School in a Book: Basic American Government

Most of the following information comes from USA.gov. Direct quotes are indicated as such.

General Information

The United States of America: The United States is a federal republic, a federation of many states under a centralized government. It includes fifty states, fourteen U.S. territories, tribal nations and the District of Colombia (the federal capital city which is not part of any state). States are largely self-governing but subject to federal restrictions vis a vis the U.S. Constitution. Residents of U.S. territories have varying rights and varying levels of independence.

The three branches of the federal government: The legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch.

The system of checks and balances: The ability of each branch of government to change the decisions of the other branches so that no single branch is able to take control. “The president can veto legislation created by Congress and nominates heads of federal agencies. Congress confirms or rejects the president’s nominees and can remove the president from office in exceptional circumstances. The Justices of the Supreme Court, who can overturn unconstitutional laws, are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.”

Important American political ideals: Liberty, democracy, equality, laissex-faire capitalism, civil rights, limited government

Important U.S. Documents

The Constitution of the United States: The foundational law of the land. “The foundation of the American government, its purpose, form, and structure, are in the Constitution of the United States. The Constitutional Convention adopted the Constitution on September 17, 1787.”

The Declaration of Independence: The document that started it all. In it, the original thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain. This was agreed upon at the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, making this date the official birth date of the country.

The Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the Constitution, which are a part of the Constitution. Each of these amendments contains multiple civil rights. “There are 27 constitutional amendments in all. The 27th Amendment, which was originally proposed in 1789, was not ratified until 1992.”

In order, the rights in the Bill of Rights are: freedom of religion, speech, the press, peaceable assembly, government petition; the right to create a militia and bear arms; the right to refuse to house soldiers; the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures unless there is a warrant with probable cause; the right to a jury trial, freedom from double jeopardy, the right to choose not to testify against onesself (this is called “pleading the fifth”), the right to not be denied life, liberty or property without due process of law and the right to not have property taken for public use without compensation; the right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury, the right to be informed of the accusation, to be confronted by the witnesses against him, to have counsel (a lawyer), and to have the opportunity to find witnesses in his favor; right to a trial by jury in civil cases in the federal court (though this type of case is no longer heard in the federal court system); freedom from excessive bail, excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment; the retaining of other civil rights not listed in the Constitution; and the rights of states and the people to powers not specifically delegated to the federal government and also not prohibited by it to the states.

The Federalist Papers: A collection of essays written by the founding fathers and published in newspapers attempting to convince voters to vote to ratify the proposed U.S. Constitution.

To read these documents, visit Archives.gov.

The Executive Branch (the President and Cabinet)

Who comprises the executive branch: The president, the vice president, and Cabinet members. It also includes many other government agencies, such as the Forest Service and the drug Enforcement Agency, that support its work.

Duties of the president: To serve as head of state, head of the U.S. government, and the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military. The president signs the budget into law and signs bills into law, and can veto bills Congress decides on. “The president serves a four-year term and can be elected no more than two times.”

Duties of the vice president: To support the president and to serve as the presiding officer of the Senate

Duties of the cabinet members: To act as the president’s advisors. “They include the vice president, heads of executive departments, and other high-ranking government officials. Cabinet members are nominated by the president and must be approved by a simple majority of the Senate—51 votes if all 100 senators vote.”

The National Security Council (NSC): A collection of security policy experts who are part of the White House Staff and advise the president on security issues. Important security advisers include the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the heads of all the branches of the military and others.

The Legislative Branch (Congress)

The duties of the legislative branch: To write and proposes bills, then vote on whether or not to make them into law; to confirm or reject the executive branch’s nominations for various agencies and the Supreme Court; to declare war; to collect taxes; to borrow money; and to revise and approve the annual budget (make and agree on budget resolutions).

The two parts of the legislative branch: The Senate and the House of Representatives. It also includes many other government agencies, such as the Library of Congress, that support its work.

Who comprises the Senate: 100 elected senators, two senators from each state. Each senator is elected by their state’s citizens and serves a six-year term.

Who comprises the House of Representatives: 435 voting representatives, with a different number from each state as determined by the population of that state. Each representative is elected by their state’s citizens and serves a two-year term.

The Judicial Branch (the Supreme Court)

Who comprises the judicial branch: The Supreme Court and all other federal courts. (Note that there are separate state and local court systems as well.) The Supreme Court has nine justices who are nominated by the president and must be approved by the Senate by a simple majority. All nine justices hear and vote on each case. The majority opinion is the decision. Opinions are written to explain the decision, but dissenting opinions can also be written.

The duties of the Supreme Court: To decide whether or not laws violate the Constitution

Which court cases are heard by the Supreme Court: Lower court decisions are appealed. A few cases are heard orally and others are reviewed on paper. The appeals usually come from federal courts (courts that deal with federal law) but occasionally a state court case comes to the federal court if it deals with federal/constitutional law.

The Federal Budget

The federal budget: A detailed spending plan for the following fiscal year decided on by the Congress. In 2018, the federal government spent 4.11 trillion dollars.

Where the money for the budget comes from: Taxes (from individuals and businesses); loans from other countries (savings bonds, notes and Treasury bills that are sold); social security payments; miscellaneous other sources, such as fines and licenses

What the government spends money on: Lawfully protected agencies (such as Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid); interest on the national debt; discretionary agencies and programs (those Congress is not required by law to support but votes to support in that year’s budget); national defense

The budget process: The President creates a budget; it is reviewed by Congress in detail and committees and subcommittees hold hearings on it; revisions are made; Congress passes it

National debt: The accumulation of monies borrowed by the U.S. government from other countries that have not yet been repaid

Appropriation bills: The thirteen bills that are part of the budget and contain all of the discretionary spending

Grants: Federal grants are provided to state and local governments for special programs in response to grant proposals

State, tribal, and local governments

State governments: These have the greatest influence over most Americans’ daily lives. Each state has its own written constitution, state legislature, court system and code of laws. There are often great differences in law and procedure between individual states, concerning issues such as property, crime, health and education, amongst others. The institutions that are responsible for local government within states are typically town, city, or county boards, water management districts, fire management districts, library districts and other similar governmental units which make laws that affect their particular area. These laws concern issues such as traffic, the sale of alcohol and the keeping of animals.

State powers: States cannot form alliances with foreign governments, declare war, coin money, or impose duties on imports or exports. However, states have all other powers of government not granted to the federal government by the Constitution and not in conflict with federal law, including the government of: property, education, welfare programs, the justice system, state highways and much more. States are subject to special federal mandates as well, such as pollution-related mandates and handicap-related mandates.

State budgets: On average, states generate more than one­-third of their revenues from personal income taxes and another one­-third from general sales taxes. The remaining revenues are split between excise taxes (on gasoline, cigarettes and alcohol); corporate income and franchise taxes; lotteries; and taxes on business licenses, utilities, insurance premiums, severance, property and several other sources. Elementary and secondary schools receive funding from all the different levels of government

State court system: The system of courts administered by states. In some states, supreme and lower court justices are elected by the people, while in others, they are appointed by the legislature or the governor.

State constitution: Each state has its own constitution which is similar to the U.S. constitution in structure and which it uses as the basis for its laws. All state governments consist of the same three branches as exist in the federal government: executive, legislative, and judicial. State constitutions can be amended when both the legislature and the citizens vote for the amendment.

Governor: The highest elected official of each state. A governor can serve either a two or four year term. Thirty-seven states have term limits on the governor. Roles: appointments to state agencies and offices, serve as chief of state/ chief Executive – draws up budget, also has clemency and military powers; Veto Power: Like the U.S. President, a governor has the right to veto bills passed by the legislature. Vetoes can be overridden by a two-thirds or three-fourths majority in the legislature. In many states, the governor has the power of a line-item veto. In some states, the governor has the power of an amendatory or conditional veto.

Lieutenant Governor: Succeeds the governor in office and presides over the senate.

Secretary of State: Takes care of public records and documents, also may have many other responsibilities.

Attorney General: Responsible for representing the state in all court cases.

Auditor: Makes sure that public money has been spent legally.

Treasurer: Invests and pays out state funds.

Superintendent of Public Instruction: Heads state department of education.

County: A subdivision of a state. In some states, counties have their own governments, while in others, they are merely geographical splits and the towns and cities provide the government of them

Mayor: the The highest elected official of a town or city

Tribal nations: “Dependent domestic nations” that must follow federal law but not all state laws

Citizen legislation: Legislators don’t wield the only legislative power in state government. In many states, the people can perform legislative functions directly.

Lawmaking

How a bill becomes law: The bill is proposed by a representative and sponsored by another representative. The bill is introduced to the House of Representatives. It goes to the proper committee (a group of representatives that have chosen to write legislation on certain areas of expertise). Subcommittees might also be asked for their opinion. After being approved by the committee, it is reported to the House floor and debated by the U.S. House of Representatives. During these debates, changes are made. Then the bill is voted on and referred to the Senate, where it goes to the Senate committees and subcommittees, then is debated and voted on on the Senate floor. Finally, it is sent to the President, who either passes the bill or vetoes the bill (sending it back to the House). If it is vetoed, another vote might be taken and if it passes both houses by a two-thirds majority, it still becomes law.

Filibuster: A technique used by Senators to prevent the passing of a bill

Petition: A request for a bill to be created or for a law to be put on the ballot, often made by average citizen and usually requiring a certain number of signatures

Initiative: A law proposed by citizens for direct vote which bypasses the legislature

Referendum: A law proposed by legislature, but voted on by citizens

Recall: The removal of elected officials from office through a citizen vote

U.S. Elections

Eligibility for office: To be eligible for public office, candidates must be a resident of their state (and presidential candidates must be a natural-born U.S. citizen). Representatives must be at least 25 years old. Senators must be at least 30 years old, and president and vice presidents must be at least 35 years old.

General election: The final election that fills public offices

Primary election: An election prior to the general election in which voters select the candidates who will be named on each party’s ticket. In an open primary, voters choose their party on election day. In a closed primary, only preregistered party members can select candidates and must do so prior to the general election

Presidential primary: A primary election in which presidential candidates for the major parties are chosen

Electoral College: A group of people called “electors” that cast the official votes for the president and vice president. The electors (usually) vote according to the popular vote. The number of electors in each states is equal to its number of representatives in both houses of Congress.

Office-block ballot: A ballot that groups candidates by office name

Party-column ballot: A ballot that groups candidate by party affiliation

Split-ticket voting: A ballot that allows for voting for candidates of different parties in the same election

Straight-ticket voting: A ballot that only allows for voting for candidates who are all of the same party

The American Flag

The flag’s symbolism: The flag represents the shared values and history of the American people, particularly the value of liberty. The 13 red and white stripes represent the 13 original colonies, while the 50 white stars represent the 50 states. The red color represents valor and bravery. The white color represents purity and innocence, and the blue color represents vigilance, perseverance and justice.

The Pledge of Allegiance: The Pledge is a statement made while standing at attention and facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. It is as follows: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Rules for flag flying: The flag shouldn’t be flown in inclement weather unless it’s an all-weather flag; when displayed at night, the flag should be properly illuminated; in a time of national mourning, the flag should be hung at half-mast; the flag should be flown right-side up; when flown with another flag, it should be placed to your left when crossed; when stored, flag should be folded into a triangle with the union (blue section) visible; if damaged, the flag should be disposed of with dignity, usually by burning; the flag should not touch anything below it or rest on the ground.

Other Important Terms

Major U.S. welfare programs: Social security; medicare and medicaid; supplemental security income (SSI) (aid to elderly and disabled people who do not qualify for social security benefits); food stamps; the earned income tax credit (EITC); public/subsidized housing; rent vouchers; unemployment benefits

No Child Left Behind Act: A 2001 act that provided more money to schools but required all schools in the country to meet certain educational standards in return

School voucher program: Federally funded vouchers for low-income parents that can be used to pay for tuition at a private school of the parents’ choice

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: A major foreign policy issue is stabilizing the Middle East, particularly by resolving the conflict between Israel, a state the U.S. has historically supported, and the Palestinians, an ethnic group in Israel that seeks to establish its own country. The U.S. has a great deal of financial interest in the stability of the entire Middle East due to its oil trade with these countries. The longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict has resulted in many holy wars that have included many other Middle Eastern states. Many Middle Eastern states support the Islamic Palestinians, while many Christian countries support the Judaic Israelites.

The Iraq war: In the Gulf War of the early 1990s the U.S. and its allies liberated the Kuwait from its Iraqi occupiers, forcing the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, to end all his weapons programs. In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq, believing Hussein was still creating weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). A democratic government was put in place, but a shortage of troops, a lack of evidence of WMDs, anti-American violence and more have prevented success and stability there. Some people want the U.S. to leave Iraq immediately, while others believe doing so will allow it to become a safe haven for terrorists.

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