Civic Literacy Curriculum Guides
Section 2 | Systems of Government
The Constitution uses three basic techniques to guarantee liberty.
First, federalism divides power between the state and federal governments, limiting the federal government only to powers specified in its text. Second, the separation of powers and checks and balances divide governance among the federal branches to keep any individual branch from wielding too much power. Third, constitutional rights, especially in the Bill of Rights, 14th Amendment, and Article 1, Sections 9 and 10, carve out key individual liberties that government cannot infringe.
In addition, all parts of the government are directly or indirectly accountable to the people (such as through elections), so that the people are capable of holding them responsible if they abuse their power.
Section 2.1: Three Separate Branches
Q16 + Q17: Branches of Government
The Framers divided power among three separate branches of the federal government: Article I assigns the legislative authority, or the ability to make federal laws, to Congress (the legislative branch). Article II places the President of the United States in charge of the executive branch. Article III creates the judicial branch, or court system, of the federal government.
Section 2.2 Article I & The Legislative Branch
Q18: Who makes federal laws?
Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution gives Congress the federal lawmaking power. The process for passing a law is summed up in the second line of Article I, Section 7, of the Constitution:
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States.
Q19 + Q20: Congress
According to Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language  the legislature is as “[t]he body…. in a state or kingdom, invested with power to make and repeal laws, [which in] the legislatures of most of the states in America . . . consist of two houses or branches.”
Q21, Q27, + Q28: The Senate and the States
The United States Senate’s two most distinctive features are its equal representation for all states and its small size. Each state gets two senators, which means we currently have 100 senators.
Q22: We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?
How often to have elections was a hard question—too often, and the members of Congress cannot focus on their work or gain expertise, but not often enough, and elected officials will lose touch with their constituents. The Framers decided to make the Senate the less frequently elected house in Congress. They would still be accountable to those who chose them, but with longer terms of six years.
Q23: Why do you need to know who your U.S. Senators are?
It is sometimes easy to think that one vote doesn't matter, but the truth is that it can and does. There are countless examples in history where one vote made a difference in the Senate. One vote in the Senate can mean the difference between a bill passing or dying, or between a presidential nominee being appointed or denied. But how do senators know how to vote?
Q24: The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
The Constitution created the legislative branch, part of which would consist of representatives who would be the voice of the people through a large house based on population.
Q25 + Q26: The House of Representatives and Popular Opinion
In order to remain tightly connected to the will of the people and public opinion, members of the House serve shorter terms than the Senate, facing re-election every two years. This would give representatives enough time to be effective, but would be short enough to prevent them from becoming complacent and falling out of touch with their constituents’ opinions.
Q29: How can you find out who your representative is?
Representatives, like senators, are the voice of the people. Knowing who our representatives are, and reaching out to them, gives us a stronger voice in how we are governed.
Q30: What is the name of the current Speaker of the House of Representatives?
The position of Speaker of the House was created by Article I, Section 2, Clause 5, of the Constitution. It is the only congressional position mentioned in the Constitution:
Q31 + Q32: The Senate and State Citizens
The two different houses of Congress have different sizes because each is intended to represent a different constituency and serve a different purpose. The basic theory behind the Senate’s structure and representation of states is that it reinforces federalism—that is, the sharing of powers between federal and state governments to make sure neither is too powerful.
Q33, Q34, + Q35: The House of Representatives and the People
Unlike the Senate, which represents the states and their citizens, the House of Representatives aims to represent the people and public opinion more directly, and thus the number of representatives given to each state is based on population.
Section 2.3 Article II & The Executive Branch
Q36 + Q37: Presidential Terms and Limits
The American states had experimented with different selection mechanisms for their chief executives, the state governors. Some states chose them by election, others had the state legislature choose them.
Q38: What is the name of the President of the United States now?
President Truman kept a sign on his desk: The Buck Stops Here. It was a reminder to him -- and to the people -- that as President of the United States, it was his job to make sure that things would run as smoothly as possible...
Q39: What is the name of the Vice President of the United States now?
Initially, the runner up in the presidential election would become the vice president, but the Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804 after the contentious 1800 election, changed this to create a more orderly system, and one more likely to improve relations between the president and vice president. Instead, the president and vice-presidential candidates each ran for separate offices, presumably as a joint ticket.
Q40: If the President can no longer serve, who becomes President?
When a monarch dies, the monarch’s heir takes over—usually the eldest child of the monarch. But the president is not a monarch or our nation’s ruler, but a republican executive—so who should replace him or her in holding that office until the next election?
Q41 + Q45: Powers of the President
As James Madison observed in a 1793 essay, “The natural province of the executive magistrate is to execute laws, as that of the legislature is to make laws. All his acts therefore, properly executive, must presuppose the existence of the laws to be executed.”
Q42: Who is the Commander-in-Chief of the military?
As Alexander Hamilton explains in Federalist 69, the office of the President of the United States is a strong but limited force, including in its control over the military.
Q43 + Q44: Presidential Signings and Vetoes
The lawmaking power resides with Congress, but just because a majority of both houses of Congress passes a bill, it does not automatically become law.
Q46, Q47, + Q48: The Executive Branch and the Cabinet
Not only did the Founders think in terms of checks and balances of power, but they also thought in terms of support for those in power. How would one person manage being the President of the United States, with the many roles Article II gives the president? It was, they knew, simply asking too much from one human being.
Section 2.4 Article III & The Judicial Branch
Q50 + Q51: The Judicial Branch
Article III creates the judicial branch of the federal government, which includes the federal courts, led by the Supreme Court. Its job is to hear cases and controversies, or legal disputes. In the course of considering these disputes, the judicial branch enforces the Constitution, reviewing laws and executive actions to ensure that these laws and executive actions are consistent with the Constitution. If they find otherwise, they will decline to apply an unconstitutional law; this process is called judicial review.
Q52: What is the highest court in the United States?
“The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish” - Article III of the U.S. Constitution This means that the Constitution specifically creates a Supreme Court as the highest in the country, but allows Congress to create other, lower courts to hear additional cases.
Q53 + Q54: The Members of the Supreme Court
The Constitution does not fix the number of justices on the Supreme Court beyond creating a Chief Justice position. Since 1869, the number of justices has been fixed at nine (9) justices. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt attempted to add more justices in order to get more friendly rulings from the Supreme Court, but even many of his allies rejected this as an illegitimate violation of judicial independence, and the number remained at nine and still is to this day.
Q55 + 56: The Supreme Court
Among the sins of the British government listed in the Declaration of Independence is that it made “judges dependent on [the king’s] Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.” In other words, rather than have lifetime appointment and a fixed salary, as Article III establishes for federal judges (including Supreme Court justices), the British did not extend such independence to colonial judges, and thus politicians could apply political pressure on the judges to get the rulings that the government wanted.
Q57: Who is the Chief Justice of the United States now?
The role of Chief Justice of the United States has come a long way since its inception in 1789. When John Jay accepted the role and the title, he was less than excited about it, for he saw little significance to the position. He held the job for six years before retiring and returning to a diplomatic career.
Section 2.5: Federalism
Q49: Why is the Electoral College important?
Just as baseball games are not decided by who gets the most hits and football games are not won by the team with the most yards, the president is not selected by a simple majority vote.
Q58: Under the United States Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. Which of the following is one of those powers?
The Constitution’s federalist system of enumerated powers limits the federal government to powers specified in the Constitution, especially (but not exclusively) Article I, Section 8. Like the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution grants Congress a list of specific powers.
Q59: Under the United States Constitution, some powers belong to the states. Which of the following is one of those powers?
Under our Constitution, most political powers belong to the states. As the Tenth Amendment makes clear, unless a political power is given to the federal government, it is assumed to remain with the states. This broad authority to regulate on behalf of the health, welfare, safety, and morals of the people is called the police power.
Q60: What does the 10th Amendment do?
The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, like the Ninth Amendment, is the part of the Bill of Rights that reiterates that the federal government is limited to the powers granted to it by the Constitution, and that all other powers remain with the states and their people.
Q61: How can you find out who your state governor is?
What is your state’s capital? That’s an easy one to answer. All we need is the internet. Or a map. Why is it your state’s capital? Now that’s not going to be so easy.
Q62: How can you quickly determine the capital of your state?
States had their own constitutions even before they made the U.S. Constitution. They had their own legislatures, executive branches, judicial systems, and often bills of rights. In fact, they still have all these today. Some states have wanted stronger governors with more discretion; others want to make sure the legislature is more firmly in charge. Since, with a few exceptions, the Constitution preserves the right and ability of the states to organize their own affairs, states largely have the authority to determine what powers their legislature or governor will have.
Section 2.6 Political Parties
Q126 + Q127: Political Parties
Political parties help to coordinate people with similar ideas about government, helping them to elect like-minded people to achieve their policy goals, to educate and persuade the public, and to hold officeholders accountable (by offering an alternative).