Government in the USA

Government in the USA


General Principles:

The form of government is based on three main principles: federalism, the separation of powers, and respect for the Constitution with its seven articles and 26 amendments. Americans are subject to two governments, that of their state and that of the Union, and each has its own distinct function. The states have, under the Constitution, the primary functions of providing law and order, education, public health and most of the things which concern day-to-day life. The Federal government at Washington is concerned with foreign affairs and with matters of general concern to all the states, including commerce between the states.

At each level, in state and Union, there is a constitution which defines and limits political power, and which provides safeguards against tyranny and means for popular participation. In each state, power is divided between three agencies, with law-making power given to a legislature (usually of two houses, elected for fixed terms), an executive (the governor), and finally the judges of the State Supreme Court. A possible abuse of power or infringement by one branch on the rights and duties of the others is prevented by a system of checks and balances. Each state is divided into counties, which have their own powers. Within the counties the towns have their own local governments. City government, with elected mayor, council and judges, reproduces the state pattern on a smaller scale. Each of the fifty states has its own peculiarities. But one can say that all state and city governments provide for election of legislatures and executives for fixed terms, and all have devices for ensuring that each of the three elements of government exercises a check on the other two.

The Federal government also has three elements: executive (the President), legislative (Congress) and judicial (Supreme Court) branch, and the three elements are checked and balanced by one another. The President is the effective head of the executive branch of government, head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. The Cabinet is appointed by the Presindent. Ist seat is the White House in Washington. In November of each leap year (next 2000) a President is elected to serve for exactly four years from a fixed day in the following January. The four-year rhythm has never been broken. Together with the President, a Vice-President is elected, and if the President dies the Vice-President becomes President for the unexpired part of the four years. The founders of the Constitution thought of the President as a replacement for the English king, and did not expect any President to resign, though the old device of impeachment was available for Congress to remove a President by a special kind of political trial.

A constitutional amendment of 1967 made new arrangements for the succession, so that if a Vice-President in office dies or resigns the Senate elects a new one.

A person elected as Vice-President expects that he will have no defined function except to preside over the Senate (he has only a vote if the Senate vote is 50:50) unless he happens to be thrust into the highest office through the chance of the President's death. Most Vice-Presidents during a second term regard the office as a useful base from which to try to win their party's next candidature for the Presidency, as Nixon did in 1960, Humphrey in 1968, and Bush in 1988.

Out of the nineteen men elected to the Presidency between 1840 and 1960, four were assassinated (John F. Kennedy in 1963) and four died in office, so eight of the men elected as Vice-President before Ford acceded to the highest office - and in May 1945 Vice-President Truman became President only four months after the four-year period had begun.

Until 1951 there was no limit to the number of four-year terms for which a person could be elected as President. In 1940 Franklin Roosevelt was elected for a third term, and in 1944 for a fourth, cut short by his death. In 1951 a constitutional amendment set a limit of two terms - that is, eight years.

The Senate and the House of Representatives together form the Congress, which is the law-making body, and no federal taxes can be collected or money spent without the approval of both Houses. The President signs the laws. If he refuses, his veto can be overridden by a two-thirds majority in both Houses. Elections for both Houses are held in November each even-numbered year, when the whole House of Representatives is elected, to serve for only two years, while senators are elected in rotation for six years. If a senator or representative dies or resigns, a special election may be held to fill the vacant place for the remainder of the term.

The Senate embodies the federal nature of the Constitution, with two senators from each state. Each state's two senators are elected at separate elections, for example, one in November 1984 to serve for 1985-91, the other in 1986 to serve for 1987-93; and each senator is elected by and for a whole state.

The House of Representatives has a fixed number of seats (435), and each state has one seat for every 1/435 share that it has of the whole U.S. population. Every ten years, after each census, states with fast-growing populations, like Texas and Florida, are given extra seats at the expense of those with slow growth like New York. Six states have only one seat in the House; the others are divided into constituencies or 'districts', each of which is represented by the candidate who wins most votes at the election.

The rules about fixed terms of office for President and Congress have prevented the type of instability that has been found at times in many European countries where the executive head of government resigns if defeated in the parliamentary assembly. They have also prevented the concentration of power that occurs in a parliamentary system based on two strongly disciplined parties such as that of Great Britain. But they have created conditions in which it may be difficult for any coherent policy at all to be followed, for example when the President is a Democrat faced by a Republican majority in one House of Congress - or even in both Houses.


The Federal Constitution:

It is a short document, and some of it is vague in meaning. Also, it was written 200 years ago, and the actual conditions and problems of an industrial nation are very different from those of the small pre-industrial society of the eighteenth century.

The First Article provides for the establishment of the legislative body, Congress, consisting of two Houses, and defines its powers. The second does the same for the executive, the President, and there is also provision in very general terms for a system of federal courts. The men of 1787 assumed that they were devising a constitution which would endure, but they also recognised that there might be a need for altering it, and they included provisions for amendment. The Fifth Article lays down the procedure for amendment, allowing either the states or Congress to take the initiative. A proposal to make a change must first be approved by two-thirds majorities in both Houses of Congress and then ratified by three quarters of the states.

The first ten amendments were made almost at once (1791); they form the 'Bill of Rights', and are really an extension of the original Constitution. Two more amendments were adopted in the next seventy years, and the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth were passed after the Civil War.

The Constitution of the United States takes precedence over all state constitutions and laws, and over laws made by the United States Congress. But the Constitution also includes a list of the subjects concerning which Congress may make laws, and says that Congress has no other powers beyond those explicitly defined. The United States Congress does not have a general legislative power, but only power to make laws on these particular. subjects.

Article One (Section Eight) of the Constitution gives the list of the topics about which the Congress has authority to make laws. They include defence and foreign affairs, citizenship and naturalisation, the regulation of commerce with foreign countries and among the states, and power to collect taxes to pay the debts and to provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States.


Parties and Elections:

Soon after the USA was established, political parties developed, and now two parties, Democrats and Republicans, dominate the political scene. Around 1850 the two parties were the Whigs and the Democrats. The old Democrats tended to support state autonomy against the central government. In 1854 a northern alliance of people determined to abolish slavery founded a new party, which they called 'Republicans'. It rapidly absorbed the Whigs. Afterwards they represented the main stream of developing northern industry and free private enterprise. The Democrats are the party of the left, and for many decades the were the only party in the South. All elections must be looked at in terms of party.

Citizens aged eighteen or more may register as voters in their home towns, but about a quarter of all Americans do not bother to register, an so cannot vote. Both parties choose their candidates for most offices at public primary elections. In some states only people who have registered as Democrats may vote in Democratic primary elections, so too with Republicans. For the main offices the opposed candidates are normally Republicans and Democrats. Participation in elections is lower than in most other countries, around 60 percent at presidential elections, less than half in other ones. In most states people vote in referendums, on state and local questions at the same time as they vote for candidates for offices (for example the President).

Presidential elections: The President serves a four-year term and may stay in office for a total of two full terms only. He or she must be an American citizen born in the USA and over 35 years of age. Each of the two parties must choose a nominee from the various aspiring candidates. The presidential and vice-presidential nominees are selected at the parties' national conventions by a simple majority of the delegates previously chosen either at state conventions or elected in primaries.

After the official nomination the election campaign begins in earnest continuing until Election Day, the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in leap years. Voters are registered and the party machinery drums up support, tries to win floating voters over etc.

On Election Day the electorate votes not for the presidential candidates themselves but for those presidential electors (members of the Electoral College) who have pledged to support a particular candidate.

The officially elected President, who is inaugurated and sworn in in January, is the candidate who has received the votes of the majority of the electors in the Electoral College.

The serious anomaly in the electoral college system is the rule that in each state the candidate who wins the biggest number of the people's votes receives the whole electoral college vote for the state, no matter how small the majority.

American Presidents:

George Washington (Fed.) 1789-1797

John Adams (Fed.) 1797-1801

Thomas Jefferson (Dem.) 1801-1809

James Madison (Dem.) 1809-1817

James Monroe (Dem.) 1817-1825

John Quincy Adams (Dem.) 1825-1829

Andrew Jackson (Dem.) 1829-1837

Martin van Buren (Dem.) 1837-1841

William Henry Harrison (Whig) 1841

John Tyler (Dem.) 1841-1845

James Polk (Dem.) 1845-1849

Zachary Taylor (Whig) 1849-1850

Millard Fillmore (Whig) 1850-1853

Franklin Pierce (Dem.) 1853-1857

James Buchanan (Dem.) 1857-1861

Abraham Lincoln (Rep.) 1861-1865

Andrew Johnson (Rep.) 1865-1869

Ulysses S. Grant (Rep.) 1869-1877

Rutherford Hayes (Rep.) 1877-1881

James Garfield (Rep.) 1881

Chester A. Arthur (Rep.) 1881-1885

Grover Cleveland (Dem.) 1885-1889

Benjamin Harrison (Rep.) 1889-1893

Grover Cleveland (Dem.) 1893-1897

William MacKinley (Rep.) 1897-1901

Theodore Roosevelt (Rep.) 1901-1909

William H. Taft (Rep.) 1909-1913

Woodrow Wilson (Dem.) 1913-1921

Warren G. Harding (Rep.) 1921-1923

Calvin Coolidge (Rep.) 1923-1929

Herbert Hoover (Rep.) 1929-1933

Franklin D. Roosevelt (Dem.) 1933-1945

Harry S. Truman (Dem.) 1945-1953

Dwight D. Eisenhower (Rep.) 1953-1961

John F. Kennedy (Dem.) 1961-1963

Lyndon B. Johnson (Dem.) 1963-1969

Richard M. Nixon (Rep.) 1969-1974

Gerald R. Ford (Rep.) 1974-1977

Jimmy (James E.) Carter (Dem.) 1977-1981

Ronald W. Reagan (Rep.) 1981-1989

George H. Bush (Rep.) 1989-1993

Bill Clinton (Dem.) since 1993