School in a Book: American Government

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Republican: A member of the Republican Party, one of the two major U.S. political parties, which values small government, low taxes, a laissez-faire economy and freedom from government intervention

Democrat: A member of the Democratic Party, one of the two major U.S. political parties, which values social justice, higher taxes for the wealthy, greater government intervention in business and economic processes and a more robust welfare system

Independent: Citizens who do not belong to or identify with any political party

Third party: Any of many U.S. political parties other than the Democratic or Republican parties. Two examples are the Green Party and the Libertarian Party.

The United States of America: The United States is a federal republic: a federation of many states under a centralized republican 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 partly self-governing but subject to federal restrictions which are outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Residents of U.S. territories have varying rights and 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 limit the actions of the other branches so that no single branch holds too much power or is able to take control of the others. The executive branch is able to veto legislation created by the legislative branch, a decision the legislature can overturn by a 2/3 majority; the legislative branch is able to confirm or reject the executive branch’s nominees and can even remove the president from office in exceptional circumstances; and the judicial branch can overturn laws created by the legislative branch.

The Constitution of the United States: The foundational law of the land, which outlines the nation’s governmental structure; its basic laws; its purpose; and the rights of citizens including freedom of speech, press, religion, the right to bear arms and more. Twenty-seven amendments have been added to it over the years concerning such matters as voting rights and term limits, and it is open to interpretation by the Supreme Court as it rules on specific matters. Important ideals espoused by this law include liberty, democracy, equality, laissez-faire capitalism, civil rights and limited government.

The Declaration of Independence: The 1776 document that called for independence from Great Britain and marked the beginning of the American Revolution. It was written mostly by Thomas Jefferson and agreed to by the American colonies, and it begins by stating that all people are created equal and have certain inalienable rights, such as the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the Constitution, each of which contains multiple civil rights. In order they appear, they 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 executive branch: The branch of government tasked with enforcing laws. It is made up of the president, the vice president, and the Cabinet members. It oversees many government agencies, such as the Forest Service and the drug Enforcement Agency, that support its work.

The president: The member of the executive branch tasked with serving as head of state, director of foreign policy, and commander-in-chief of the U.S. military. They sign the budget and other bills into law and can veto bills Congress decides on. The president serves a four-year term and can be elected no more than twice.

The vice president: The member of the executive branch tasked with supporting the president; serving as the presiding officer of the Senate; and assuming the presidency when and if the president is unable to carry out their duties. The vice president serves a four-year term and can be elected no more than twice.

The Cabinet: The president’s advisors, who include the vice president, heads of executive departments (such as the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of the Treasury) and other high-ranking government officials who are nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. Each Each advises the president in their area of expertise.

Joint Chiefs of Staff: The heads of all the branches of the military and others.

The National Security Council (NSC): A collection of security policy experts, including heads of various government agencies such as the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Director of National Intelligence, who advise the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on national security issues

The Secretary of State: The head of the U.S. Department of State who is responsible for conducting U.S. foreign policy and managing diplomatic relations with other countries

The legislative branch: The branch of government tasked with making laws. It has two parts: the Senate and the House of Representatives. In addition to making laws, it confirms or rejects the executive branch’s nominations for various agencies and the Supreme Court; declares war; collects taxes; borrows money; and revises and approves the annual budget. It oversees many government agencies, such as the Library of Congress, that support its work.

The Congress: The name of the combined Senate and House of Representatives

The Senate: The part of the Congress that is made up of 100 elected officials, two from each state, who are called senators. Senators serve six-year terms.

The House of Representatives: The part of the Congress that is made up of 435 elected officials who are called representatives or Congresspersons. Each state elects a different number of Congresspersons based on its population. Congresspersons serve two-year terms.

The judicial branch: The branch of government made up of the Supreme Court and all other federal courts, which is tasked with interpreting and applying federal law

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

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

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: The person who heads the state department of education

Mayor: The highest elected official of a town or city

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

How a bill becomes law: A bill is proposed by a representative, sponsored by another representative, and introduced to the House of Representatives. It goes to the proper committee, where changes can be made. After approval by the committee, it is reported to the House floor, debated, and voted on. It is then referred to the Senate, where it goes through a similar process. Finally, it is sent to the President, who either passes or vetoes the bill. If vetoed, it can still become law if both houses pass it with a two-thirds majority.

Filibuster: A technique used by Senators to prevent the voting on of a bill, even if the bill has a majority approval

Petition: A formal request for a legislative action, usually for an initiative to be placed on the ballot for direct vote or for a referendum to be proposed and voted on by the legislature. They are often made by a citizen or group of citizens and usually require a certain number of signatures that varies by issue and location.

Initiative: A bill that is drafted by, proposed by and voted on by citizens, bypassing the legislature

Referendum: A bill that is drafted by the legislature, proposed by either the legislature or by citizens, and voted on by the citizens and that may or may not be binding

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

General election: The final election in which voters choose from among the candidates nominated by each political party, as well as any independent candidates who have qualified to be on the ballot. To be eligible for public office at the federal level, a candidate must be a resident of their state for a certain number of years, and a presidential candidate must be a natural-born U.S. citizen. Congresspeople must be at least 25 years old, while senators must be at least 30 years old and presidents and vice presidents must be at least 35 years old. Additional requirements apply to state and local 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 do not have to be registered with a political party to vote in that party’s primary. They can choose which party’s primary to vote in on the day of the election. In a closed primary, only voters who are registered members of a particular political party can vote in that party’s primary election.

Midterm election: An election that takes place halfway through the president’s term, in which Congresspersons and some Senators are elected and in which turnout is typically lower than in presidential election years

Presidential primary: A primary election in which presidential candidates for the major parties are chosen. The winners of each state’s presidential primary go on to compete in the national party conventions, where the party officially nominates their candidate for president.

Electoral College: A group of electors from every state called that cast the official votes for the president and vice president. They (usually) vote according to the popular vote. The number of electors in each state is equal to its number of representatives in both houses of Congress. The candidate who wins a majority of the electoral votes (270 out of 538) becomes the president, and the president and vice president are voted on together.

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 flag’s symbolism: The flag represents the shared values and history of the American people, including the values of liberty, democracy and patriotism. The thirteen red and white stripes represent the thirteen original colonies, while the fifty white stars represent the fifty 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 that is meant to show loyalty to the nation. 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; at certain times, as in a time of national mourning, the flag should be hung at half-mast; the flag should not be flown upside down unless as a signal of distress; 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; and the flag should never be used for advertising purposes or as a decoration

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


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