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 no part of government can infringe.
Section 2: Systems of Government
Section 2.1: Three Separate Branches
The Framers divided power among three separate branches of the federal government.
Two related systems help prevent any branch of government from becoming too powerful. First, the separation of powers ensures that no one branch can exercise the duties of another. For example, the executive cannot make laws, only Congress. Second, checks and balances allows each branch a small amount of influence over the other branches. For example, the President can veto a law proposed by Congress.
establishes the legislative branch, called Congress.
establishes the executive branch, led by the President.
establishes the judicial branch, a system of courts led by the Supreme Court.
“The Constitution protects us from our own best intentions: It divides power among sovereigns and among branches of government precisely so that we may resist the temptation to concentrate power in one location as an expedient solution to the crisis of the day.”
– Sandra Day O’Connor, New York v. United States (1992)
Article II assigns the President of the United States to be in charge of the executive branch. Among the President’s primary obligations is to take care that the laws be faithfully executed and to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.
Article I assigns the legislative authority, or the ability to make federal laws, to Congress. Congress is composed of two parts, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The Constitution gives each state two senators, in order to ensure the states have influence in Congress, thus protecting federalism and the rights of smaller states which might otherwise be totally overpowered by larger states. Thus, since there are 50 states, there are a total of 100 senators.
Section 2.2: Article I & The Legislative Branch
In order to have a slightly longer perspective than members of the House, who are elected for two years, Senators face re-election every six years. They serve staggered terms so that normally one-third of the Senate is running at every general election.
Senators serve a variety of important roles: not only do they pass legislation like Members of the House, but Senators also have the sole responsibility of confirming federal judges and high ranking executive officers, as well as ratifying treaties. Thus, so that you can share your opinions on such matters, it is worth knowing who your two Senators are.
The number of voting members of the House of Representatives since 1911. The number of voting members has changed over time, and the apportionment of those representatives among the states changes after every census to reflect shifts in population.
Nancy Pelosi is the current Speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi took office shortly after the Democrats took control of the House in the 2018 election. She previously served as Speaker between the elections in 2006 and 2010.
In order to remain tightly connected to the will of the people, members of the House serve shorter terms than the Senate, facing re-election every two years.
Like Senators, members of the House vote on legislation. Unlike Senators, who represent all of the people of their entire state, members of the House serve congressional districts within their states. Because these district maps change every ten years after a census, it can takes some work to know who one’s representative is.
The two different houses are apportioned differently because each represents a different constituency. In order to reinforce federalism, the Senate is designed to represent the interests of the states, and thus each state, regardless of population, has the same number of senators. By way of contrast, the House of Representatives aims to represent the people more directly. Thus, states with more people (a larger population) have more Representatives than other, less populous states.
Section 2.3 Article II & The Executive Branch
Presidents serve four-year terms. Initially, Presidents could be re-elected to an unlimited number of terms, but the historic norm was to follow George Washington’s example and only serve two. Franklin Roosevelt broke this norm and was elected for four terms (but died very early during his fourth). Concern about the concentration of executive power during such a long presidency led to the Twenty-Second Amendment, which formalized the two-term limit.
The 22nd Amendment formalized the two-term limit for presidents.
Although initially states had some variation in when they selected presidential electors, since 1845, presidential elections have always taken place in the month of November, specifically the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
In order to ensure continuity in government, the Constitution and federal law creates an order of succession should the President become unable to serve due to death, disability, resignation, or impeachment and removal. Should the President be unable to serve, the Vice President becomes president. Should both the president and Vice President be unable to serve, the Speaker of the House of Representatives becomes President.
In 2016, the ticket of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence was elected by the American people. Assuming they are renominated by their party, they will face re-election in November 2020.
The Constitution, especially Article II, gives the President a variety of roles in the federal government. Not only must he or she take care that the laws be faithfully executed, but the President is assigned to be commander-in-chief of the military and to sign or veto bills passed by Congress.
The President has help in coordinating and managing the executive branch, especially from members of the Cabinet. The primary role of this high-ranking group of federal officers is to advise the President.
The Vice President is a member of this advisory Cabinet, but most of its members are the heads of the various departments , and whose job titles are the “Secretary of (each Department).” Thus, the cabinet includes the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of the Treasury, as well as the Attorney General (who oversees the Department of Justice), among others.
Section 2.4 Article III & The Judicial Branch
Article III creates the judicial branch of the federal government. 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.
There are three levels of federal courts.
United States Supreme Court
The highest court in the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court hears appeals both from these lower federal courts as well as state courts.
The Circuit Courts hear appeals from district courts.
The District Courts hear disputes about federal law.
The Constitution does not fix the number of justices on the Supreme Court beyond creating a Chief Justice position. The number of justices changed throughout the 19th century, as more justices were added to supervise the expanding geographic scope of the nation. Since 1869, the number of justices has been fixed at 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.
The current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is John Roberts, who has served in that office since 2005, since the death of his predecessor, William Rehnquist.
Section 2.5: Federalism
The Constitution’s federalist system of enumerated powers limits the federal government to powers specified in the Constitution, especially Article I, Section 8. Among this list of federal powers is the authority to coin (or print) money, to make treaties and declare war, and to raise and support armies.
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. Thus, the states retain authority over issues such as:
- protecting the public health
- providing safety and protection (such as police and fire departments)
- providing schooling and education
- regulating zoning and land use
- And administering most licenses, such as business and driver’s licenses.
Every state today has a similar structure to the federal government, with a state constitution, a legislature making laws to govern the state, an executive enforcing those state laws, and a judicial branch resolving legal disputes. One important difference is that the head of the state’s executive branch is called the Governor. The Governor’s state level powers are broadly similar to those wielded by the President, so it is important to know your state’s Governor.
State capitals are where the government of each state is located, especially the legislative chambers where the state’s laws are made. Sometimes state capitals are found in the largest or richest city in a state, but in other cases, state capitals are small and sometimes situated far from economic power. Because state law generally has a more direct effect on your life, it is especially important to know about your state government and where and how the laws are made — thus, it’s important to know where your state capital is!
Section 2.6: Political Parties
Parties have come and gone in American history, but there have usually been two leading parties. Although it arose from earlier parties, the Democratic Party formally developed in the 1820s and 1830s under Martin Van Buren and its first elected President, Andrew Jackson. Initially created to enforce states’ rights and local government, in the 1930s the Democratic Party shifted to favor a more centralized federal government.
The Republican Party was founded in the 1850s with the specific purpose of ending the expansion of slavery into the federal territories — its first President was Abraham Lincoln.
Compared to the Democratic Party of today, the Republican Party tends to favor a more decentralized federal government. The Democrats and Republicans are the two major parties today, whose ideas and values have shifted over time to reflect a changing United States.
Other political parties today include the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party.