "working-class immigrant's daughter" image. Palin, meanwhile, proved to be a gaffe machine and a publicity hound, with a lack of depth in foreign policy; Tina Fey's famous "I can see Russia from my house!" joke was based on Palin citing her home state of Alaska (where she was Governor) being just over the Bering Strait from Russia as a foreign policy qualification. In both cases, they were ultimately seen by many voters as "token" candidates, having not been properly vetted by campaigns more interested in making a splash than in having strong running mates.
- The third kind was more common in the past—someone who ran for President and lost the nomination would be given the running mate's slot to soothe his ego.
- LBJ is the closest thing to this in recent history, as it was well-known that he wanted the top job himself. Along with the ticket-balancing issue and his Washington connections (which were a bit more extensive than Kennedy's), he was the perfect VP candidate. His actual presidency makes this situation either hilarious or more gut-wrenching.
- Bush Sr. may have been this as well, as he competed with Reagan in the Republican primaries of 1980. His victory over Reagan in the Iowa primary actually forced Reagan to replace his campaign manager and reorganize his staff.
- Joe Biden might also have been picked for this reason, as despite his serious case of foot-in-mouth disease, he had run two (kind of half-hearted) campaigns for President (in 1988 and 2008) and was seen as something of an elder statesman in the Democratic Party.
- There is some speculation that Mitt Romney intended to do this with Ron Paul, keeping him from pursuing a third-party or independent run (or endorsing such a candidate). Instead, Romney picked Paul Ryan, a wonkish ideologue and six-term Congressman.
- 35 years of age or more.
- 14 years residency.
- Natural born citizen (read: US citizen by birth, rather than by naturalization) OR citizen at the time the Constitution was adopted. The latter was necessary because at the time of the Constitution's adoption, the United States had only existed for 7 years, meaning that the election of 1812 was the first in which it was mathematically possible for a natural born citizen to meet the 35 years of age requirement, and going for more than 20 years without a President was obviously not an option.
- William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia in 1841, a month after his inauguration. He remains the shortest-serving President in US history. Incidentally, he is the reason why the "curse" is associated with Tecumseh and Tippecanoe; he was the American general during the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, in which he fought off a band of Indians led by Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who had attacked his army as revenge for his forcing the native tribes to cede large amounts of their land to white settlers. After the battle, so the story goes, Tecumseh's brother Tenskwatawa placed the curse upon Harrison and the Presidency.
- Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 by a Confederate diehard after being elected for his second term of office.
- James Garfield was killed by a man who was dissatisfied with the "spoils system"note in 1881.
- William McKinley was murdered in 1901 by an anarchist.
- Warren Harding died of a stroke in 1923, after numerous scandals perpetrated by his cabinet members denounced his credibility.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt also died of a stroke in 1945.
- John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963 after refusing to have a protective cover around his car when he visited Dallas.
The Electoral CollegeThe President and Vice President are not elected directly by the people, but rather by a group called the Electoral College, an office created by the Founding Fathers to preserve the power of the smaller states in the voting process. They also were not happy about the idea of the "mob" directly electing the president, so they had the state legislatures of each state choose the electors. It is only since the 20th Century that all states allow the common people to choose the electors. Technically, the Constitution has always given state legislatures the power to decide how their state's electors are chosen, and that has never changed. It's just that public demand eventually led every state to use actual elections to choose the electors. In theory, a state could allocate its electors by flipping a coin if the legislature passed a law to say so. Each state boasts a number of electors equal to its Congressional representation: two senators plus however many representatives. When the College meets, about one month after the actual election, each state's electors vote for the presidential candidates; each state is allowed to set their own laws for how the electors vote, but in recent years 48 states have granted all their votes to whomever received the largest number of popular votes in their state. Whichever presidential slate receives 50% + 1 of the electoral votes (currently, 270) is elected. In the rare event that no candidate receives the needed number of electoral votes, the House of Representatives votes in the new president, with the Senate selecting the Vice President. On those occasions when a loser of the popular election gains office through this process — thankfully a rare occasion, but the most recent case was in 2000 — many Americans become confused and outraged. Newspapers and TV news are required to run articles explaining this all again for about two weeks, at which point it is promptly forgotten by Americans who have since moved on to something else outrageously confusing, like why all the rich celebrities are ending up in rehab all the time. Because of the number of electors being roughly equivalent to population density, all one has to do is be elected President is to win the 11 states that have the most delegates: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey. A president carrying said 11 states will win the election even if their opponent wins all of the delegates of all the other 39 states and the District of Columbia. In practice, this doesn't actually work due to the fact that many states are considered "safe" for one party or another–for example, in recent elections the Democrats have won California by comfortable margins each year, while the Republicans have done the same with Texas. Thus, a lot of campaign drama ends up happening in 'swing' or 'battleground' states, states that have become strategically important in the election. Since each Senator counts for one electoral vote, it's actually the smaller states that have a disproportionately large influence in the electoral college. To win these states, presidential hopefuls spend millions upon millions of dollars on advertising, travel, staff, and various other campaign expenses, all for a job which pays a mere $400,000 per year over four years. And yet, the winner is largely in charge of how the American government spends its revenue. The irony of this is not lost on the American people. Seriously. You can make more money running a school district. In a backwards state.
The Cabinet, Executive Departments, and Independent AgenciesThe President’s cabinet by tradition consists of the leaders of the 15 executive departments — State, the Treasury, Defense, Justice, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans' Affairs (there are a lot of US military veterans) and Homeland Security. Each department is headed by an official called a Secretary (with a capital S), except for the Department of Justice, whose chief is called the Attorney General instead. They’re all appointed by the President, subject to Senate approval and the parameters of their responsibilities are defined in federal law. They are in legal contemplation the President’s deputies with respect to the departments they head: which in simple terms means that they are the personal representatives of the President and that they have the final say in the internal and external management functions of their departments. The average American (excluding the editors of the U.S. Government Manual & the Congressional Directory, and maybe Tom Clancy) has heard of maybe two or three of these guys, maybe four if they keep up enough with current events or teach political science, usually taken from the big four quartet: the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, and the Attorney General. The Cabinet typically also includes the Vice President, the President’s Chief of Staff, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Unlike in many other countries, the cabinet meetings are not the avenue where major policy decisions are made in foreign and military affairs: that takes place in the National Security Council where only the relevant officials, such as the President, Vice President, the Secretaries of State and Defense participates (The Secretary of Education, for instance, doesn’t need to know of diplomatic talks with a crazy playboy dictator, weapons sales to Israel or of the invasion plans of the next Middle Eastern Oil State waiting in line). Under the auspices of the Secretaries and the Attorney General are the various government agencies: the Federal Aviation Administration, for example, reports to the Secretary of Transportation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports to the Attorney General. Some agencies may be (or were) in counter-intuitive departments. The Secret Service (originally founded to combat counterfeiting) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) reported to the Secretary of the Treasury before the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003. The Department of Defense (DoD), in the vernacular known as The Pentagon (named after the geometrical shape of its headquarters building), is so freaking large in comparison with the other departments that almost 80 percent of the federal workforce gets their paycheck from it, and that the Department of Defense is considered the single largest employer in the US (right ahead of Wal-Mart and McDonald's.) The Office of the Secretary of Defense is the mainly civilian staff of the Secretary of Defense, and apart from the Honorable Mr. or Madam Secretary (who by the way must be a civilian to maintain the alibi of civilian control), there is 1 Deputy Secretary of Defense, 5 Under Secretaries of Defense, 14 Assistant Secretaries of Defense (all appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate); and a myriad of senior civil servants with titles like Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for whatever..., and Deputy Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for whichever… Had enough of Secretaries? In addition, Defense has separate sub-departments within itself, known as military departments (Department of the Army, Department of the Navy and the Department of the Air Force) which include all the armed forces (except for the Coast Guard, which operates under Homeland Security during peacetime and under the Department of the Navy during war or at the president's discretion), and they are led by their very own Secretaries, namely the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy (or SECNAV as the special agents and service members alike call him or her), and the Secretary of the Air Force who are subordinates of the Secretary of Defense. Each of those Secretaries, as you might have guessed, have their very own Under Secretary, and at least 4 Assistant Secretaries (5 in the Army) each. Furthermore, Defense includes several large joint organizations (meaning that civilians and military personnel from all services participate) such as the National Security Agency (the people who know that you’re reading this article), the National Reconnaissance Office (the people whose satellites can spot insects on your lawn), The Defense Logistics Agency (big bloated defense bureaucracy in action) and DARPA (mad scientists studying brain implants). For more on the stiff but nevertheless crazy world of the U.S. military see Yanks with Tanks. There are also a number of "independent agencies", like the Federal Communications Commission, Central Intelligence Agency and NASA, that don't report to any of the Departments, in order to make organization charts that much more confusing to average Americans and foreign spies alike. In aggregate, all this confusion is commonly referred to as The Bureaucracy: the number two government source of fear, after the Internal Revenue Service (itself part of the Department of the Treasury). You can sue City Hall. You can sue the IRS too, but any suit filed against it will not be decided in your lifetime, or that of your great-grandchildren, for that matter. And if you hit a really sensitive spot, like demanding in court to know what goes on at either that Area 51 in the Nevada desert or that underground base outside of Colorado Springs, the Government can always invoke the infamous State Secrets Privilege, which effectively shuts down litigation.
The Legislative Branch
John Adams: I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two become a law firm, and that any group of three or more is called a Congress!The legislative branch of government consists of two houses — the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House members were elected directly by the populace of each State and the Senators of each State were appointed by the State Assemblies. The basic idea was one of tension between the two houses so that the rights of individual people and the rights of the States would both be represented. However, since the ratification of the 17th Amendment, both Representatives and Senators are now directly elected by popular vote within each State, turning the Senate into just another 100 congressmen. The House of Representatives has 435 members apportioned among the states based on their population. Apportionment is recalculated every ten years, after each national census. Each state is free to determine how congressional districtsnote are drawn up. This can lead to a practice called "gerrymandering" where the party in charge draws up ridiculously-shaped districts◊ so as to secure as many safe districts for themselves as possible, while splitting up the other party's strongholds across multiple districts. Gerrymandering is legal in most states. Both parties squawk about reform, but neither is willing to be the first one to give up its precious safe seats. The name, incidentally, goes right back to the beginnings of the Republic, first appearing around 1812 and taking its name from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry. The practice might have started even earlier. Representatives are elected every two years and there is no limit on the number of terms one may serve. While the House of Representatives is generally referred to as the "junior" house, this has little practical meaning, as bills can originate in either house, with the exception that bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives. The House also reserves the power to impeach the president or other federal officers upon a simple majority vote, whereupon a trial is carried out in the Senate. The House is chaired by an officer called the Speaker of the House, who is generally a senior representative from the majority party in the House. Interestingly, unlike Parliamentary systems, the Speaker does not legally need to be a sitting representative or ever have been a representative at all, they just need to be any person that 51% of the House wants to be Speaker. In practice, though, no Congress has ever taken advantage of this potentially fun loophole, and instead the Speaker is always some sort of party leader. The Speaker is chosen at the beginning of each new Congress by a simple majority vote — this vote is largely a formality, but don't tell the congressmen that: huge penalties like losing chairmanship positions are dolled out for not voting for your party's pick. The Senate is described as the senior house of Congress, and reserves the power to confirm presidential appointees, ratify treaties, and conduct the trial of an impeached president or other officer, whereupon the accused may be removed from office by a two-thirds majority. Only two presidents have ever been impeached — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — and both escaped conviction. Richard Nixon would have been impeached, but resigned first. The Senate is officially chaired by the Vice President, though he rarely ever exercises this duty except on particularly auspicious occasions, and may not speak or vote except in case of an exact tie (briefly the case in 2001, when the Senate was divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with Dick Cheney as the tiebreaking vote). In his absence, the Senate is officially chaired by the president pro tempore (pronounced "pro tem"), the senior-most senator of the majority caucus, though he typically defers that job to a junior senator as well, owing to the fact that the pres. pro tem tends to be at the very least an octogenarian with little stamina to run the assembly. The person chairing the Senate is always referred to as "Mr./Madam President" during sessions, regardless of actual rank. Informally, the reins of power in the Senate are wielded by the "Majority Leader" - i.e., the senator who chairs the majority party's caucus - typically a senior senator, though not quite as senior as the pro tem. Senate seniority, by the way, is a funny thing. There are two types: seniority in the general body, and seniority in terms of a particular state. Seniority is decided by length of tenure in the Senate, so a Senator can be quite senior and still the "junior senator" of a particular state. Seniority among an incoming class — i.e. a group of newly elected Senators sworn in on the same day — is determined first by length of prior service in the Senate, then by length of prior service in the House of Representatives, then by length of prior service as a governor, then by length of prior service in the state legislature, then by the state's overall population ranking. So of two Senators sworn in on the same day, both without any prior governmental service, the senator from the more populous state would be the senior. Whew! Members of Congress, of either house, are often identified in the media with a hyphenated suffix that abbreviates their affiliation and state — "D-CA", for example, indicates a Democrat from California, while "R-IN" would refer to a Republican from Indiana, and "I-VT" would refer to Bernie Sanders from Vermont. In order for a bill to become law, it must pass by a simple majority in both houses and receive the president's signature. This is not as simple as it sounds. The bill, having been drawn up in some subsidiary committee or other (and usually after tons of debate over its contents), is presented at-large to the Congressional house from which it originated for a vote. If it passes the vote, it is then handed off to the other house, which goes through the exact same process of debating and rewording the bill before voting on its own version of it. Next, if it passes this second vote, the two different versions of the bill are brought to the "Conference Committee" — members of both houses who come together to have another round of debates and rewording so as to craft a single, compromised version of the bill. Once the Conference Committee has finalized the content and wording of the bill, the bill once again goes back before each house for a secondary round of debate before its final votes. So, before the president even has the opportunity to give an official yes or no to a bill, it has been drafted, debated, re-written, added-to, subtracted-from, voted, folded, spindled, mutilated, re-debated, re-voted, and possibly used as a tea cozy. As an added bonus, either time during this process when a bill is in the Senate, a senator determined to block the passage of a bill (either to kill it outright, or, in the first round, to tie it up until certain changes are made to its content) can "filibuster" its vote by lodging endless procedural motions to delay a vote, or simply getting up and talking for hours and hours until the bill's proponents get tired and go home, or (again, in the first round) concede to enough changes to its content that the filibuster is dropped. The record for a speech on the Senate floor is 24 hours and 18 minutesnote . Indeed, it takes more votes to end debate and bring a bill to a final vote — 60 votes, or three-fifths of the Senate — than it does to actually pass the bill once it comes to a vote. Nowadays senators don't usually bother getting up and speaking for hours. If 41 can get together and express an intention to filibuster, then the threat alone is enough to stop the bill in its tracks. Scrapping the filibuster entirely — the so-called "nuclear option" — has been considered by various blocs over the years. The general feeling has been that for a majority party to do so would weaken their position if and when they become the minority party. A reform was passed in 2011 that made filibusters slightly more difficult to carry out, though time will tell what effect (if any) it has on Senate business. After all of this, the president still has the power to "veto" a bill — an official rejection which voids the bill, unless Congress can successfully use its one opportunity to override the president's veto with a two-thirds majority in both houses. Overridden vetoes are somewhat rare, and were virtually non-existent for the first 90 years of the nation's history. However, if the president approves of the bill, he signs it, returns it to Congress for certification, and it becomes law. And then there's the confusing bit. You see, the President always has the option of simply not vetoing or signing the bill, rendering the idea of returning it to Congress for certification something of a moot point. What this signifies, however, depends on whether Congress is adjourned or not. If Congress is adjourned, the bill does not become law, there being no Congress in Washington to return the bill to. The President can—and indeed usually does—do this intentionally, and it's known as a "pocket veto."note It's extremely useful for Presidents faced with a popular bill they don't want to sign, but can't be seen vetoing; this allows them to save face and say, "I didn't kill the bill; I merely allowed it to die." The format is also immune to overrides, so if Congress really wants to pass the bill, they have to go through the whole rigamarole again. If Congress is still in session (i.e. hasn't adjourned), the bill automatically becomes law. Why this is isn't clear. There's no formal name for this method (although "default enactment" has started to gain currency among scholars), but some civics teachers have been known to call it the "stuff-it-in-your-desk" route. A President can also use this strategically: a bill that would cause a huge uproar if it failed to become law, but which the President dislikes on principle, can be stuffed in the Presidential desk. This allows him to say "I didn't sign the bill, I merely allowed it to become law." This isn't used as often as the pocket veto, but the possibility did come up in late 2011.note Because Senators are elected by the entire population of each state, serve terms three times longer than Representatives, and number the same from each state regardless of the size of the state's population, the Senate also tends to be more conservative and less radical than the House — in other words, less subject to the changing whims of the people. This makes the Senate less partisan, less divisive, and more capable of passing important legislation. It also makes Senators less accountable to their constituents. Congress can also propose amendments to the Constitution, which must receive two-thirds majority in both houses and must then be approved by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. There is no limitation on the scope of what an amendment may do, except that no state's Senate representation may be reduced without its consent.note Unless explicitly stated in the text of the bill proposing it, there is no time limit on ratification; the proposal that eventually became the 27th amendment, for example, was first proposed shortly after the Constitutional Convention in 1789, and was fully ratified and enrolled in the Constitution two centuries later in 1992. The states also have the power to bypass Congress, and by the request of two-thirds of the state governments may call a Constitutional convention for proposing amendments, which upon approval by the convention must then be ratified in the normal fashion. To date, this has never occurred. Yes, the representation for which Americans fought in the Revolution is this. Essentially two committees, one representing the people and one representing the States, who must pass bills twice each in order to send them to the President's desk. Pretty clever way to keep government busy in such a way that it can't get too uppity. And now you understand his pain.
— 1776, paraphrased from the historical Adams' writings
The Judicial BranchThe judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and the lesser federal courts established under it. For details beyond what you'll find below, see American Courts. The Supreme Court consists of a number of judges, called justices, who are appointed by the president subject to Senate confirmation, and who serve "during good behavior", which, barring conviction or impeachment, means a lifetime tenure. The number of Supreme Court justices is not set by the Constitution, but a tradition has developed in the last 60 some-odd years that nine is a good number. The President appoints the Supreme Court justices, albeit with the advice and consent of the Senate. Interestingly, Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to pack the Supreme Court with judges that would be inclined to rule his way and was talked out of itnote . The court stuck at nine members at that point in time and has stayed there ever since. The Supreme Court is the ultimate body of appeal in US law, and is charged with the task of reviewing cases where the constitutionality of a law or governmental act is in question. If a law is deemed "unconstitutional" — that is, contradictory to the letter or spirit of the Constitution — the Court has the power to declare it null and void by a majority vote of justices. The Court also has the power to settle disputes between the states themselves, but these cases only make up a small minority of cases (one or two per term, at the most). The Court is also the highest level of appeal for all issues of federal law even when constitutionality is not a issue. Interestingly, the one thing that most people assume the Supreme Court is supposed to do - "interpret" the Constitution - is a power that is NOT given in the Constitution. Life rarely being that simple, the S.C. gradually got in the habit of doing exactly that, and by the time most people noticed, it was a fait accompli. Please note, however, that this was something most of the Founders could see coming, on account of America's legal tradition, The Common Law inherited from England. Interpretation of statutes has always been within the purview of common-law courts, and on the logic that the Constitution is a super-statute, the Court took it upon itself to interpret it as well (the decision in Marbury v. Madison makes this point). Stare decisisnote is part and parcel of the common-law system, as anyone who knows anything about English (or Canadian or Australian or...) law can tell you. However, two features make the American version of stare decisis interesting:
- Since the American Constitution is written and hard to amend, the decision of the Court in a question of constitutional interpretation tends to stay the law of the land for a very long time.
- Unlike English courts and most other common-law courts, the Supreme Court is allowed to overturn its previous decisions in cases regarding statutes and the Constitution, on the grounds that the old interpretation was wrong; the most famous case of this is Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared state-sponsored segregation based on race unconstitutional, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which had previously allowed it. A complete overturn of a previous decision is rare, however.note
The StatesThere are, at present, 50 states in the Union. Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are called Commonwealths in their full names, but are still states. There is also the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which are possessions of the United States, and not states at all. Clear as mud so far? Good, because it gets more interesting as we go along. Each state is required by the Constitution to guarantee its citizens a "Republican form of government". That basically means that they are bound by the US Constitution to provide a system based on laws, with elected officials serving as management, not rulers. It probably also means that states are forbidden from having democratic constitutional monarchies, but frankly, no state has ever brought that issue up. For the most part, state governments are identical in their structure and function to the federal government, but on a smaller scale. Nebraska has a single-house legislature; the other 49 mimic the Federal Government, although some states have a Senate and an Assembly instead of a House of Representatives (and due to unique circumstances of history, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland each have a House of Delegates). The chief executive of a state is called a governornote ; his/her deputy, who may or may not be elected on the same ticket, is called a lieutenant governor. This does not, however, apply to Arizona, Wyoming, and Oregon, which have no lieutenant governor. There, when the Governor has either resigned or been impeached, the elected official who is technically the chief clerk of the state, the Secretary of State, becomes governor. Nearly all 50 states have an elected chief clerk who is called the Secretary of State, who, because that is an elected official, is not considered a cabinet secretary in the same way as the other cabinet departments of the Governor's Cabinet. As noted above, in most states, the Secretary of State of that state is the third in line to become Governor after the Lieutenant Governor. Note that while each state has a Secretary of State, this should not be confused with the head of the U.S. State Department, who is also called the Secretary of State. The one who runs the State Department in Washington (in the area of D.C. called Foggy Bottom) deals with the relationships between the United States and other countries, while each state's Secretary of State deals with the operations of that particular state. Nice and confusing, isn't it? New states may be admitted to the Union upon Congressional approval. States may not raise their own armies (they are required by law to maintain an organized militia in the form of the Army and Air National Guards, and may raise a optional militia for in state use only), sign treaties (but with permission of Congress they may enter into a Compact with other states), or coin money on their own, and when a conflict between state and federal law arises, federal law wins out. Except when it doesn't. Basically, Federal law only has supremacy when it is Constitutional. Familiar with the phrase; "Can open, worms all over the ground"? Well, when THAT particular argument comes up, things get wormy. One major difference between the States and the Federal governments is that states hold a lot more elections. A State need not limit its elections to the legislature and the chief executive, as the federal government does; they can also hold elections for secretary of state, attorney general, comptroller, state supreme court judges, judges of lower courts, district attorneys, sheriffs, and/or dog catchers. Much of this will be specified in the state constitution, which is generally amended by popular vote as well. Many states also have a procedure where an elected official may be removed (recalled) from office in a special election if a sufficient number of petitions are gathered. A significant example of this occurred in 2003, when California governor Gray Davis was successfully recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a special election that included 135 candidatesnote for the office. Recently, an attempt to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was defeated, making Gov. Walker the first governor in American history to survive a recall attempt (and only the third to be recalled). All this voting theoretically makes state governments more accountable to the people. In practice, this doesn't quite work. This is why in some states you have Initiative and Referendum, where, if the legislature doesn't pass an acceptable law, the people can propose one (meaning some well funded group or bunch of people ticked off enough send out people to collect signatures to have a ballot proposal put up for election), contrary to the Jefferson quote above. This is how the famous Proposition 13 slashed property taxes in California. It's also how a major manufacturer of gambling equipment and supplies was able to get a state lottery created there as well. As these referenda are often written by non-politicians, or people with little formal legal training, they may ultimately prove to be of dubious constitutionality when enacted into law, and parts or all of them are often struck down by the courts after their passage. Proposition 187, a 1994 initiative in California that sought to deny certain entitlements and legal protections to illegal immigrants, was eventually struck down by the courts, and Proposition 8, which reversed the state Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage, was struck down by the US Supreme Court.
Local GovernmentThe Constitution says nothing about government below the state level, so states are free to set up whatever structure they'd like. There's a lot of variation from state to state here (Connecticut and Massachusetts have no county governments, while Hawaii has no municipal governments), so this is just a general overview. 48 of the 50 states are divided into counties. The exceptions: Louisiana is divided into "parishes" owing to its unique legal descendence from French civil law, which are identical to counties in all but name. Alaska is divided into "boroughs", which actually are a bit different from counties, but not enough to matter for our purposes. County governments are usually headed by a "Board of Supervisors" or "Board of Commissioners" or the like, and may have a "County Executive" overseeing the executive departments. Size doesn't matter, nor does population. The least populous county is in the second largest state, Loving County, Texas, and at last count had 69 people. Los Angeles County in California, the most populous in the country, has nearly 10 million people, making it more populous than all but eight states in the US. Number doesn't matter: Texas has 250 counties, Delaware has 3. Some states have laws that set minimum sizes on counties, or prohibit adding more counties. The smallest county is Arlington County, Virginia at 26 square miles. The largest (aside from the Alaskan boroughs) is California's San Bernadino County, which is bigger than each of the nine smallest states. For an example of comparisons the states of Iowa (56 thousand square miles/2.9 million people), Kansas (82/2.6), Oklahoma (69/3.5) Nebraska (77/1.7), Minnesota (87/4.9), and Colorado (104/4.3) as a region have over 476,000 square miles and 19.9 million people. But this entire region obviously deserves considerably less attention and less resources than New York City, which has 468 square miles and 18.8 million people, even though New York has 1/1000 of the area and fewer people. Municipal government can take various forms; depending on the state, municipalities can be called "cities", "towns", "villages", "townships", "boroughs", or something else, which may or may not have different meanings or governmental structures. A "town" is usually the smallest type of government, but there can be towns that have larger populations than some cities. Larger cities usually have their executive power vested in an elected mayor, with the city council (also elected) having legislative power over local ordinances. Many cities and towns tend to use a "city manager" system, in which the city council appoints a professional urban planner to run the executive departments, and the office of mayor is either nonexistent, ceremonial, or a glorified City Councilor. The services provided by counties and cities overlap a lot (the police/sheriff's department, fire department, transportation, parks, etc.) and the precise arrangement varies from state to state, and sometimes within states as well. If there are any areas outside municipal governments, the county will provide all services there. In some states, mostly in the Northeast, cities and towns cover the entire state; this is how Connecticut gets away with not having any counties at all. Cities can be combined with a county (like Denver and San Francisco), cross county lines (like Dallas, in five different counties), exist outside any county (like Baltimore, St. Louis, and all 'cities' in Virginia), or take up entire counties and merge with the county governments (New York City's five boroughs are five separate counties, none of which has an independent government). Many metropolitan areas cross state boundaries, but cities are always in the same state (Kansas City Missouri/Kansas is actually two separate cities, and Portland, OR forms a coterminous metropolitan area with Vancouver, WA). There are also elected school boards that operate local schools independent of any government in much of the country, as well as independent Fire Department districts, waste management departments, parks & recreation bureaus, and other special districts or government corporations providing services, but describing all of them would make this article even more complicated than it is. In short, then, the membership of all the elected committees in American government — federal, state, county, and municipal — is north of 60,000. In a country where getting five friends to agree on where to have dinner can result in fist-fights.
Additionally ...Separate from the states are several US territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, that are also under American sovereignty. Thirty one states were territories (or part of a territory) at one point, but these in particular have for various reasons never received statehood — Puerto Rico in particular has had several referenda on the matter, all of which have been voted down by its citizens until the 2012 election, where a 61% majority voted in favor of statehood. Their citizens also receive United States citizenship, meaning that if they choose to "emigrate" to any of the states, they have no legal problems, with the exception of American Samoa who are considered "American Nationals". Unlike states, territories do not have voting representation in Congress; however, they also pay fewer federal taxes, so many would argue they got the better deal.
Political PartiesThe Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution with the intent of creating a state free from the influence of Factions (political parties). In this they failed, as parties began forming while the ink was still wet on the parchment, arguing over whether the federal government or individual states should have the greater power. Though parties have less official influence than they do in most countries, they still hold an immense amount of sway in the government, largely due to the funding they can collect for candidates who agree with their policies. There are two major parties in the US today. Americans' general feeling about these parties is that one is evil and the other is inept. Which is which depends on who you ask.
- The Democratic Party is traditionally viewed as being center-left, although in most Western countries, they would be considered centrist or tepidly social-democratic. Somewhat socially liberal and fiscally left-wing (although they have a small fiscally conservative contingent). Strong in urban areas, the Northeast, and the West Coast, and among minorities, youth, and poor-to-working class voters. They currently hold the Presidency.
- The Republican Party, or the GOP (Grand Old Party, despite being younger than the Democrats), is the center-right party in American politics. Unified by fiscal conservatism, and a lot (but not all) of them are social conservatives. Strong in rural areas and the South, and among evangelical Protestants and middle class-to-affluent voters. They currently hold the House of Representatives and the Senate.
- The Green Party is probably the most famous third party in the country , mainly thanks to the high-profile Presidential run of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000. By any measure, they are quite leftist, supporting fair trade, pacifism, an end to the War on Drugs, local government, internationalism, very liberal views on civil liberties and social issues, opposition to the Patriot Act, and a strong welfare state — in other words, not too far from other Green Parties worldwide and European-style social democrats. Their main focus, however, is environmentalism, as their name suggests. Supporters are often stereotyped as tree-hugging hippies and socialists. If you see a character in fiction who supports the Green Party, then he or she is probably a New-Age Retro Hippie or a Granola Girl.
- The Constitution Party is a "paleoconservative" party, which means that, while they have very right-wing views on taxes, spending and social/cultural issuesnote and an explicit rooting of their beliefs in Christianity, they also break from modern mainstream conservatism by opposing free trade in favor of a protectionist/mercantilist trade policy, as well as supporting a foreign policy of noninterventionism and a reduced role in world affairs, including repeal of the Patriot Act and withdrawal from the UN, the World Bank and the IMF.
- The Libertarian Party: it aims to be the leading party for libertarianism (though some libertarians do not agree with some of the LP's stances). It is the third largest political party according to these sources as of 2011. Libertarians tend to favor maximum individual liberty (pro-gun rights, pro-gay rights, pro-drug legalization, pro-legal abortion, anti-Patriot Act, anti-censorship), maximum economic liberty (loose environmental and labor laws, pro-free trade, anti-tax, anti-bailout), and very limited government involvement in social welfare. Libertarians do not identify themselves as "left" or "right" in the traditional sense — most would argue for a bi-axial system of political identification, with "conservative" and "liberal" on the economic axis and "libertarian" and "authoritarian" on the social axis.
- The Tea Party, despite its name, is not a political party per se, but rather, is a right-wing populist movement centered on the Republican Party. It is primarily composed of conservative, Christian, upper-middle-class citizens, and it had its genesis in early 2009, when CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli went on a rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange attacking Barack Obama's bailout of homeowners facing foreclosure. Some would argue it started with Ron Paul's Presidential campaign in 2007-08, but although he has a faction in the modern Tea Party, it appears that the majority are closer to mainline conservative Republican ideology than the anti-interventionist, staunch libertarian Paul. Their name is a reference to the Boston Tea Party, one of many protests by colonial Americans against the Tea Act passed by the British Parliament in 1773.
Their initial goals were largely libertarian and financial in nature, including smaller government, lower taxes, states' rights, and opposition to the bailouts and growing government spending (especially deficit spending), but the specific goals of its constituent groups greatly broadened the movement's focus; in particular, illegal immigration, family values and opposition to "Global Warming" climate change legislation have been taken up as additional planks by many local and regional groups. A few politicians, such as Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, frequently speak at Tea Party events and are considered by outsiders as the public face of the group, but various groups remain and have no unified official leader. This has been problematic, though less than usual in such cases. Since the Tea Party and the issues it champions are hot-button subjects within the United States.
- The Anti-Masonic Party, as its name suggests, was formed in 1828 in opposition to what they felt was the corrupting influence of Freemasonry, although it would eventually pursue a more general opposition to Jacksonian democracy. It introduced such political traditions as party platforms and nominating conventions, setting an example of single-issue political party. At their height in 1832, they managed to win 7.78% of the popular vote, with their greatest strength in Vermont (who gave them their only electoral college victory) and in New York. The movement would fizzle out and be absorbed into the growing Whig party by 1838 (Freemasonry no longer being that hot of an issue), although not before running future President William Henry Harrison in the 1836 election.
- The Whig Party were not a third party, but rather the primary opposition party to Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party from the early 1830s to the late 1850s. (Listed here for historical interest.) To vastly oversimplify: on the issue of who should have greater power, the President or the Congress, the Democrats favored the former while the Whigs favored the latter. Managed to win the presidency twice, both times by men who would later die in office: William Henry Harrison in 1840 (succeeded by vice president John Tyler), and then Zachary Taylor in 1848 (succeeded by vice president Millard Fillmore). As slavery became a bigger issue in the late 1850s, the Whig party essentially self-destructed due to internal disagreement on the subject. Most Whigs in the North (such as Abraham Lincoln, who had been a Whig congressman from Illinois from 1847-1849) joined the then-fledgling Republican Party, and those in the South gravitated either to the American Party (see below) or the Constitutional Union party.
- The Know Nothings were a political party that existed under the names Native American Party (nothing to do with actual Native Americans) from 1845 to 1855, and the American Party from then until 1860. The Know Nothings were a nativist movement that was strongly opposed to immigration (particularly from Ireland and Germany), which they blamed for the crime in the cities, and Catholicism, which they felt was a foreign plot to subvert and overthrow American democracy. The name "Know Nothing" comes from the secret groups that preceded the party, whose members were told to say "I know nothing" if they were confronted about their involvement. They enjoyed massive success in the mid-1850s thanks to the collapse of the Whig Party and the two-party system, but they soon splintered and fell apart over the issue of slavery. The term "Know Nothing" would go on to be used as a derogatory term for a nativist for decades to come.
- The Prohibition Party was founded in 1869 to call for the restriction and prohibition of alcoholic substances. It had its greatest success in 1919, when national alcohol prohibition was enacted, causing it to change its message to calling for stricter enforcement of the ban. However, the growing distaste for prohibition cost them dearly, and the repeal of prohibition in 1933 set the party on a long decline. The party still exists, but in the last election, it only earned 643 votes — a far cry from the days when they could win over a quarter of a million votes. By sheer twist of fate, they were responsible for the election of the first female mayor in American history, and did so completely by accident. For fun, take a look on their Wikipedia page and see where they held their conventions. Going down the list, it's kind of sad.
- There have been various groups that have been known as the Populist Party over the decades, but the most famous one is the People's Party, which existed from 1884 to 1908.note The Populists were an agrarian movement born out of anger at falling crop prices and rising railroad rates, and called for economic action against the banks, the railroads and the merchants of the cities. The main plank in their platform was bringing an end to the gold standard and replacing it with the free coinage of silver currency, an issue that resonated among struggling farmers (rapid inflation would allow credit to flow more freely in rural areas and make it much easier to pay off debt). The Populists had their greatest success in 1892, when they won over a million votes and four western states. However, the 1896 campaign saw the Democrats co-opting the Populists' support of free silver, which was a stake through the heart for the movement. While the party withered into irrelevance after that, much of their platform, which included an eight-hour work week, civil service reforms, a graduated income tax, and direct election of Senators, would be co-opted by the progressive movement in the early 20th century.
- There have been three Progressive Parties, of which the most-well known is the 1912 edition, also known as the Bull Moose Party, a vehicle for former President Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 Presidential run.note The Progressive Party was the culmination of the progressive movement, which called for broad-reaching social reforms for America's working classes, including a pension system, income taxes, women's suffrage, farm relief, the right of labor to organize, and expanded access to health care. Despite its short life, the Progressive Party is notable for being the only third party to beat one of the major parties in a Presidential election.
- The Socialist Party existed from 1901 until 1972, and enjoyed its greatest success in the early 20th century, proving that, no, socialism was not always a four-letter word in the US. In the elections of 1912 and 1920, the Socialists won over 900,000 votes with their candidate Eugene V. Debs (keeping in mind that, in the latter case, he was in prison). They had particular success in local government, electing several mayors; Milwaukee in particular elected three Socialist mayors over the course of fifty years, the last one only leaving office in 1960. They endorsed Robert La Follette in 1924 and continued to build support in the 1920s, but their support was undercut by FDR's New Deal during The Great Depression. After the war, anti-Communist fears caused the Socialist Party to fade away, and they finally broke into three parties in 1972 over the issue of The Vietnam War.
- The Communist Party USA was a Stalinist political party that was influential from the 1920s through the 1940s. It supported the Soviet Union and sought to bring its economic system to the United States, and sought to unite American leftists during The Great Depression. It was crushed by the second Red Scare in The Fifties, and it was left out of the "New Left" of The Sixties due to its uncritical support of Leonid Brezhnev and Soviet militarism, which alienated liberals. It remains active to this day as a more democratic socialist third party (as opposed to its past militancy), but it has failed to regain its past influence.
- The States' Rights Democratic Party, or simply the Dixiecrats, were a faction that broke off from the Democratic Party in 1948 in protest of the Democrats' support for civil rights. The Dixiecrats, running on a segregationist platform, nominated Senator Strom Thurmond and managed to win over 1.1 million votes, 39 electoral votes and four Southern states. The Dixiecrats faded away as a party after 1948, but the split between Northern and Southern Democrats continued to linger, leading to...
- The American Independent Party, another segregationist splinter from the Democrats, this time from 1968 and led by Alabama Governor George Wallace. The American Independents won 13.5% of the popular vote, 46 electoral votes and five Southern states. The success of Wallace's candidacy, combined with Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy," marked the end of the once-Democratic "Solid South," which felt that the Democrats had betrayed the principles of white supremacy. While the AIP still exists, it does so solely as the California affiliate of the Constitution Party.
- The Reform Party was a populist third party established in the wake of Texas billionaire Ross Perot's 1992 independent Presidential run, which won 19% of the popular vote and became the first Presidential campaign since 1912 that was seen as having been capable of winning an election. The Reform Party had its greatest success in 1998 when Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota, but it soon fell prey to infighting between three groups: the "old guard" Perot faction, the libertarian Ventura faction, and a Christian conservative wing led by former Republican candidate and pundit Pat Buchanan. The party collapsed in the wake of the 2000 election, where its nomination was won by Buchanan, and while there is still a national organization, the party no longer meaningfully exists as a national entity.