How does the US work?

Check out Stoneburg’s location. It appears that he is truly interested in the basics of our government, from a non-American perspective.

Please ignore all the bits enshrining slavery. Thanks!


The US Constitution is just over 4500 words (11 pages in WordXP, lots of empty paragraphs, lots of headings). This thread, in comparison, is just over 1000 words.

What exactly is your definition of “long and wordy”?

Well, there’s always Schoolhouse Rock. “I’m just a Bill…”

Okay, from my many wasted years of also watching Schoolhouse Rock, here goes, and I’ll try to keep the verbiage to a minimum by ignoring oddball things like constitutional conventions and pocket vetoes and whatnot:

The U.S. Federal government is modeled roughly on the Parliamentary systems that have long existed in various European nations, most notably England. The major difference, though, is that the “head of state” position (typically filled by a monarch), is instead an elected President. Unlike a figurehead King, a President has actual power, and unlike a powerful King, there are well-defined limits on that power. The structure is defined by the U.S. Constitution (the supreme law of the land) and divided into three major branches, commonly designated legislative, executive and judicial:

Legislative (aka Congress)
Each state is divided up into areas known as congressional districts (some states are so small that the entire state comprises one district). Every two years, the districts hold elections to select their Representative, who will then be sent to the House of Representatives, the “lower” half of the U.S. Congress. Currently, there are 435 members in the House.

Also, each state has two Senators, elected to six-year terms, who will sit in the 100-member Senate, the “upper” half of Congress. At each bi-annual election, therefore, only a third of the Senate is being elected.

Congress is the only branch of government that can create new laws, impose federal taxes and (significant in recent years) declare war. They control the money, essentially, deciding where it will be spent. If they disapprove of a President’s actions, they can withhold funding for those actions.

In practice, laws are discussed in various committees (small subsets of representatives and senators) who refine the legislation (or conclude the legislation is not needed, thus letting it “die in committee”). For a new law to be created, it must receive a majority vote in the House and the Senate.

Executive (aka the President)
A President is elected every four years. His function is to enforce federal legislation. All federal legislation must be either signed (approved) or “vetoed” (rejected) by the President before enforcement can begin. Congress can over-ride a veto and force the law through anyway, but they need a two-thirds majority to do so. Only after a President has signed or a veto has been overridden does a piece of legislation become a “law”. Prior to that, it is just a “bill”. Yes, only a bill, with no legal strength whatsoever.

Although the President cannot create new laws, he can make it clear which laws he approves of and will sign. If he wants a new law passed, or a chunk of federal spending approved, he could tell (more accurately, strongly suggest) a congressman to propose it. Any U.S. citizen has this right, though naturally a President’s request is not to be dismissed lightly.

The President is commander of the military and Federal law enforcement (i.e. the FBI, ATF and other such agencies). The President can deploy the military without approval from Congress if he perceives a “clear and present danger” to the security of the nation. This is for short-term crises only. Anything lengthy requires approval (and funding) from Congress.

The President also appoints the heads of the major government departments (each major appointment must be approved by Congress). Thus, he selects the “Secretary of Defense”, “Secretary of State”, “Secretary of Agriculture” etc. Each of these departments is full of theoretically apolitical civil servants who do the actual work, though the Secretary sets the overall policy, as directed by the President. The Secretaries collectively make up “the Cabinet”.

The President can be removed from office by Congress through an impeachment process, and a recent constitutional amendment (more on amendments shortly) allows the President to be temporarily relieved of office by a majority vote of the Cabinet. The Cabinet is required to notify the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate (key positions within Congress) before taking such action.

The Vice-President is the person who will assume the duties and/or office of President in case the President dies, resigns or is relieved. Also, the Vice-President presides over the Senate, and casts a vote in case of a tie.

The Judiciary (aka the Supreme Court and all lower Federal courts
There are nine members of the Supreme Court (known as “Justices”), appointed to lifetime terms. There are also lower Federal “circuit courts” (the nation being divided into “circuits” for this purpose). All Federal judges are appointed by the President, and must be approved by Congress. Unlike the rubber-stamp approval Congress typically gives to Cabinet secretaries, Federal Judgeships are often very contentious, since the Judge could rule on laws for decades after the appointing President is gone.

The Supreme Court judges are the ultimate interpreters of the U.S. Constitution, and must decide if a challenged law is “constitutional”, i.e. acceptable under the constitution as it is written. Their decisions should be consistent but in practice, changing social pressures influence them. Thus, they could declare capital punishment violated the constitutional prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments” in 1972, but reverse that position in 1976 (they were actually striking down state laws for capital punishment that seemed arbitrary or unfair to them. When the state laws were tightened up and judged constitutionally acceptable, executions resumed).

Before the Supreme Court will consider hearing arguments on a law, the arguments must have been presented to lower Federal courts. At times, the Supreme Court refuses to hear an argument, and whatever ruling the lower court made will stand.

The Constitution, and Amendments
As stated above, the Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. It can be amended, though, and has been on numerous occasions. Approving an amendment requires a majority vote in three-fourths of the state legislatures (essentially, miniature congresses). In theory, one such vote could abolish the U.S. entirely. Thus, if anyone in the U.S. has ultimate power, it would be these state legislatures, but getting enough of them to approve any radical change is unlikely.
In summary, the U.S. government works reasonably well because no one person or centralized group has unchallenged power. The “checks-and-balances” ensures that even a really nutty President, Senator or Justice can’t do too much damage.

There. I kept it to about 1000 words. If that’s still too long, maybe I could draw you a picture.

They don’t have homework in countries besides the US?

Read the OP again. He’s not looking for any actual edification, he’s looking for a quick answer to put on his homework - why else would he specify “short and concise” - except that he doesn’t want to actually have to read and condense an answer.

But whatever.

Pretty well, most of the time. Thanks for asking!

Heh, well I haven’t done homework in almost 10 years and I wasn’t much for doing it then either. I wanted to know because even though I am an avid fan of US culture I have never completely understood how the different branches work. Wel learn nothing of it in school here (Sweden), and my idea of it is based on movies and tv shows (West Wing!), in which you just get the impression that the President suggests ideas but have to get them through Congress, and that the Senators are Mythical beings with suporpowers. Well not quite, but Senators seem very powerful and somewhat… odd, I guess, more like ministers here. In “24”, a Senator ran a black ops campaign… oddness.

I wanted a short and concise answer because… ehh… I don’t like long and fuzzy ones I guess. It struck me that a board dealing so much with political issues and containing a big amount of intelligent people would be able to answer this question in a manner that was a lot better then reading through the actual document that outlays the exact functioning. And I was right. If you want to know what my room looks like I could seend you the blueprint of the house, and the names of the wallpaper and furniture in it, or I could say “It’s rectangular, kind of orange, has a bed in one corner, TV in the other and one big window. There’s a fairly large sofa table and a couple of couches, and it’s a mess”.

Don’t know what you’re bieng so paranoid about.

It’s interesting that you bring up “24,” as it is an illustrative example of the somewhat confusing legislative process in the US.

Only the President could order a black ops military operation, but the Constitution gives Congress the power to raise money and determine the budgets for the government. Because of this, Congress demands the right to oversee the operations of all executive departments and agencies, to make sure their money is well-spent. Each house of Congress is divided into committees that oversee different areas of government. In “24,” Senator Palmer was on a committee overseeing this black ops stuff, and allowed funding for the operation to proceed. The show made is seem like he ordered the operation, but in real life, such an operation would have to be ordered by the President or a subordinate military/intelligence officer.

It’s a good idea not to rely on television to depict government procedure accurately. The West Wing, while often being a corny soap opera, generally gets the details right, though.

The President is the chief executive. With a few exceptions, the entire bureaucracy of the Federal Government reports to him. On the other hand, he cannot pass laws; he can only veto or sign into law the bills that Congress passes on to him (financing of the government is also regulated by legislation passed by Congress.) That said, his effectiveness depends on being allowed by law to do what he wants to, so he tries to get Congresspersons and Senators to introduce legislation for him.

There are 100 senators in Congress, two per state, who are up for election once every seven years. This compares with the 476 congresspersons (I may be off by a few, or more.) The senators are pretty darned powerful. Your comparison with ministers might be because legislation is first discussed in committees, and each committee usually looks at legislation related to a specific category such as banking, defense, etc. (though legislation is sometimes sneaked through a favorable committee instead.)

Sorry, but I can’t help you there. This is politics, not math. :slight_smile: The structure is defined in the constitution, but as the saying goes, “the map is not necessarily the territory.”

What sort of teacher would make an assignment that asks to describe how the whole United States works?

Emphasis added.

Is “Bubbaville” actually in the United States?

[sub]:smiley: [/sub]

Just a quibble, but it’s once every six years.

The other terms of office are 2 years for members of the House and 4 years for the President/Vice President.

The senatorial terms are staggered, so approximately 1/3 of the Senate is up for election each 2 years.

If you want some serious brain-twisting, you could read some of the laws (such as the tax code). One relatively short but interesting one is the Presidential succession (i.e., what happens if the President and Vice President die more or less at the same time:

(I wonder how many words that is?)

Oh, and I guess that raises the question of who is the “president pro tempore” of the Senate.

That’s the Senator who is elected by the Senate to run the sessions when the actual President of the Senate (i.e., the Vice President of the U.S.) is not there - which is most of the time.

You’d think, with as little as most Vice Presidents have to do, they would jump at the chance to preside over the Senate. But I guess not getting to vote (except for ties) kind of tarnishes the sheen there…

By tradition, the President Pro Tem is the most senior member of the Senate’s majority party. As for the Veep, it’s not a difficult choice: he can sit there at the head of the Senate like a slug and listen to endless debate on entitlements, or he can be out and about, acting as an ambassador-at-large for the President, getting his name in the papers and setting up his own presidential bid.

After election 2000, the Senate was divided 50-50, at which point the Veep became hugely more important than usual, enhanced mightily after Sept. 11 by the idea that a terrorist could slam a plane into the White House and kill the President. In the last 60 years, Veeps who became President or at least managed to get a party nomination for President include:

[ul][li]Harry Truman, promoted to President upon the death of FDR.[/li][li]Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s Veep. Made a losing run for President in 1960, won in 1968.[/li][li]Lyndon Johnson, promoted to President upon the death of JFK.[/li][li]Gerald Ford, promoted to President upon the resignation of Nixon.[/li][li]Walter Mondale, Veep under Jimmy Carter, ran unsuccessfully for President in 1984.[/li][li]George Bush (aka Bush41), Veep under Reagan, elected President in 1998.[/li][li]Al Gore, Veep under Clinton, made razor-close but unsuccessful bid for President in 2000.[/ul][/li]
Actually, since Truman, five of eleven Presidents had previously been Vice-Presidents.

I’m not sure how much of an effect having a lightweight like Dan Quayle as Veep had on Bush41 not being re-elected, but I’m sure it didn’t help. Now, certainly, it’s gotta be clear that the Vice President has to be someone who could take on the job at a moment’s notice and command a certain amount of respect. Dick Cheney is certainly qualified to step in if Bush43 gets taken out, though I doubt he could be re-elected, given his known health problems. Hopefully, Quayle will be remembered as the last underqualified Veep.

In my limited view of the world, I can’t remember hearing much about any sitting Vice President before Cheney. They seemed to disappear into the spirit world and re-emerge some time about 18 months before an election. Even when they did go globetrotting to stand in for the President at a funeral or something, it seldom got any press coverage.

So I thought, being at the helm of the Senate would give them a little more visibility.

Well, a lot of a Vice-President’s campaigning isn’t necessarily directly to the public, but to state party officials, because he has to convince them to nominate him for President when the current President’s term is close to expiring. I’ll admit, this kind of activity doesn’t get a lot of press, but I’ll bet it’s damn important if a Veep wants to secure his political future, i.e. setting up his own presidential bid, as I stated earlier. I suppose getting his name in the papers is tricky, since he doesn’t want to outshine the President, and I withdraw (or at least downgrade) that part of my earlier statement.

In any case, most Senate debates are mind-meltingly tedious and I can’t blame a Veep for ducking out whenever possible.

I just wanted to say…this thread is a perfect example of what an awesome forum the Straight Dope is :slight_smile:

It never ceaces to amaze me how helpful people can be.

By the way…how do you spell “ceaces” ?

Just like that, SkyBum.