Hello Dear Reader.
Welcome to American Basics with your host, Consuelo (Connie). T. Tution.
So the election has you mad as hell and you won’t take it. You’ve been marching, tweeting, sending money to causes, talking to friends, venting like hell against The Cheetolini, the Hair Fuhrer, you know, this guy:
As you’ve become more involved in the political process, the whirlwind of political news coming at you left and right has your head spinning and you’re asking yourself why can the President issue Executive Orders and why are judges putting a stay– heck, what is a stay?– on them, or why the Senate is only involved in approving the nominations.
Worry not, dear reader! Connie T. Tution here to help. Let’s start with the basics: the three branches of government.
The United States has a federal government composed of three branches: a Legislative, an Executive, and a Judiciary branch. We’ll talk about the three branches today, but don’t worry, dear reader, we’ll cover what a federal government means in another Basics.
Before we start, I’m going to use the word government today instead of federal government to make it easier for you to understand. Remember that there a federal and a state government. But guess what! They are mostly similar at the state level.
The Legislative (fancy pants for making laws): The law-making part of the government is in that beautiful building they use on any movie and TV show that the events are supposed to take in Washington, DC. This is the Capitol, in case you live under a rock, and it houses Congress. Congress consists of two chambers, the House of Representatives (the House) and the Senate. The House is composed of 435 Members, each representing a district and the Senate is composed of two Senators representing a state. So, you, my dear reader are represented by a Representative and two Senators. You can find your Representative here and your Senators here.
All Members of the House are elected every two years and it is considered the end of that Congress. While Members of the Senate are elected every six years, a third of them are elected in two years intervals. For example in 2016 every Member of the House and one-third of the Members of the Senate was up election and in 2018 every Member of the House and another one-third of the Members of the Senate are up for election.
So what do they do? The main thing they do is pass laws. For example that $15 billion for the border wall? Congress has to approve a law providing the funds.
What else can Congress do? Glad you asked! Congress also can do the following:
● Raise taxes and tariffs.
- Establish offices in the Executive and lower courts.
- Borrow money using the United States’ credit and establish the value of money.
- Investigate how different government agencies are working.
- Establish post offices (yes those!), patent and copyright laws.
- Declare war, fund the armed forces, and call the Armed Forces in case of an invasion or an insurrection.
- Pass laws Governing the District of Columbia.
- Acquire federal buildings and lands.
In order for a law to pass, it has to pass both houses in the same form If there is any change, either the updated version has to pass the other house, or a conference committee with Members of both Houses which hammers out the differences. Once the differences are hammered, they send the updated bill which has to be approved by both houses.
There are special powers specific to each house of Congress:
● Any bill that raises revenue must originate in the House of Representatives.
● All Treaties are approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate.
● All Presidential nominations and judges require the approval of the Senate.
Congress can check the other branches by doing the following:
● Impeach and remove the President of the United States and judges if they find that they have committed legal violations.
● The House of Representatives impeaches (or accuses) the President or judges and the Senate tries and can remove the President or judges if two thirds majority agree.
● Control the budget. If an agency or a program does not get funding, it cannot function.
● If funding is not approved by the end of the fiscal year, the whole government shuts down.
● Approve or reject Presidential nominations and judges.
● Create and eliminate government agencies and departments.
● It creates, and establishes the number of members and jurisdiction of lower courts.
● Override the President’s veto.
● Declare war and ratify peace and other treaties.
● Propose constitutional amendments.
● Change the composition of the Supreme Court
The Executive (fancy pants for the President): So the Executive is fancy pants for The President. As you know, the guy that looks like an orange with a blond wig is the President and I won’t ruin your digestion by putting a picture of him again. The President is elected to a four-year term and can only be re-elected once using an indirect process called the Electoral College. That’s why we can’t get any more Obama goodness and he’s enjoying the beach life with his Michelle (the lucky dog!). We will talk about the Electoral College, dear reader in another Basics. Oh! And one more detail before we continue. The President has to be a natural born citizen of the United States. Either he or she has to be born in the US or of parents who are US citizens. That was the reason behind that smear campaign against President Obama saying that he was not born in Hawaii. If he was not born in Hawaii, Obama was not constitutionally allowed to be President. So what does he (and hopefully someday soon, she) does? The President is in charge of making sure the laws passed by Congress are enforced. What else can the President do? Glad you asked!
The President also has the following powers:
● He or she is the Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces. In other words, The President is the only civilian who can give a direct order to any member of the military. Not a Congressman, not a Senator, not even the Secretary of Defense.
● He is the head of state of the United States. In other words, the President is the embodiment of the United States and can enter informal agreements or sign treaties on behalf of the United States.
● The President is the main point of contact for other governments. That’s why the President calls and receives calls from other world leaders.
● The President can order the Executive Agencies to make policies within the purview of the laws that regulate them.
● The President and the Executive Agencies writes regulations, which fills in the blank on the general requirements established by the laws passed by Congress.
● The President is the head of the federal bureaucracy, and head of the single largest purchaser of goods and services in the United States. Thus, regulations may affect directly any corporations that do business with the federal government.
● The President proposes laws and has to report on the state of the union every year.
● The President officially receives foreign ambassadors, government ministers, and other world leaders in the White House. That’s why you see those photo ops and press conferences at the White House or with the President when they make an official visit to the United States.
● Congress elects President and Vice President of there is no majority in the Electoral College.
● Both Houses of Congress ratify a Vice President if he or she dies, resigns or is found incapable of doing his or her job.
The President can check the other branches by doing the following:
● Veto laws passed by Congress.
● Proclaim Executive Orders, which carry the force of law.
● The President’s salary cannot be diminished.
● Appoint officials and judges without Senate ratification while Congress is in recess. This appointment, if not ratified by the Senate is only effective until the end of the two-year term of that Congress.
● The Vice President of the United States is the President of the Senate and is the tie-breaking vote.
● Call Congress into session if it is adjourned to consider specific issues or can also force an adjournment if the House and Senate cannot agree on an adjournment date.. As Congress is now almost constantly in session, these power are rarely used.
● Commute (i.e. reduce the terms of) or pardon any sentence.
● Nominates Supreme Court justices and lower court judges.
The Judiciary (fancy pants for the Courts): Finally, the judiciary is in charge of reviewing federal laws. It is also in charge of deciding disputes between two private citizens or between the government and states or individuals. Finally, it also decides if a person is guilty of a crime and punish them, accordingly. The Supreme Court is the highest court of the land, and is currently composed of the following people: The Supreme Court is supposed to have nine members but Justice Antonin Scalia, this handsome guy passed away early 2016. While the vacancy happened during Obama’s administration and he nominated Merrick Garland,or this handsome guy: Congress decided that although Obama had a year left in his term, they would not consider the nomination, saying that it would be better to leave it to the next President. This made this nomination an issue in the Presidential campaign, and since Donald J. Trump won, he got to nominate Neil Gorsuch, or this other handsome guy The Senate Democrats have said they’ll use every parliamentary trick available to derail Gorsuch’s nomination, but formal debate has yet to begin. So what do the Courts do? The Courts are in charge of reviewing laws passed by Congress and Presidential Executive Orders and interpreting them to make sure they are Constitutional.
What else can the Courts do? Glad you asked! The Courts also has the following powers:
● Decisions establish precedent. These precedents guide decisions made in the future.
● By declaring laws unconstitutional, the Courts establish policy and influence acts of Congress and Executive policies.
● Overrule previous decisions. For example the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education of Kansas overturned a previous decision made in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision that established the doctrine of “separate but equal” facilities for whites and African Americans.
● Judges serve for life while in good behavior. Therefore they are not bound by any President and take a longer view of the law. In fact, a President’s policy views on the law can be felt decades he or she is out of power or even alive through Supreme Court judges.
The Courts can check the other branches by doing the following:
● Decide that a law or Executive Decision pass constitutional muster.
● Judges serve for life while in good behavior, so they are not bound by a specific administration.
● A judge’s salary cannot be decreased while he or she is in office.
● The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides during the trial phase of a President’s impeachment and removal process. So there you go, Dear Reader, the basics of the three branches of the United States government.
Next time we’ll discuss more topics in governance, civics, and the political process. See you next time on American Basics. Remember, knowing is half the battle.
by Rafael C.