Chapter 9 Understanding American Government

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1 Chapter 9 Understanding American Government

2 Understanding the Constitution -Overall, the Constitution created a representative democracy, sometimes known as a republic, one in which people elect others to act on their behalf. The Constitution created a federal system in which power is shared between the national government and state and local governments. -Powers specifically given to the federal government are called delegated powers, such as the power to wage war, regulate interstate commerce, negotiate treaties, etc. Exactly what powers are delegated by the Constitution include those specifically granted to the federal government, as well as powers deemed necessary and proper by lawmakers for the proper governing of the country. This term is included in what became known as the elastic clause of the Constitution in Article I, Section 8, which says that Congress can make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying out its duties. It is known as the elastic clause because something that is elastic is considered flexible, or able to adjust depending on the situation. -Powers specifically given to the states or people are called reserved powers. These might include establishing and maintaining schools, establishing local governments, etc. -Powers shared by both federal and state governments are called concurrent powers, including levying taxes, enforcing laws, etc. -One of the key ideas built into the Constitution is the idea that powers of the federal government are then split between the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial), a concept known as separation of powers. The government was set up this way so that no one branch of the government would become too powerful. -As covered in the last chapter, the Constitution embodies important philosophical concepts: popular sovereignty (political power rests ultimately with the people), federalism (power is divided between the national and state governments), checks and balances (tools the three branches can use to keep the others from overstepping their powers), separation of powers (dividing the powers of the government into three branches so that no one branch is all powerful), and the ability to amend the Constitution along with a changing society.

3 The Legislative Branch -The primary duty of the legislative branch is to make or create laws for the country. Article I of the Constitution describes the duties of the legislative branch, the requirements for becoming a US Representative or Senator, and other important details about the US Congress. -Congress is divided into two primary parts: the House of Representatives and The Senate. -The House of Representatives is the lower house of Congress. The number of representatives for each state is dependent upon the state s population. The number of representatives can change over time as a state s population changes. After a census, or official count of the country s population, is taken every ten years, the number of representatives for each state is adjusted through a process known as apportionment, or planned distribution of representation. Since the number of representatives in the House is dependent upon a state s population, the House is seen as representing the people of the United States. Currently, there are 435 members of Congress representing the 50 states. Places like Washington, DC and Puerto Rico have non-voting representation in Congress as well. To run for the House of Representatives, one must be a US citizen for at least 7 years, a resident of the state they are representing, and at least 25 years of age. Representatives serve two year terms before their next election. -The Senate is the upper house of Congress. Each state has two senators regardless of population. In this sense, the Senate represents the states themselves in the federal government. To run for the US Senate, one must be a US citizen for at least 9 years, a resident of the state they are running for, and at least 30 years of age. Senators serve six year terms when elected and elections for senators are staggered so that each state has at least one experienced senator in the Senate. -The political party that controls each part of Congress is referred to as the majority party, while the one that is not in control is known as the minority party. The majority party in the House elects an important member of their party to become the Speaker of the House, or the leader of the House of Representatives. The Senate is led by the Vice- President of the United States, who does not vote except in the cases of tie votes. -A bill is a proposed law that may originate in either the House or the Senate. A bill is usually debated upon, revised, debated upon, and revised further before a finished bill is voted upon. It is then sent to the other chamber of Congress for its approval, where it is further debated and amended. Once it passes through Congress with a simple majority vote in both chambers, it is sent on to the President, who may either sign the bill in to law, or he may veto, or reject, the law.

4 The Executive Branch -Article II of the Constitution describes the duties and powers of the executive branch, which is headed by the President of the United States. The executive branch executes, or carries out and enforces the laws passed by Congress. -The President is the most powerful elected official in the country. In order to run for President, one must be a natural born US citizen and at least 35 years of age, and have lived in the US for at least 14 years (in other words, they cannot have lived in a foreign country during that time). Presidential terms last four years, and are limited to two terms. -If a President dies or is incapacitated, there is a line of succession to determine who will take over on his behalf. The Vice-President is first in line, followed by the Speaker of the House, and then the various cabinet secretaries that head executive departments. -The House of Representatives can impeach, or bring official charges against, a sitting President for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. An impeachment trial takes place in the US Senate (with senators acting as the jury and the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court as the judge). If found guilty of a crime, the President may be removed from office or punished in some other way. -The executive branch s main duty is to enforce or carry out the laws passed by a legislature. The executive branch is comprised of the President and various executive departments and agencies that enforce the laws. One of the President s main duties is to sign bills sent to him or her by Congress into law. The President may veto, or reject, laws sent to him by Congress as well. Presidents may also issue executive orders, which carry the same weight as laws passed by Congress but must fall within the guidelines of the Constitution. The President also has the power to pardon, or forgive, people for their alleged crimes. The President is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Only Congress, however, has the power to actually declare war. -There are numerous executive departments and agencies that assist the President in executing the law. Heads of the various executive departments are part of the President s cabinet, or close group of advisors. Each department, such as the Departments of Defense, Education, Energy, Homeland Security, etc. are headed by a secretary. The President also has various executive agencies under his control, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and carry out executive duties.

5 The Judicial Branch -Article III of the Constitution describes the make up of the judicial branch of the government of the United States. The judicial branch includes the federal court system of the United States, and the Constitution specifically describes the Supreme Court to be the highest court in the land. -One of the most important duties of the court system, especially the Supreme Court, is the power of judicial review, or the power to review actions of the legislative and executive branches to determine whether or not those actions agree with the Constitution., and if those actions do not, the court may declare them to be unconstitutional. For example, the Constitution clearly prohibits Congress from creating laws infringing upon the people s religious freedoms. If Congress were to pass such a law, and a case was brought before the Supreme Court challenging that law, then the Supreme Court can strike the law down, declaring it unconstitutional. Lower federal (or national government) courts can also rule on the constitutionality of laws as well. -The federal (not state) court system has three levels of courts. The lowest level of courts are the district courts, where trials for criminal and civil cases are held. The next level of courts are courts of appeal, which hear cases in which the decisions of lower federal district courts and state courts are questioned because of procedure or questions of fairness of the original trial. Courts of appeal can overturn or uphold a lower court decision. The highest court in the United States is, again, the Supreme Court, which is primarily an appeals court as well. According to the Constitution, the Supreme Court also hears cases under its original jurisdiction, or cases where it and only it has authority. These include cases involving federal government officials and cases where the federal government or a state itself is a plaintiff or defendant. Otherwise the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction, where it hears cases on appeal, mostly dealing with Constitutional questions. -Federal judges, including those on the Supreme Court, are appointed by the President, and approved by Congress, for life. They receive lifetime appointments because, as judges, they are expected to rule impartially, free from political beliefs. By not making them elected officials, judges are able to rule freely knowing that their decisions won t prevent them from being re-elected like the average Congressman or the President. -Currently, there are 9 justices on the Supreme Court, including the Chief Justice, or head judge. The first female Supreme Court justice was Sandra Day O Connor, and the first African-American justice was Thurgood Marshall.

6 The Bill of Rights -In order to guarantee its ratification, the framers of the Constitution agreed to guarantee that a Bill of Rights would be added as amendments to the Constitution by Congress. This Bill of Rights would be a list of basic, natural rights that would be protected by the Constitution from infringement by the federal and state governments. -The 1 st Amendment guarantees freedom of expression and thought. More specifically, this includes: a) freedom of speech and expression, b) freedom of religion, c) freedom of the press, d) freedom to assemble, and e) freedom of petition. -The 2 nd Amendment guarantees the right of the people to bear arms for protection of their property and their rights, and with the idea that the citizens would from time to time be called into the service of the militia. -The 3 rd Amendment guarantees that no citizen can be forced to quarter or house soldiers in their homes during peacetime. -The 4 th Amendment guarantees the right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires that searches and seizures must be accompanied by a warrant or probable cause, or a good reason. The 4 th amendment implicitly protects the right to privacy. -The 2 nd -4 th Amendments are direct responses to British abuses before the American Revolution (British attempt to seize the colonists arms at Concord; forcing colonists to quarter British soldiers in their homes; searching for evidence of crimes including smuggling without warrants, etc.) -The 5 th Amendment protects citizens from being tried for serious crimes without an indictment, or formal charge, from a grand jury; it guarantees against double jeopardy, or being tried twice for the same crime; it guarantees against being forced to testify against one s self or self-incrimination; guarantees that no one will be deprived of their rights and property without due process of law; guarantees that the government may not take private property without just compensation or payment, or the right of eminent domain. -The 6 th Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury of those accused in criminal cases, to be informed of the charges against him or her, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to an attorney. -The 7 th Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury in civil cases. -The 8 th Amendment guarantees that no person accused of a crime be held on excessive bail or subject to cruel or unusual punishments. -The 5 th -8 th Amendments are often called the rights of the accused, or those charged with crimes or involved in civil cases. -The 9 th Amendment basically states that people have other basic rights not mentioned in the Constitution, and that their omission does not mean they don t possess those rights. -The 10 th Amendment states that any powers not specifically granted to the federal government or specifically prohibited to the states are held by the states themselves.

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