The Government Of The United States of America
The Government of the United States of America
United States (Government), the combination of federal, state, and local laws, bodies, and agencies that is responsible for carrying out the operations of the United States. The federal government of the United States is centered in Washington, D.C.
The institutions of all governments emerge from basic principles. In the United States the one basic principle is representative democracy, which defines a system in which the people govern themselves by electing their own leaders. The American government functions to secure this principle and to further the common interests of the people.
Democracy in America is based on six essential ideals: (1) People must accept the principle of majority rule. (2) The political rights of minorities must be protected. (3) Citizens must agree to a system of rule by law. (4) The free exchange of opinions and ideas must not be restricted. (5) All citizens must be equal before the law. (6) Government exists to serve the people, because it derives its power from the people. These ideals form the basis of the democratic system in the United States, which seeks to create a union of diverse peoples, places, and interests.
To implement its essential democratic ideals, the United States has built its government on four elements: (1) popular sovereignty, meaning that the people are the ultimate source of the government’s authority; (2) representative government; (3) checks and balances; and (4) federalism, an arrangement where powers are shared by different levels of government.
Every government has a source of its sovereignty or authority, and most of the political structures of the U.S. government apply the doctrine of popular sovereignty. In previous centuries the source of sovereignty in some countries was the monarchy-the divine right of kings to rule. Americans place the source of authority in the people who, in a democratic society, reign. In this idea the citizens collectively represent the nation’s authority. They then express that authority individually by voting to elect leaders to represent them in government. “I know no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1820, “and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.” This was an experimental idea at the time, but today Americans take it for granted.
The second principle of U.S. democracy is representative government. In a representative government, the people delegate their powers to elected officials. In the United States, candidates compete for the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, as well as for many state and local positions. In turn these elected officials represent the will of the people and ensure that the government is accountable to its citizens. In a democracy, the people exercise power through elections, which allow all adult citizens of the United States the chance to have their voices heard and to influence government. With their vote, they can remove officials who ignore their intentions or who betray their trust. Political leaders are accountable as agents of the people; this accountability is an important feature of the American system of representative government.
In order to truly work, however, representative government must represent all people. Originally the only people allowed to vote and thus to be represented were white men who owned property-a small percentage of the population. Gradually voting rights were broadened to include white men without property, blacks, Native Americans, naturalized immigrants, and women.
The third principle of American democracy is the system of checks and balances. The three branches of government-the legislative, the executive, and the judicial-restrain and stabilize one another through their separated functions. The legislative branch, represented by Congress, must pass bills before they can become law. The executive branch—namely, the president—can veto bills passed by Congress, thus preventing them from becoming law. In turn, by a two-thirds vote, Congress can override the president’s veto. The Supreme Court may invalidate acts of Congress by declaring them contrary to the Constitution of the United States, but Congress can change the Constitution through the amendment process.
The fourth principle of democracy in the United States is federalism. In the American federal system, the states and the national government divide authority. This division of power helps curb abuses by either the national or the state governments.
This is one of seven major articles that together provide a comprehensive discussion of the United States of America. For more information on the United States, please see the other six major articles: United States (Overview), United States (Geography), United States (People), United States (Culture), United States (Economy), and United States (History).
Constitution Of The United States
The Constitution of the United States is the basis for the machinery and institutions of the U.S. government. The Constitution is the world’s oldest charter of national government in continuous use. It was written in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention, which had been convened in the midst of the political crisis that followed the American Revolution. At that time relations were tense between the states and the acting central government, the Continental Congress. The Constitution was an effort to ease those tensions and to create a single political entity from the 13 independent former colonies-the ideal expressed in the motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One). In 1788, after nine states ratified it, the Constitution became the law of the land. With 27 amendments-or additions-it has remained so.
Before the ratification of the Constitution, the states were governed under the Articles of Confederation, which served as a constitution. Under the articles, the central government was much weaker than the state governments. The men who drafted the Constitution favored a stronger central government. In the preamble-or introduction-to the Constitution, in which they stated their principles and purposes, the Founders recognized the United States as a government of the people, not of the states. They saw their purpose as forming “a more perfect Union,” which, along with promoting the “general welfare,” would secure “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” For more information on the ratification of the Constitution, see United States (History): Forging a New Nation.
Articles I, II, and III
To implement these abstract ideas, the Founders established three branches of government-the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The functions of these branches are described in the first three articles of the Constitution.
Article I is the longest article in the Constitution; it establishes the national legislature called Congress. The Founders divided Congress into a Senate and a House of Representatives because they were afraid of placing too much authority in any one institution. Among other powers, Congress collects taxes, provides for the common defense (meaning that the federal government, not just the states, provides resources for the protection and security of the United States), regulates commerce, raises armies, and declares war. In addition, Article I contains the “necessary and proper clause,” which authorizes Congress to pass any law that it thinks is necessary to carry out its constitutional duties. This provision is very important because it allows Congress to react to situations that may not have existed when the Constitution was written.
Article II establishes an executive department headed by a president and vice president. The article further describes the powers of the offices, the manner of election, and the qualifications for office. Of special significance is the president’s constitutional role as commander of the nation’s armed forces, which assures civilian control over the military. Because the president is the head of the armed forces and only Congress can declare war, the authority of the military is diffused and its power to make decisions is restrained. The Constitution also grants the president the authority to make treaties with other nations. However, to limit abuse of this power, the Constitution requires treaties to be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate.
Article III directs that the federal judicial power be placed in a Supreme Court and in other courts as directed by Congress. This brief article also lists the kinds of cases that fall specifically under the jurisdiction of the federal courts.
Articles IV, V, VI, and VII
Along with the preamble, the first three articles are the most familiar parts of the Constitution. There are, however, four additional articles. Article IV sets up cooperative arrangements between the states and the federal government regarding fugitives and criminals, and requires that states respect one other and one other’s citizens. It also establishes the process by which territories become states, an important function during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally Article IV guarantees a republican-or representative-form of government for all states.
Article V establishes procedures for amending the Constitution. The Founders developed a method for changing the Constitution so that it could be adapted to changing times. To maintain a balance between the power of the federal government and that of the state governments, the amendment process requires approval by majorities of legislative bodies at both the state and federal level. Only a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress can propose a constitutional revision; the legislatures of three-quarters of the states must then ratify the amendment for it to take effect. The Constitution also provides another amendment method, though it has never been used: The legislatures of two-thirds of the states can call a constitutional convention to propose amendments to the Constitution. Any proposal agreed upon must then be ratified by three-quarters of the states.
Article VI is a catchall article; its most important section establishes the Constitution and the laws of the United States as “the supreme Law of the Land.” Article VII of the Constitution establishes procedures that were used in 1788 and 1789 for the approval and subsequent adoption of the document by the states.
No sooner was the Constitution accepted than both individuals and states insisted on additions to protect the people from possible abuses by the new federal government. In 1790 Congress and the states ratified ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments guarantee personal liberties and prevent the federal government from infringing on the rights of states and citizens.
For example, the First Amendment-the most far-reaching amendment in the Bill of Rights-prohibits Congress from establishing an official state religion and from preventing Americans from the free exercise of their religion. It also prohibits the government from interfering with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right “peaceably to assemble.” Other amendments in the Bill of Rights confer on the people the right to speedy trials, to be secure in their homes, and to own and carry arms. The Fifth Amendment states that people cannot be deprived of life, liberty, or property “without due process of law”-that is, without a fair trial.
Besides the Bill of Rights, there have been only 17 other amendments to the Constitution in the more than 200 years of its existence. Of these, some of the most important are the 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments, which, respectively, gave blacks, women, and 18-year-olds the right to vote. Also important are the 17th Amendment, which gave the people the right to elect United States senators, and the 22nd Amendment, which restricted the number of terms a president can serve to two. These amendments extended the principles of democracy to more Americans, and in the case of the president, limited the power of a chief executive by restricting the length of his or her tenure. Besides these amendments, the 14th Amendment is an important safeguard for minority rights because under its “due process” clause, it extends the protections of the Bill of Rights to individual residents of states. In the same way that the Bill of Rights limits federal power, the 14th Amendment limits the power of the states over their citizens.
Importance of the Constitution
The Constitution of the United States embodies the principle that out of many different peoples, one national society can be created. The Founders wanted unity and stability. But they also wanted to safeguard the rights and liberties of states and individuals by balancing power among individuals, states, and the national government. The result is a system of shared functions designed to prevent any one element from gaining too much power.
The president and vice president are the only officials elected by all citizens of the United States; both serve four-year terms. Although the president shares power with Congress and the judiciary, he or she is the most powerful and important officeholder in the country. The president has no vote in Congress but proposes much of the legislation that becomes law. As the principal maker of foreign policy, the president of the United States has become one of the world's most important leaders in international affairs.
At first, the Founders were uncertain about the kind of executive power they desired for the United States. In 1787 they debated at length about how to choose a president and how much authority to give such a person. The drafters of the Constitution gave the president fewer specific powers than they extended to Congress because they were worried about placing too much power in the hands of one individual. The Founders then created an electoral college as the means of selecting the executive of their new country.
The Electoral College is composed of presidential electors representing each state. The number of electors per state is equal to the sum of the state’s senators and representatives in Congress. The Founders intended these electors, chosen as each state thought best, to meet and vote according to their individual preferences. This process excluded the influence of Congress as well as that of voters, who in these early days of the United States were not believed to be competent to choose a president.
This system depended on states to determine how electors would be chosen, an arrangement that removed the choice of the president from the direct vote of the people. Even today Americans do not vote directly for a presidential candidate. Instead, if a presidential candidate receives a majority of the state’s popular vote, a slate of electors pledge to cast all that state’s electoral votes for that candidate.
Such a process makes some Americans fear the possibility of a presidential candidate winning the popular vote and losing the electoral vote. Since the system works on a winner-take-all basis, the electoral vote of a state is always unanimous, but the popular vote may be very close. It is possible for a candidate to garner a majority of the popular vote but then, by losing certain key states with large numbers of electoral votes, to fail to win a majority in the electoral college. In 1888, for example, Democrat Grover Cleveland received 5,540,000 votes to Republican Benjamin Harrison’s 5,444,000 but lost the electoral college 233 to 168.
Of the three branches of government, the presidency has changed the most in the last 200 years. At first, presidents mostly served as administrators carrying out the laws passed by Congress. But in time they have come to stand at the center of the national government. In fact, presidential power had increased so much by the middle of the 20th century that in 1951 the states ratified the 22nd Amendment, which limited the president to two terms.
Responsibilities of the President
In the United States today the chief executive has many responsibilities. The president fills more than 3,000 appointed positions, including ambassadors, White House personnel, and members of various boards and commissions; oversees the many components of the executive branch of government; and proposes legislation to Congress-including the yearly federal budget. The president also directs foreign policy, commands the armed forces, negotiates and signs treaties, and serves as a symbol of the nation and a head of state with ceremonial duties.
The increasing power of modern presidents does not violate the Constitution by encroaching on the other branches of government. Rather, executive authority has expanded because of the loosely defined nature of the president’s powers in the Constitution. In Article II of the Constitution, the president is charged with seeing that “the Laws be faithfully executed.” It would be difficult for one individual to oversee all aspects of a modern industrialized society like that of the United States. Thus the executive branch has established a large number of agencies that carry out some of the executive functions of the government. Many full-time government employees participate in defining, regulating, and carrying out the various functions of the executive branch.
There are 14 departments of the executive branch. The heads of these departments, called secretaries, make up the cabinet, a body that advises the president on matters of policy and government administration. There are also 140 executive agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the National Labor Relations Board, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the United States Postal Service.
The difference between departments and executive agencies is both historical and functional. Congress authorizes departments, many created in the 19th century; their chiefs sit in the cabinet, and they often deal with large policy issues. Executive agencies, on the other hand, are usually designed to carry out specific tasks. Most executive agencies are contained within departments, as one part of a larger organization. For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is an agency within the Department of the Treasury that fulfills the highly specialized function of regulating taxation. However, a few executive agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), are independent.
Executive agencies have expanded in the 20th century to keep pace with a changing society and its growing needs. Large programs, such as Social Security, have grown to require more government workers to administer them. National security needs have also grown as the United States has taken a more active role in the world. The CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) were created to protect Americans and maintain the security of the United States.
Many executive agencies establish safety standards. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, issued rules in 1998 requiring drug companies to conduct wider testing of drugs in order to have more precise information about the use of medications on children. While drug companies challenged these regulations as burdensome, consumer and parent groups praised them as important safeguards.
Americans sometimes complain about the size of the federal government and especially that of the executive branch, which employs 98 percent of all national government personnel. This impression, however, should be measured against the growth of the American work force and the increases in state and local bureaucracies. In 1998 nearly 4.2 million people worked for the executive branch; 1.4 million were uniformed military employees, and 2.7 million were civilians. However, the proportion of federal workers to the total American work force has not increased since 1950 and in fact has been declining since the 1980s. It has also declined relative to the number of local public employees, suggesting that although the number of federal employees is large, if measured against the general population, its growth has not been disproportionate.
In addition to authority as head of the many executive departments and agencies, the president also has primary responsibility for making foreign policy. The Constitution established the president as commander of the armed forces and gave the president the authority to make treaties “with the Advice and Consent” of Congress. As a result, both Congress and the courts have generally supported energetic presidential action in the area of foreign policy. The president has the power to recognize new governments, to attend summit meetings with the heads of other nations, and to make executive agreements with foreign governments. Executive agreements have the force of law, but unlike treaties, they do not require congressional approval. Most Americans consider it in their best interests to allow the president some freedom of action in foreign affairs, recognizing that the president may be required to respond quickly to international challenges.
In conducting foreign policy, the president is helped by professionals at the State and Defense departments, by the National Security Council, by foreign affairs advisers in the White House, and by experts in the NSA and the CIA. In fact, one of the reasons that the president has dominated the direction of foreign policy in the late 20th century has been this access to superior intelligence information, which allows the president to make rapid and informed decisions.
Limitations on Presidential Power
Despite their wide-ranging authority, presidents have limits on their power. While the Supreme Court, the media, and public opinion can affect presidential actions, Congress has the greatest ability to limit the president’s power. Congress can check presidential power by refusing to appropriate funds for a presidential initiative, whether domestic or international. It can also refuse to confirm presidential appointees, such as ambassadors or Supreme Court justices. And ultimately only Congress can write and pass the laws that the executive branch is constitutionally obligated to implement.
Another limitation on the power of recent presidents is the independent counsel. In 1978 Congress enacted a law to authorize the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate any cases of alleged wrongdoing involving the president, vice president, or other major administration officials. The law was designed to prevent a conflict of interest that could occur when an attorney general, appointed by the president, investigated wrongdoing in the same president’s administration. Twenty independent counsels (or special prosecutors, as they are also known) have been appointed since 1978 to investigate a wide range of executive activities. Supporters argue that an independent counsel is necessary to delve into possible wrongdoing of an administration without the fear of retribution. On the other hand, detractors say that there is neither accountability nor oversight of the counsel and that with unlimited resources and money, counsels have abused their power.
Current Trends and Issues
It has always been necessary for presidents to work with Congress, but in the second half of the 20th century, relations between the two have often been strained and divided by political-party affiliation. Until after World War II (1939-1945) most presidents worked with a government in which their political party also controlled the House and Senate, making relations smoother. But since 1952 presidents have often confronted a Congress where the opposition party has a majority in at least one House. Such circumstances have limited the effectiveness of presidential leadership.
In an age when presidents initiate more legislation, and relations with Congress are often chilly, the chief executive’s public image and persuasive abilities have become more important. Because the one voice of the president commands attention in a way that the 535 voices of Congress cannot, the president often uses public opinion to gain support for his or her agenda. Presidents distribute news releases, give favored reporters and journalist’s anonymous news leaks, and send their advisers to talk on news shows. Increasingly in the 20th century, the voice of the people has come to be heard in sophisticated polls and interviews conducted by the media, which in turn influence the way that presidents respond to specific issues.
The presidency also needs to find a way to deal more effectively with the large numbers of administrative agencies that exert influence over legislative policies. Over the years, Congress has given broad authority over certain public issues to regulatory agencies. In turn these agencies make regulations that frequently affect the way laws are carried out. These regulations have the force of law, though there is no review of them. Often administrative orders read like acts of Congress or executive orders, despite the fact that no elected official had anything to do with them. Sometimes these regulatory agencies have better relationships with Congress than with a president who may not agree with their policies. This closeness diminishes the authority of the president over the bureaucracy.
Congress is the legislative branch of the government of the United States. The Constitution divides Congress into two structures-a House of Representatives and a Senate. These structures are jointly assigned “all legislative powers” in the national government.
The Founders expected Congress to be the dominant branch of the national government. In the early 1800s, James Monroe, the fifth U.S. president, said, “The whole system of national government may be said to rest essentially in powers granted to [the legislative] branch.” In fact, Congress was the center of government until the power of the presidency began to increase in the 20th century. However, from the start the Founders also felt that it was important to retain some control over the powers of Congress. As a result, the Constitution specifically enumerates ten things, some no longer relevant, that Congress may not do. Among other prohibitions, Congress cannot imprison people without due process of law, except in emergencies; Congress cannot pass laws that retroactively make a crime of what was legal when committed; and Congress cannot tax interstate commerce. In addition, the Bill of Rights forbids Congress from abridging rights held by individuals.
Structure of the House
The House of Representatives is made up of 435 representatives-the number per state varies by population-elected every two years. Demonstrating the growth of the United States, today’s congresspersons represent nearly 20 times the number of constituents as their predecessors did in the late 18th century. Today there is one representative for approximately every 621,000 residents, a much larger figure than the 30,000 residents the Constitution originally required for a congressional district. The framers of the Constitution intended that the congressional districts, which are usually substantially smaller units of representation than a state, would assure that all interests in the nation would be adequately represented. Thus these units reflect the geographic, social, and economic diversity of the American people.
The internal organization of the House is based on a system of committees and subcommittees. All representatives serve on several committees, and these committees consider all legislation before it is presented to the House as a whole. The committees work to transform ideas into detailed, complex bills.
The most important House committees are the Rules Committee, which decides when and for how long every bill will be debated and whether or not it can be amended; the Ways and Means Committee, which studies the president’s budget proposals and demands that administrative agencies justify their requests for money; and the Appropriations Committee, which allots money from the federal budget to support approved measures. Frequently the jurisdictions of committees and subcommittees overlap so that several subcommittees might examine a bill before it is voted on. For example, a single energy bill may be considered by the subcommittees on public works and transportation; science, space, and technology; and energy and commerce.
Because the committee process is very important, committee chairmen and chairwomen are some of the most powerful people in the House. In the past, committee chairs could prevent legislation supported by a majority from reaching the floor of the House. Chairs could either refuse to let a bill out of the committee or they could allot very little or no time for the committee to consider a bill. While committee chairs still retain some powers that regular committee members do not have—such as controlling when bills will be taken up and the hiring of committee staff—committee members are more likely to challenge chairs’ rulings. Until the 1970s representatives obtained committee chairs through seniority-how many terms they had served. When the committees’ seniority rules were dismantled, committee members gained more freedom. Now party caucuses elect committee chairs.
Party caucuses (or conferences, as they are called by Republicans) are made up of all the House members of a party. At the beginning of each session of Congress, each caucus meets to select its officers and its nominees for House leadership positions. Caucuses also occasionally meet during a session to discuss the policies of the party and significant legislation. Caucuses can have significant influence on lawmaking, as the choice of a committee chairperson sympathetic to a certain piece of legislation often changes the fate of a particular bill.
The most powerful individual in the House is the Speaker of the House, who presides over the chamber, refers bills to committees, and appoints representatives to special committees, and grants representatives the right to speak during chamber debates. The Speaker of the House is elected by the entire body and is always a member of the party with a majority of seats in the House. Other important posts in the House are the majority and minority floor leaders and their assistants, called whips. The floor leaders and whips are influential members whose function is to try to have representatives vote the way their political party suggests on key issues. Each party chooses its own floor leader and whips.
Structure of the Senate
The Senate is composed of 100 members-two each from the 50 states-who serves six-year terms. The procedures and workings of the Senate are similar to those of the House, though because of its smaller membership there are fewer committees and subcommittees. The most important committees of the Senate are the Appropriations, Budget, Finance, Foreign Relations, and Judiciary committees.
The Founders designed the Senate to be a deliberative national body, more stable and insulated from popular sentiment than the House. That is why senators serve six-year terms (as opposed to the two-year terms of the House) and why, until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, the people elected senators by the state legislatures rather than directly. The Founders also designed the Senate to protect the interests of the states; especially states with small populations, by giving each state the same number of representatives in the Senate. In the House, states with larger populations have more representatives. In addition, unlike the House, the Senate does not limit the amount of debate on any bill or for any one senator. This privilege allows Senators to filibuster, or make unlimited speeches, to block action on a bill or to delay a vote for an extended period of time. A filibuster can be ended only through a vote of 60 senators.
The vice president of the United States serves as the president of the Senate. One of the few designated duties of the vice president is to break tie votes in the Senate. However, because the vice president has such a limited role in the Senate, he or she rarely attends its sessions. The Senate selects a president pro tempore (temporary president), who is usually the senior senator of the majority party. He or she supervises the Senate most of the time.
Besides the vice president, the leadership in the Senate consists of majority and minority leaders, which schedule bills for consideration, and whips, who gather information about their colleagues’ views on specific bills. The policy committee, which advises the Senate leadership on legislative priorities, is also influential in the workings of the Senate.
Responsibilities of Congress
Congress has many powers and responsibilities. The most important of these is lawmaking. Lawmaking is a long and complicated process, and takes up a large portion of representatives’ and senators’ time. Only a small percentage of the bills introduced to Congress actually become law.
The Legislative Process
The legislative process begins when a member of Congress introduces a bill—a proposed law—to the House or the Senate. When a bill is introduced in one of the houses of Congress, it is assigned a number and forwarded to an appropriate legislative committee. The committee decides whether a need exists for such legislation and whether the bill fits the need. The committee discusses the bill and may conduct hearings or consult outside experts. After considering the bill, the committee may approve or amend it and pass it on to the full House or Senate. If the committee fails to approve the bill or votes to take no action on it, the bill dies. The majority of bills that are introduced to Congress die in committee.
If the committee approves the bill, it is placed on the calendar of the house where it was introduced and debated according to the rules of that chamber. During the debate, amendments may be suggested and voted on. After the debate, a vote is taken. If a majority votes for the bill, it then goes to the other house of Congress, where it is considered under the same basic procedures.
If both houses pass the bill in the same form, it is submitted to the president, who may either sign or veto it. Usually, however, Senate and House bills differ somewhat because of amendments added by either chamber. In this case a conference committee made up of both senators and representatives settles the differences. The revised bill is then sent back to the House and the Senate. If both houses approve it, the bill is sent to the president.
If the president signs the bill, it becomes law. If the president vetoes it, it can become law only if both houses of Congress again pass it—this time by a two-thirds majority. Any bill that has not been passed by the end of each session of Congress is considered dead and must be reintroduced in the next Congress.
In addition to its sole power over lawmaking, Congress has the authority to initiate bills to fund federal programs, to set tariffs and taxes, to provide for the national defense (including funding for things such as fortifications and defensive weaponry), to control immigration, to establish post offices, to raise and support a military force, and to declare war. Congress can also impeach and remove federal officials, including the president, from office.
Congress is also responsible for congressional investigations. Congress has the authority to investigate and oversee the executive branch and its agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice. As part of this responsibility, which is known as oversight, Congress can summon senior officials to answer questions, can order audits of agencies, and can hold hearings to air grievances of citizens. Congress can also hold hearings on matters of general public concern. Sometimes members of Congress conduct these hearings to identify problems that create a need for new laws. In other cases Congress holds hearings to raise public awareness about an issue. Some congressional investigations, such as those into Watergate and the Iran-Contra Affair, were efforts to limit the growing authority of the executive branch. Despite these high-profile examples, however, most investigations are little-known efforts.
Related Groups and Agencies
As congressional work has grown and become more complex, Congress has come to rely on the advice and assistance of a large number of auxiliary agencies. One of the most important of these agencies is the Congressional Budget Office, a group of experts in economics and statistics. This office provides the information necessary for legislators to respond to the president’s budget proposals and to reconcile estimated tax revenues with projected expenses.
In order to participate actively in government and be well informed, Congress has a large congressional staff. Many of these men and women serve as personal assistants to representatives and senators. Others are on the staffs of the numerous committees-for example, 30 staff members work for the House Committee on the District of Columbia alone. Many members of the congressional staff work for support agencies such as the General Accounting Office, which tracks the funding and expenditures of the federal government. In 1997, 31,400 people worked for the legislative branch.
In addition to the auxiliary congressional agencies, both the House and Senate depend on what is sometimes called the third house of Congress-the lobbyists. Lobbyists are usually employees or representatives of companies or interest groups who try to influence votes on legislation and to gain publicity for their causes. With at least 1,800 associations located in Washington, the causes that are represented by lobbyists run the gamut from labor unions, the National Association of Manufacturers, and large corporations to citizens’ groups promoting environmental issues and health concerns.
In some instances, lobbyists specialize in a field such as agriculture or taxation and become experts who provide technical information to legislators on a variety of subjects. Lobbyists may even draft legislative bills. Full-time lobbyists are required to register and are regulated by laws that restrict their contributions and gifts to legislators. Their public image, however, remains that of people who affect the outcome of legislation and elections by contributing money to politicians. In 1998 special interests represented by 14,484 lobbyists (27 for each member of Congress) reported spending $1.17 billion to lobby Congress, the White House, and the federal agencies.
Current Trends and Issues
The relationship of Congress with the executive branch is critical to the workings of the government. Friction often develops between presidents, who want swift action, and Congress, whose machinery makes movement slow. Congress reflects national diversity and mirrors the nation in its fragmentation and lack of central control. The conflict between the executive and legislative branches is accentuated if different political parties control the two branches, as they have since the 1950s. The American people need to decide whether a Congress of one party fighting the presidency of another is a separation of powers that produces effective government. While this circumstance diffuses power, it can run counter to the public interest if important issues are not dealt with because of partisan disagreements. In 1995, for example, the president and Congress were unable to agree on a federal budget, and without congressional appropriations there was no money to pay federal employees, resulting in a brief government shutdown.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Litigants dissatisfied with a lower court decision may appeal to the Supreme Court, although very few cases ever reach the court. A ruling of the Supreme Court cannot be appealed. As Justice Robert Jackson once explained: “The [Supreme] Court is not final because it is infallible; the court is infallible because it is final.” There are currently nine Supreme Court justices, who, like all federal judges, are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Responsibilities of the Supreme Court
An important feature of the American legal system is the practice of judicial review. The most important exercise of judicial review is by the Supreme Court. The court can determine whether a statute or executive action conforms to the rules and principles laid down in the Constitution. It can strike down laws that it considers unconstitutional. Judicial review does not belong exclusively to the Supreme Court; in appropriate cases, every court may strike down laws that violate the Constitution. Although judicial review adds flexibility to the Constitution—allowing it to be interpreted for changing times—this power is not explicitly stated in the Constitution.
In the years following the adoption of the Constitution, the Court and Congress debated whether the judiciary actually had the power of judicial review. The issue was resolved in 1803, when in the case of Marbury v. Madison, the Court firmly established the power of the judiciary to review acts of Congress and decide if they were constitutional. Chief Justice John Marshall reasoned that the Constitution was the highest law of the nation, and that with respect to congressional legislation; the Constitution was “superior…law, unchangeable by ordinary means.” Consequently, Madison argued, if the judiciary interpreted a law or statute as contradicting the Constitution, the courts could nullify it.
Marshall established the common-sense view that within the three branches of government, courts are especially qualified to rule whether legislation is constitutional. Marshall held that judicial power resided in the court’s authority to interpret the Constitution. This principle has been accepted ever since. Although the judicial override has more often been a threat than a reality-by 1998 the Supreme Court had struck down federal laws and executive orders only 127 times-it still is a powerful tool. However, as with all federal courts, some Americans have questioned whether the Supreme Court should have that power without its members being elected by the people.
The Supreme Court decides appeals and constitutional issues. It also has jurisdiction over various kinds of other cases. These cases include those involving public officials such as ambassadors or consuls, or those where a state is a party in the case.
Influences on the Supreme Court
Despite its authority on paper, the Supreme Court is influenced by certain factors. When a vacancy occurs because of death, retirement, or impeachment of a Supreme Court justice, the president appoints a new justice who then must be confirmed by a majority of the Senate. As a result, the president and the Senate can affect the composition and sentiment of the court. For example, the court changed dramatically during the American Civil War (1861-1865), when President Abraham Lincoln appointed five justices to a body that had been controlled before the war by Southerners. Individual justices are also influenced by personal background, political views, and relationships with other judges, and even by the clerks who assist them.
The Solicitor General, who represents the federal government at the Supreme Court, also shapes the court’s agenda. As the chief government lawyer in cases before the courts of appeals, the Solicitor General decides which cases the government should ask the court to review and what the government’s position will be in them. The Solicitor General’s power to petition the court to review cases is important because the Supreme Court can rule only on cases that are brought before it. The court cannot simply choose to examine a law or case of its own accord.
Finally the Supreme Court is influenced by what it believes the majority of American people support. This influence of public opinion was evident in the 1930s, when a conservative court at first opposed the agricultural policies of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. These polices, which curtailed farm production in an effort to stabilize the agricultural economy, expanded the power of the federal government by giving it a much larger role in regulating agriculture and commerce. After Roosevelt won substantial majorities in the presidential elections of 1936 and 1940, however, the same justices accepted legislation similar to what they had earlier called unconstitutional. Another example is the 1972 decision Roe v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion during the first six months of pregnancy. This ruling is often seen as a judicial response to a significant change in the people’s attitudes toward women and their right to privacy.
Current Trends and Issues
Presently the judiciary has several challenges. The first involves a debate over the proper limits of the Supreme Court’s activism. This debate pits judicial fundamentalists, or strict constructionists, against judicial activists, also known as loose constructionists.
Strict constructionists believe the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution using only its specific wording and the original intentions of its authors. In this way, they argue, the court would serve as a gatekeeper, maintaining the balance between the separate powers of government and adhering to established precedents. Strict constructionists believe that changes should come through executive and legislative actions and through the states.
Loose constructionists favor a liberal interpretation of the Constitution. They hold that the authors of the Constitution did not intend to preserve an unchanging society, but instead meant the Constitution to adapt as the needs of the nation changed. Thus, they argue, the court should be free to clarify the vague language of statutes and to interpret rules for practical application. In this view, the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of important public issues in a society that is much different than it was when the Constitution was written.
Loose constructionists also believe the judiciary stands as the primary protector of minority rights and unpopular viewpoints. Judicial activists look to the courts to protect rights and opinions that are not widely accepted and that might be trampled by a legislative majority. By adopting a flexible view of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has often upheld the rights of minority groups, such as the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, the Amish have used the First Amendment to challenge the application of states’ school laws to their children. Members of Jehovah’s Witnesses have challenged the right of the state to draft them for military service and have refused to allow their children to salute the national flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. They have turned, often successfully, to the Supreme Court to sustain their constitutional right to dissent.
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