The US government is large and complex. I realize that a lot of my readers are not Americans and so my political posts might be confusing. Heck, many Americans don’t even understand how their own government operates. In order to make my political posts more clear, I’ve decided to write up a basic “US Government 101.” Here I will outline the most basic things needed to understand how the government is set up and operates.
Often in US politics you’ll hear three documents mentioned over and over:
- The Declaration of Independence: This is the letter adopted by the first continental congress on July 4, 1776 and sent to the king of England. It declared that the thirteen colonies were no longer part of England. This letter, while famous, has no governmental power. No US laws can be based on what is said the declaration.
- The Constitution: Adopted 11 years after the Declaration of Independence, this is the basis for the US government. There are currently twenty-seven amendments to the constitution.
- The Bill of Rights: While it may sound like a separate document, the Bill of Rights is actually just the first ten amendments to the constitution. These amendments focus on personal liberties, such as freedom of religion, speech, right to assemble, right to bear arms, etc, and the treatment of people accused of a crime.
American government is organized according to the principle of federalism. There are two levels of government: National (often called “Federal”) and State. (There are three if you count local city governments) There are currently fifty states in the union.
Each state is semi-sovereign, with their own constitution, their own courts, their own legislative bodies, their own laws, their own governor, and state taxes. (The powers of the individual states are further outlined in the 10th amendment)
The national government is superior to the state governments. (Except in areas outlined by the 10th amendment) State governments cannot enforce a law that violates the constitution. (This is derived from the 14th Amendment)
The National government is made up of three branches: The legislative (congress), the executive (the president), and the judicial (the courts). These branches were purposely separated to keep one person, or a small group of people, from having too much power.
- The executive branch: This is the president, the military, police, and any means of law enforcement. The president serves a four year term. He/she cannot serve more than two terms.
- The judicial branch: This is comprised of federal courts, culminating in the Supreme Court with it’s 9 judges who serve for life.
- The legislative branch: This is congress. They make the laws and have the power to declare war.
*A special note on congress: Congress is composed of two bodies, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
- The Senate is comprised of two senators from each state. (50 states = 100 senators) This way each state has the same level of power in the Senate, regardless of size. These senators serve 6 year terms with 1/3 of them being up for election every two years. Because they are up for election ever six years senators are less concerned with the popular passions of the people. Change is much slower in the senate. It is also a more distinguished position than the House of Representatives. (It’s also called the “Millionaire’s Club” because it is so expensive to run a campaign for Senate.
- The House of Representatives is comprised of 435 members. The house is based on population. Big states like New York will have more representatives than small states like Hawaii. Every two years all the members of the House are up for re-election. This means there is less lag between popular opinion and who get’s elected, unlike the Senate which has a 6 year lag. All laws dealing with taxes must start in the House.
A law is only passed when it passes in both the House and the Senate. (This takes a very long time since trying to get a majority in both bodies to agree is extremely hard) Once the law passes both bodies it goes to the president. The president must either sign it (upon whence it becomes law) or veto it.
A key concept to understanding why the government is set up this way is the system of “checks and balances”
This system insures that each branch influences the other two branches and that one branch can’t control too much. The individual state governments also have a check on the national government. If 2/3 of the states band together, they can call a constitutional convention to amend the constitution. (This has never happened) Furthermore, an amendment to the constitution can be ratified if 3/4 of the state legislatures ratify it. (This has only happened once)
Lastly, a note on parties:
The founding fathers of the country did not intend for parties to form. George Washington, the first president, warned against the danger of “faction.” Parties, however, are unavoidable as like minded people will band together. Unfortunately, the way the US government is set up, and they way the media interacts with the government and elections, makes it so there are usually only two main parties in the United States.
There are many political parties in the United States but usually only two, the Democrats (liberals) and the Republicans (conservatives), ever have the power and money to run candidates on a national level. (Currently there are now three major parties as the conservative party is splitting between the establishment and the Tea Party. There is a possibility that this might also happen to the liberal party.)
For a description of the liberal/conservative stances (they differ from the European definitions) and where you stand, check out the world’s smallest political quiz.
I hope that helps when it comes to understanding the basics of how the US government works. I left out a lot of smaller more detailed technicalities on how individual bodies work, but this is the bare minimum needed to understand what is going on. If there is anything you would like further clarification on, please feel free to ask. This page is not meant to favor one party or another; it merely seeks to explain the rules of the game, not favor a team.