Kyrgyz State National University
THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES
In July 1780 France’s Louis XVI had sent to America an expeditionary
force of 6,000 men under the Comte Jean de Rochambeau. In addition, the
French fleet harassed British shipping and prevented reinforcement and
resuppi^ of British forces in Virginia by a British fleet sailing from
New York City. French and American armies and navies, totaling 18,000
men, parried with Cornwallis all through the summer and into the fall.
Finally, on October 19, 17B1, after being trapped at Yorktown near the
mouth of Chesa-peake Bay, Cornwallis surrendered his army of 8,000
Although Cornwallis’s defeat did not immediately end the war — which
would drag on inconclusively for almost two more years — a new British
government decided to pursue peace negotiations in Paris in early 1782,
with the American side represented by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and
John Jay. On April 15, 1783, Congress approved the final treaty, and
Great Britain and its former colonies signed it on September 3. Known as
the Treaty of Paris, the peace settlement acknowledged the independence,
freedom and sovereignty of the 13 former colonies, now states, to which
Great Britain granted the territory west to the Mississippi River, north
to Canada and south to Florida, which was returned to Spain. The
fledgling colonies that Richard Henry Lee had spoken of more than seven
years before, had finally become “free and independent states.” The task
of knitting together a nation yet remained.
During the war, the states had agreed to work together by sending
representatives to a national congress patterned after the “Congress of
Delegates” that conducted the war with England. It would raise money to
pay off debts of the war, establish a money system and deal with foreign
nations in making treaties. The agreement that set up this plan of
cooperation was called the Articles of Confederation. work together?
They believed that the Congress needed more power.
The plan for the government was written in very simple language in a
document called the Constitution of the United Slates. The Constitution
set up a federal system with a strong central government. A federal
system is one in which power is shared between a central authority and
its constituent parts, with some rights reserved to each. The
Constitution also called for the election of a national leader, or
Two main fears shared by most Americans: one fear was that one person or
group, including the majority, might become too powerful or be able to
seize control of the country and create a tyranny, another fear was that
the new central government might weaken or take away the power of the
state governments to run their own affairs. To deal with this the
Constitution specified exactly what power central government had and
which power was reserved for the states.
Representatives of various states noted that the Constitution did not
have any words guaranteeing the freedoms or the basic rights and
privileges of citizens. Though the Convention delegates did not think it
necessary to include such explicit guarantees, many people felt that
they needed further written protection against tyranny. So, a “Bill of
Rights” was added to the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights
The first 10 amendments to the Constitution and their purpose
PROTECTIONS AFFORDED FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS
Amendment 1 Freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly; the right
to petition government
PROTECTIONS AGAINST ARBITRARY MILITARY ACTION
Amendment 2 Right to bear arms and maintain state militias (National
Amendment 3 Troops may not be quartered in homes in peacetime.
PROTECTION AGAINST ARBITRARY POLICE AND COURT ACTION
Amendment 4 No unreasonable searches or seizures.
Amendment 5 Grand jury indictment required to prosecute a person for a
serious crime. No “double jeopardy” – being tried twice for the same
offence. Forcing a person to testify against himself or herself
prohibited. No loss of life, liberty or property without due process.
Amendment 6 Right to speedy, public, impartial trial with defense
counsel, and right to cross-examine witnesses.
Amendment 7 Jury trials in civil suits where value exceeds 20 dollars.
Amendment 8 No excessive bail or fines, no cruel and unusual
PROTECTION OF STATES’ RIGHTS AND UNNAMED RIGHTS OF THE PEOPLE
Amendment 9 Unlisted rights are not necessarily denied.
Amendment 10 Powers not delegated to the United States or denied to
states are reserved to the states or to the people.
The Bill of Rights was ratified in1791, but its application as broadened
significantly by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which was
ratified in 1868. A key phrase in the 14th Amendment – “nor shall any
state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due
process of law” – has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as
forbidding the states from violating most of the rights and freedoms
protected by the Bill of Rights.
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH
At a time when all the major European states had hereditary monarchs,
the idea of a president with a limited term of office was itself
revolutionary. The Constitution vests the executive power in the
president. It also provides for the election of a vice president who
succeeds to the presidency in case of the death, resignation or
incapacitation of the president. While the Constitution spells out in
some detail the duties and powers of the president, it does not delegate
any specific executive powers to the vice president or to members of the
presidential Cabinet or to other federal officials.
Creation of a powerful unitary presidency was the source of some
contention in the Constitutional Convention. Several states had had
experience with executive councils made up of several members, a system
that had been followed with considerable success by the Swiss for some
years. And Benjamin Franklin urged that a similar system be adopted by
the United States. Moreover, many delegates, still smarting under the
excesses of executive power wielded by the British king, were wary of a
powerful presidency. Nonetheless, advocates of a single
president—operating under strict checks and balances—carried the day.
In addition to a right of succession, the vice president was made the
presiding officer of the Senate. A constitutional amendment adopted in
1967 amplifies the process of presidential succession. It describes the
specific conditions under which the vice president is empowered to take
over the office of president if the president should become
incapacitated. It also provides for resumption of the office by the
president in the event of his or her recovery. In addition, the
amendment enables the president to name a vice president, with
congressional approval, when the second office is vacated. This 25th
Amendment to the Constitution was put into practice twice in 1974: when
Vice President Spiro T. Agnew resigned and was replaced by Gerald R.
Ford; and when, after President Richard Nixon’s resignation, President
Ford nominated and Congress confirmed former New York governor Nelson A.
Rockefeller as vice president.
The Constitution gives Congress the power to establish the order of
succession after the vice president. At present, in the event both the
president and vice president vacate their offices, the speaker of the
House of Representatives would assume the presidency. Next comes the
president pro tempore of the Senate (a senator elected by that body to
preside in the absence of the vice president), and then Cabinet officers
in designated order.
The seat of government, which moved in 1800 to Washington, D.C. (the
District of Columbia), is a federal enclave on the eastern seaboard. The
White House, both residence and office of the president, is located
there. Although land for the federal capital was ceded by the states of
Maryland and Virginia, the present District of Columbia occupies only
the area given by Maryland; the Virginia sector, unused by the
government for half a century, reverted to Virginia in 1846.
TERM OF OFFICE: Elected by the people, through the electoral college, to
a four-year term; limited to two terms.
SALARY: $200,000 plus $50,000 allowance for expenses, and up to $100,000
tax-free for travel and official entertainment
INAUGURATION: January 20, following the November general election
QUALIFICATIONS: Native-born American citizen, at least 35 years old and
at least 14 years a resident of the United States.
CHIEF DUTY: To protect the Constitution and enforce the laws made by the
OTHER POWERS: To recommend legislation to the Congress; to call special
sessions of the Congress; to deliver messages to the Congress; to veto
bills; to appoint federal judges; to appoint heads of federal
departments and agencies and other principal federal officials; to
appoint representatives to foreign countries; to carry on official
business with foreign nations; to exercise the function of
commander-in-chief of the armed forces; to grant pardons for offenses
against the United States.
The Constitution requires the president to be a native-born American
citizen at least 35 years of age. Candidates for the presidency are
chosen by political parties several months before the presidential
election, which is held every four years (in years divisible evenly by
four) on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
The method of electing the president is peculiar to the American system.
Although the names of the candidates appear on the ballots, technically
the people of each state do not vote directly for the president (and
vice president). Instead, they select a slate of presidential electors,
equal to the number of senators and representatives each state has in
Congress. The candidate with the highest number of votes in each state
wins all the electoral votes of that state.
The electors of all 50 states and the District of Columbia—a total of
538 persons—compose what is known as the Electoral College. Under the
terms of the Constitution, the College never meets as a body. Instead,
the electors gather in the state capitals shortly after the election and
cast their votes for the candidate with the largest number of popular
votes in their respective states. To be successful, a candidate for the
presidency must receive 270 votes. The Constitution stipulates that if
no candidate has a majority, the decision shall be made by the House of
Representatives, with all members from a state voting as a unit. In this
event, each state and the District of Columbia would be allotted one
The presidential term of four years begins on January 20 (it was changed
from March by the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933) following a November
election. The president starts his or her official duties with an
inauguration ceremony, traditionally held on the steps of the U.S.
Capitol, where Congress meets’. The president publicly takes an oath of
office, which is traditionally administered by the chief justice of the
United States. The words are prescribed in Article II of the
/ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the
office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my
ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United
The oath-taking ceremony is usually followed by an inaugural address in
which the new president outlines the policies and plans of his or her
The office of President of the United States is one of the most powerful
in the world. The president, the Constitution says, must “take care that
the laws be faithfully executed.” To carry out this responsibility, he
or she presides over the executive branch of the federal government—a
vast organization numbering several million people—and in addition has
important legislative and judicial powers.
Despite the Constitutional provision that “all legislative powers” shall
be vested in the Congress, the president, as the chief formulator of
public policy, has a major legislative role. The president can veto any
bill passed by Congress and, unless two-thirds in each house vote to
override the veto, the bill does not become law. Much of the legislation
dealt with by Congress is drafted at the initiative of the executive
branch. In an annual and special messages to Congress, the president may
propose legislation he or she believes is necessary. If Congress should
adjourn without acting on those proposals, the president has the power
to call it into special session. But, beyond all this, the president, as
head of a political party and as principal executive officer of the U.S.
government, is in a position to influence public opinion and thereby to
influence the course of legislation in Congress. To improve their
working relationships with Congress, presidents in recent years have set
up a Congressional Liaison Office in the White House. Presidential aides
keep abreast of all important legislative activities and try to persuade
senators and representatives of both parties to support administration
Among the president’s constitutional powers is that of appointing
important public officials; presidential nomination of federal judges,
including members of the Supreme Court, is subject to confirmation by
the Senate. Another significant power is that of granting a full or
conditional pardon to anyone convicted of breaking a federal law—except
in a case of impeachment. The pardoning power has come to embrace the
power to shorten prison terms and reduce fines.
Within the executive branch itself, the president has broad powers to
manage national affairs and the workings of the federal government. The
president can issue rules, regulations and instructions called executive
orders, which have the binding force of law upon federal agencies. As
commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States, the
president may also call into federal service the state units of the
National Guard. In times of war or national emergency, the Congress may
grant the president even broader powers to manage the national economy
and protect the security of the United States.
The president chooses the heads of all executive departments and
agencies, together with hundreds of other high-ranking federal
officials. The large majority of federal workers, however, are selected
through the Civil Service system, in which appointment and promotion are
based on ability and experience
POWERS IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Under the Constitution, the president is the federal official primarily
responsible for the relations of the United States with foreign nations.
Presidents appoint ambassadors, ministers and consuls—subject to
confirmation by the Senate—and receive foreign ambassadors and other
public officials. With the secretary of state, the president manages all
official contacts with foreign governments. On occasion, the president
may personally participate in summit conferences where chiefs of state
meet for direct consultation. Thus, President Woodrow Wilson headed the
American delegation to the Paris conference
at the end of World War I; President Franklin D. Roosevelt conferred
with Allied leaders at sea, in Africa and in Asia during World War II;
and every president since Roosevelt has met with world statesmen to
discuss economic and political issues, and to reach bilateral and
Through the Department of State, the president is responsible for the
protection of Americans abroad and of foreign nationals in the United
States. Presidents decide whether to recognize new nations and new
governments, and negotiate treaties with other nations, which are
binding on the United States when approved by two-thirds of the Senate.
The president may also negotiate “executive agreements” with foreign
powers that are not subject to Senate confirmation.
CONSTRAINTS ON PRESIDENTIAL POWER
Because of the vast array of presidential roles and responsibilities,
coupled with a conspicuous presence on the national and international
scene, political analysts have tended to place great emphasis on the
president’s powers. Some have even spoken of the “the imperial
presidency,” referring to the expanded role of the office that Franklin
D. Roosevelt maintained during his term.
One of the first sobering realities a new president discovers is an
inherited bureaucratic structure which is difficult to manage and slow
to change direction. Power to appoint ex- ‘ tends only to some 3,000
people out of a civilian government ‘ work force of more than three
million, most of whom are protected in their jobs by Civil Service
The president finds that the machinery of government operates pretty
much independently of presidential interventions, has done so through
earlier administrations, and will continue to do so in the future. New
presidents are immediately confronted with a backlog of decisions from
the outgoing administration on issues that are often complex and
unfamiliar. They inherit a budget formulated and enacted into law long
before they came to office, as well as major spending programs (such as
veterans’ benefits. Social Security payments and Medicare for the
elderly), which are mandated by law and not subject to influence. In
foreign affairs, presidents must conform with treaties and informal
agreements negotiated by their predecessors.
The happy euphoria of the post-election “honeymoon” quickly dissipates,
and the new president discovers that Congress has become less
cooperative and the media more critical. The president is forced to
build at least temporary alliances among diverse, often antagonistic
interests—economic, geographic, ethnic and ideological. Compromises with
Congress must be struck if any legislation is to be adopted. “It is very
easy to defeat a bill in Congress,” lamented President John F. Kennedy.
“It is much more difficult to pass one.”
Despite these burdensome constraints, few presidents have turned down
the chance to run for a second term of office. Every president achieves
at least some of his legislative goals and prevents by veto the
enactment of other laws he believes not to be in the nation’s best
interests. The president’s authority in the conduct of war and peace,
including the negotiation of treaties, is substantial. Moreover, the
president can use his unique position to articulate ideas and advocate
policies, which then have a better chance of entering the public
consciousness than those held by his political rivals. When a president
raises an issue, it inevitably becomes subject to public debate. A
president’s power and influence may be limited, but they are also
greater than those of any other American, in or out of office.
THE EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS
The day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws is in the
hands of the various executive departments, created by Congress to deal
with specific areas of national and international affairs. The heads of
the departments, chosen by the president and approved by the Senate,
form a council of advisers generally known as the president’s “Cabinet.”
In addition to 14 departments, there are a number of staff organizations
grouped into the Executive Office of the President. These include the
White House staff, the National Security Council, the Office of
Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Office of
the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Office of Science and Technology.
The Constitution makes no provision for a presidential Cabinet. It does
provide that the president may ask opinions, in writing, from the
principal officer in each of the executive departments on any subject in
their area of responsibility, but it does not name the departments nor
describe their duties. Similarly, there are no specific constitutional
qualifications for service in the Cabinet.
The Cabinet developed outside the Constitution as a matter of practical
necessity, for even in George Washington’s day it was an absolute
impossibility for the president to discharge his duties without advice
and assistance. Cabinets are what any particular president makes them.
Some presidents have relied heavily on them for advice, others lightly,
and some few have largely ignored them. Whether or not Cabinet members
act as advisers, they retain the responsibility for directing the
activities of the government in specific areas of concern.
Each department has thousands of employees, with offices throughout the
country as well as in Washington. The departments are divided into
divisions, bureaus, offices and services, each with specific duties.
(All departments are headed by a secretary, except the Justice
Department, which is headed by the attorney general.)
THE DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE: Created in 1862
THE DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE: Created in 1903. The Department of Commerce
and Labor split into two separate departments in 1913.
THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: Amalgamated in 1947. The Department of
Defense was established by combining, the Department of War (established
in 1789), the Department of the Navy (established in 1798) and the
Department of the Air Force (established in 1947). Although the
secretary of defense is a member of the Cabinet, the secretaries of the
Army, Navy and Air Force are not.
THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION: Created in 1979. Formerly part of the
Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
THE DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY: Created in 1977.
THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: Created in 1979, when the
Department of Health, Education and Welfare (created in 1953) was split
into separate entities.
THE DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT: Created in 1965.
THE DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR: Created in 1849
THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE: Created in 1870. Between 1789 and 1870, the
attorney general was a member of the Cabinet, but not the head of a
THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR: Created in 1913
THE DEPARTMENT OF STATE: Created in 1789.
THE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: Created in 1966.
THE DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY: Created in 1789
THE DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS: Created in 1988. Formerly the
Veterans Administration, now elevated to Cabinet level
DEPARTAMENT OF AGRICULTURE
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) supervises agricultural production
to ensure fair prices and stable markets for producers and consumers,
works to improve and maintain farm income, and helps to develop and
expand markets abroad for agricultural products. The department attempts
to curb poverty, hunger and malnutrition by issuing food stamps to the
poor; sponsoring educational programs on nutrition; and administering
other food assistance programs, primarily for children, expectant
mothers and the elderly. It maintains production capacity by helping
landowners protect the soil, water, forests and other natural resources.
USDA administers rural development, credit and conservation programs
that are designed to implement national growth policies, and conducts
scientific and technological research in all areas of agriculture.
Through its inspection and grading services, USDA ensures standards of
quality in food offered for sale. The department also promotes
agricultural research by maintaining the National Agricultural Library,
the second largest government library in the world. (The U.S. Library of
Congress is first.) The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) serves
as an export promotion and service agency for U.S. agriculture,
employing specialists abroad who make surveys of foreign agriculture for
U.S. farm and business interests. The U.S. Forest Service, also part of
the department, administers an extensive network of national forests and
DEPARTAMENT OF COMMERCE
The Department of Commerce serves to promote the nation’s international
trade, economic growth and technological advancement. It offers
assistance and information to increase America’s competitiveness in the
world economy; administers programs to prevent unfair foreign trade
competition; and provides social and economic statistics and analyses
for business and government planners. The department comprises a diverse
array of agencies. The National Bureau of Standards, for example,
conducts scientific and technical research, and maintains physical
measurement systems for industry and government. The National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National
Weather Service, works to improve understanding of the physical
environment and oceanic resources. The Patent and Trademark Office
grants patents and registers trademarks. The department also conducts
research and develops policy on telecommunications; promotes domestic
economic development and foreign travel to the United States; and
assists in the growth of businesses owned and operated by minorities.
DEPARTAMENT OF DEFENCE
Headquartered in the Pentagon, the “world’s largest office building,”
the Department of Defense (DOD) is responsible for all matters relating
to the nation’s military security. It provides the military forces of
the United States, which consist of about two million men and women on
active duty. They are backed, in case of emergency, by 2.5 million
members of state reserve components, known as the National Guard. In
addition, about one million civilian employees serve in the Defense
Department in such areas as research, intelligence communications,
mapping and international security affairs. The National Security Agency
(NSA) also comes under the direction of the secretary of defense. The
department directs the separately organized military departments of the
Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, as well as each service academy
and the National War College, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and several
specialized combat commands. DOD maintains forces overseas to meet
treaty commitments, to protect the nation’s outlying territories and
commerce, and to provide air combat and support forces. Nonmilitary
responsibilities include flood control, development of oceanographic
resources and management of oil reserves.
DEPARTAMENT OF EDUCATION
The Department of Education absorbed most of the education programs
previously conducted by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare,
as well as programs that had been handled by six other agencies. The
department establishes policy for and administers more than 150 federal
aid-to-education programs, including student loan programs, programs for
migrant workers, vocational programs, and special programs for the
handicapped. The Department of Education also partially supports the
American Printing House for the Blind; Gallaudet University, established
to provide a liberal higher education for deaf persons; the National
Technical Institute for the Deaf, part of the Rochester (New York)
Institute of Technology, designed to educate deaf students within a
college campus, but planned primarily for hearing students; and Howard
University in Washington, D.C., a comprehensive university which accepts
students of all races, but concentrates on educating black Americans.
DEPARTAMENT OF ENERGY
Growing concern with the nation’s energy problems in the 1970s prompted
Congress to create the Department of Energy (DOE). The department took
over the functions of several government agencies already engaged in the
energy field. Staff offices within the DOE are responsible for the
research, development and demonstration of energy technology; energy
conservation; civilian and military use of nuclear energy; regulation of
energy production and use; pricing and allocation of oil;
and a central energy data collection and analysis program. The
department protects the nation’s environment by setting standards to
minimize the harmful effects of energy production. For example, DOE
conducts environmental and health-related research, such as studies of
energy-related pollutants and their effects on biological systems.
DEPARTAMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) probably directly
touches the lives of more Americans than any other federal agency. Its
largest component, the Social Security Administration, pools
contributions from employers and employees to pay benefits to workers
and their families who have retired, died or become disabled. Social
Security contributions help pay medical bills for those 65 years and
older as well, under a program called Medicare. Through a separate
program, called Medicaid, HHS provides grants to states to help pay the
medical costs of the poor. HHS also administers a network of medical
research facilities through the National Institutes of Health, and the
Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration. Other HHS agencies
ensure the safety and effectiveness of the nation’s food supply and
drugs, work to prevent outbreaks of communicable diseases, and provide
health services to the nation’s American Indian and native Alaskan
populations. In cooperation with the states, HHS operates the principal
federal welfare program for the poor, called Aid to Families with
Dependent Children (AFDC)
DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) manages programs
that assist community development and help provide affordable housing
for the nation. Fair housing laws, administered by HUD, are designed to
ensure that individuals and families can buy a dwelling without being
subjected to housing discrimination. HUD directs mortgage insurance
programs that help families become homeowners, and a rent-subsidy
program for low-income families who otherwise could not afford decent
housing. In addition, it operates programs that aid neighborhood
rehabilitation, preserve urban centers from blight and encourage the
development of new communities. HUD also protects the home buyer in the
marketplace and fosters programs to stimulate the housing industry.
DEPARTMENT OFTHE INTERIOR
As the nation’s principal conservation agency, the Department of the
Interior has responsibility for most of the federally owned public lands
and natural resources in the United States. The Fish and Wildlife
Service, for example, administers 442 wildlife refuges, 150 waterfowl
production areas, and a network of wildlife laboratories and fish
hatcheries. The National Park Service administers more than 340 national
parks and scenic monuments, riverways, seashores, recreation areas and
historic sites. Through the Bureau of Land Management, the department
oversees the land and resources—from timber and grazing to oil
production and recreation—on millions of hectares of public land located
primarily in the West. The Bureau of Reclamation manages scarce water
resources in the semiarid western United States. The department
regulates mining in the United States, assesses mineral resources, and
has major responsibility for American Indians living on reservations.
Internationally, the department administers programs in U.S. territories
such as the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana
Islands and Palau, and provides funding for development to the Marshall
Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
The attorney general, the chief law officer of the federal government,
is in charge of the Department of Justice. The department represents the
U.S. government in legal matters and courts of law, and renders legal
advice and opinions, upon request, to the president and to the heads of
the executive departments. Its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is
the principle law enforcement body, and its Immigration and
Naturalization Service administers immigration laws. A major agency
within the department is the Drug Enforcement Administration, (DEA),
which administers narcotics and controlled substances laws, and tracks
down major illicit drug trafficking organizations. The Justice
Department also gives aid to local police forces. In addition, the
department directs U.S. district attorneys and marshals throughout the
country, supervises federal prisons and other penal institutions, and
investigates and reports to the president on petitions for paroles and
pardons. The Justice Department is also linked to INTERPOL, the
International Criminal Police Organization, charged with promoting
mutual assistance between law enforcement agencies in 146 countries.
DEPARTMENT OF LABOR
The Department of Labor promotes the welfare of wage earners in the
United States, helps improve working conditions and fosters good
relations between labor and management. It administers more than 130
federal labor laws through such agencies as the Occupational Safety and
Health Administration (OSHA), the Employment Standards Administration
and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Among its
responsibilities are: guaranteeing workers’ rights to safe and healthy
working conditions; establishing minimum hourly wages and overtime pay;
prohibiting employment discrimination; and providing for unemployment
insurance and compensation for on-the-job injury. It also protects
workers’ pension rights, sponsors job training programs and helps
workers find jobs. Its Bureau of Labor Statistics monitors and reports
changes in employment, prices and other national economic measurements.
For job seekers, the department makes special efforts to help older
workers, youths, minorities, women and the handicapped.
DEPARTAMENT OF STATE
The Department of State advises the president, who has overall
responsibility for formulating and executing the foreign policy of the
United States. The department assesses American overseas interests,
makes recommendations on policy and future action, and takes necessary
steps to carry out established policy. It maintains contacts and
relations between the United States and foreign countries, advises the
president on recognition of new foreign countries and governments,
negotiates treaties and agreements with foreign nations, and speaks for
the United States in the United Nations and in more than 50 other major
international organizations. As-of 1988, the department supervised 141
embassies and 113 missions or consulates in foreign nations.
DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
The Department of Transportation (DOT) was created in 1966 by
consolidating land, sea and air transportation functions scattered
thoughout eight separate departments and agencies. DOT establishes the
nation’s overall transportation policy through nine operating units that
encompass highway planning, development and construction; urban mass
transit; railroads; civilian aviation; and the safety of waterways,
ports, highways, and oil and gas pipelines. For example, the Federal
Aviation Administration operates more than 350 air traffic control
facilities across the country; the Federal Highway Administration is
responsible for the 68,000-kilometer interstate highway system; the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration establishes safety and
fuel economy standards for motor vehicles; and the Maritime
Administration operates the U.S. merchant marine fleet. The U.S. Coast
Guard, the nation’s primary maritime law enforcement and licensing
agency, conducts search and rescue missions at sea, combats drug
smuggling and works to prevent oil spills and ocean pollution.
DEPARTMENT OFTHE TREASURY
The Department of the Treasury is responsible for serving the fiscal and
monetary needs of the nation. The department performs four basic
functions: formulating financial, tax and fiscal policies; serving as
financial agent for the U.S. government; providing specialized law
enforcement services; and manufacturing coins and currency. The Treasury
Department reports to Congress and the president on the financial
condition of the government and the national economy. It regulates the
sale of alcohol, tobacco and firearms in interstate and foreign
commerce; supervises the printing of stamps for the U.S. Postal Service;
operates the Secret Service, which protects the president, the vice
president, their families, and visiting dignitaries and heads of state;
suppresses counterfeiting of U.S. currency and securities; and
administers the Customs Service, which regulates and taxes the flow of
goods into the country. The department includes the Office of the
Comptroller of the Currency, the Treasury official who executes the laws
governing the operation of approximately 4,600 banks; and the Internal
Revenue Service (IRS), which administers tax laws—the source of most of
the federal government’s revenue.
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
The Department of Veterans Affairs, established as an independent agency
in 1930 and elevated to Cabinet level in 1988, dispenses benefits and
services to eligible veterans of U.S. military service and their
dependents. The medicine and surgery department provides hospital and
nursing home care, and outpatient medical and dental services through
172 medical centers, 16 retirement homes, 228 clinics and 116 nursing
homes in the United States, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. It also
supports veterans under care in hospitals and nursing homes in 35
states. The veterans benefits department oversees claims for disability,
pensions, specially adapted housing and other services. This department
also administers education programs for veterans, and provides housing
credit assistance to eligible veterans and active-duty service
personnel. The memorial affairs department administers the National
Cemetery System, providing burial services, headstones and markers to
eligible veterans and their spouses within specially designated
cemeteries throughout the United States.
THE INDEPENDENT AGENCIES
The executive departments are the major operating units of | the federal
government, but there are many other agencies which have important
responsibilities for keeping the government and the economy working
smoothly. These are often called independent agencies, since they are
not part of the executive departments. The nature and purpose of these
agencies vary widely. Some are regulatory groups, with powers to
supervise certain sectors of the economy. Others provide special
services, either to the government or to the people. In most cases, the
agencies have been created by Congress to deal with matters that have
become too complex for the scope of ordinary legislation. The Interstate
Commerce Commission, for example, was established by Congress in 1887 to
curb the growing power of the railroads. In recent years, however, a
trend toward deregulation of the economy has altered the functions of
many federal regulatory bodies. Among the most important independent
agencies are the following:
action is the principal federal agency for administering domestic
volunteer service programs to meet basic human needs, and to support the
self-help efforts of poor individuals and communities. Some of action’s
programs are Foster Grandparents, offering older Americans opportunities
for close relationships with needy children; Volunteers in Service to
America (VISTA), which provides volunteers to work in poor communities;
and Student Community Service Projects, which encourages students to
volunteer in their communities as part of their education.
central intelligence agency (cia) coordinates intelligence activities of
certain government departments and agencies; collects, correlates and
evaluates intelligence information relating to national security; and
makes recommendations to the National Security Council.
environmental protection agency (epa), founded in 1970, works with state
and local governments throughout the United States to control and abate
pollution in the air and water, and to deal with the problems of solid
waste, pesticides, radiation and toxic substances. EPA sets and enforces
standards for air and water quality, evaluates the impact of pesticides
and chemical substances, and manages the so-called “Superfund” program
for cleaning toxic waste sites.
the federal communications commission licenses the operation of radio
and television stations and regulates interstate telephone and telegraph
services. It sets rates for interstate communications services, assigns
radio frequencies, and administers international communications
the federal reserve system supervises the private banking system of the
United States. It regulates the volume of credit and money in
circulation. The Federal Reserve performs many of the functions of
central banks in other countries, such as issuing paper currency; unlike
central banks, however, it does not act as the depository of the
country’s gold reserve.
the federal trade commission guards against trade abuses and unfair
business practices by conducting investigations and holding hearings on
the general accounting office is an arm of the legislative branch that
oversees expenditures by the executive branch. It is headed by the
comptroller general of the United States. It settles or
adjusts—independently of the executive departments—all claims and
demands by or against the federal government, and all money accounts in
which the government is concerned. It also checks the ledger accounts of
all federal disbursement and collection officers to see that public
funds have been paid out legally.
the general services administration controls much of the physical
property of the federal government. It is responsible for the purchase,
supply, operation and maintenance of federal property, buildings and
equipment, and for the sale of surplus items.
the interstate commerce commission regulates the rates and practices in
interstate commerce of all common carriers, such as railroads, buses,
trucks, and shipping on inland waterways. It supervises the issuance of
stocks and bonds by common carriers and enforces safety laws.
THE NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION (NASA), established in
1958 to run the U.S. space program, placed the first American satellites
and astronauts in orbit, and launched the Apollo spacecraft that landed
men on the moon in 1969. Today, NASA conducts research aboard
Earth-orbiting satellites and interplanetary probes, explores new
concepts in advanced aerospace technology, and operates the U.S. fleet
of manned space shuttles. In the 1990s, NASA will assemble, in space,
the components for a permanent space station manned by international
crews from the United States, Europe and Japan.
THE NATIONAL FOUNDATION ON THE ARTS AND THE HUMANITIES encourages the
development of American arts, literature and scholarship, through grants
to individuals, groups, institutions and state agencies.
the national labor relations board administers the principal U.S. labor
law, the National Labor Relations Act. The Board is vested with the
power to prevent or remedy unfair labor practices and to safeguard
employees’ rights to organize and determine through elections whether to
have unions as their bargaining representative.
the national science foundation was created to strengthen basic research
and education in the sciences in the United States. It grants funds for
research and education programs to universities and other institutions,
and coordinates the science information activities of the federal
the office of national drug control policy, created in 1988 to raise the
profile of the U.S. government’s fight against illegal drugs,
coordinates efforts of such agencies as the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration, the Customs Service and the Coast Guard.
THE OFFICE OF PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT in 1979 assumed functions of the
Civil Service Commission, which was created in 1883 to establish a merit
system for government service and to eliminate politics from public
appointments. The agency holds competitive examinations across the
country to select qualified workers for over three million government
posts. It also sponsors training programs to increase the effectiveness
of government employees.
the peace corps, founded in 1961, trains volunteers to serve in foreign
countries for two years. Peace Corps volunteers, now working in more
than 60 nations, assist in agricultural-rural development, small
business, health, natural resources conservation and education.
THE SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION was established to protect
investors who buy stocks and bonds. Federal laws require companies that
plan to raise money by selling their own securities to file facts about
their operations with the commission. The commission has powers to
prevent or punish fraud in the sale of securities, and is authorized to
regulate stock exchanges.
the small business administration lends money to small businesses, aids
victims of floods and other natural disasters, and helps secure
contracts for small businesses to supply goods and services to the
THE UNITED STATES AGENCY FOR INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT (USAID) carries
out economic assistance programs designed to help the people in
developing countries develop their human and economic resources,
increase their productive capacities, and improve the quality of human
life. The USAID administrator also serves as director of the U.S.
International Development Cooperation Agency, which serves as the focal
point for U.S. participation in such organizations as the UN Children’s
Fund (UNICEF), the Organization of American States (OAS) Technical
Assistance Funds program, the World Bank Group, and along with the
Department of Agriculture, the Food for Peace Program.
THE UNITED STATES ARMS CONTROL AND DISARMAMENT AGENCY is responsible for
U.S. participation in international negotiations on arms limitation and
disarmament. It represents the United States on international arms
control commissions and supports research on arms control and
THE UNITED STATES INFORMATION AGENCY (USIA) seeks to promote better
understanding of the United States in other countries through the
dissemination abroad of information about the nation, its people,
culture and policies. USIA also administers a number of two-way
educational and cultural exchange programs, such as the Fulbright
Program, with foreign nations. It provides assistance to foreign press
and television journalists covering the United States. The Agency also
advises the president and the various departments of the government on
foreign opinion concerning U.S. policies and programs.
the united states postal service is operated by an autonomous public
corporation that replaced the Post Office Department in 1971. The Postal
Service is responsible for the collection, transportation and delivery
of the mails, and for the operation of thousands of local post offices
across the country. It also provides international mail service through
the Universal Postal Union and other agreements with foreign countries.
An independent Postal Rate Commission, also created in 1971, sets the
rates for different classes of mail.
THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH
A BICAMERAL CONGRESS
Article I of the Constitution grants all legislative powers of the
federal government to a Congress divided into two chambers. a Senate and
a House of Representatives. The Senate, the smaller of the two, is
composed of two members for each state as provided by the Constitution,
Membership in the House is based on population and its size is therefore
not specified in the Constitution.
For more than 100 years after the adoption of the Constitution, senators
were not elected by direct vote of the people but were chosen by state
legislatures. Senators were looked on as representatives of their home
states. Their duty was to ensure that their states were treated equally
in all legislation. The 17th Amendment, adopted in 1913, provided for
direct election of the Senate.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention reasoned that if two
separate groups—one representing state governments and one representing
the people—must both approve every proposed law, there would be little
danger of Congress passing laws hurriedly or carelessly. One house could
always check the other in the manner of the British Parliament. Passage
of the 17th Amendment did not substantially alter this balance of power
between the two houses.
While there was intense debate in the Convention over the makeup and
powers of Congress, many delegates believed that the legislative branch
would be relatively unimportant. A few believed that the Congress would
concern itself largely with external affairs, leaving domestic matters
to state and local governments. These views were clearly wide of the
mark. The Congress has proved to be exceedingly active, with broad
powers and authority in all matters of national concern. While its
strength vis-a-vis the executive branch has waxed and waned at different
periods of American history, the Congress has never been impotent or a
rubber stamp for presidential decisions.
QUALIFICATIONS OF MEMBERS OF CONCRESS
The Constitution requires that U.S. senators must be at least 30 years
of age, citizens of the United States for at least nine years, and
residents of the states from which they are elected. Members of the
House of Representatives must be at least 25, citizens for seven years,
and residents of the states which send them to Congress. The states may
set additional requirements for election to Congress, but the
Constitution gives each house the power to determine the qualifications
of its members.
Each state is entitled to two senators. Thus, Rhode Island, the smallest
state, with an area of about 3,156 square kilometers has the same
senatorial representation as Alaska, the biggest state, with an area of
some 1,524,640 square kilometers. Wyoming, with 490,000 persons in 1987,
has representation equal to that of California, with its 1987 population
The total number of members of the House of Representatives has been
determined by Congress. That number is then divided among the states
according to their populations. Regardless of its population, every
state is constitutionally guaranteed at least one member of the House of
Representatives. At present, six states—Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota,
South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming—have only one representative. On the
other hand, six states have more than 20 representatives—California
alone has 45.
The Constitution provides for a national census each 10 years and a
redistribution of House seats according to population shifts. Under the
original constitutional provision, the number of representatives was to
be no more than one for each 30,000 citizens. There were 65 members in
the first House, and the number was increased to 106 after the first
census. Had the one-to-30,000 formula been adhered to permanently,
population growth in the United States would have brought the total
number of representatives to about 7,000. Instead, the formula has been
adjusted over the years, and today the House is composed of 435 members,
roughly one for each 530,000 persons in the United States.
State legislatures divide the states into congressional districts, which
must be substantially equal in population. Every two years, the voters
of each district choose a representative for Congress.
Senators are chosen in statewide elections held in even-numbered years.
The senatorial term is six years, and every two years one-third of the
Senate stands for election. Hence, two-thirds of the senators are always
persons with some legislative experience at the national level.
It is theoretically possible for the House to be composed entirely of
legislative novices. In practice, however, most members are reelected
several times and the House, like the Senate, can always count on a core
group of experienced legislators.
Since members of the House serve two-year terms, the life of a Congress
is considered to be two years. The 20th Amendment provides that the
Congress will meet in regular session each January 3, unless Congress
fixes a different date. The Congress remains in session until its
members vote to adjourn—usually late in the year. The president may call
a special session when he or she thinks it necessary. Sessions are held
in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
POWERS OF THE HOUSE AND SENATE
Each house of Congress has the power to introduce legislation on any
subject except revenue bills, which must originate in the House of
Representatives. The large states may thus appear to have more influence
over the public purse than the small states. In practice, however, each
house can vote against legislation passed by the other house. The Senate
may disapprove a House revenue bill—or any bill, for that matter—or add
amendments which change its nature. In that event, a conference
committee made up of members from both houses must work out a compromise
acceptable to both sides before the bill becomes law.
The Senate also has certain powers especially reserved to that body,
including the authority to confirm presidential appointments of high
officials and ambassadors of the federal government as well as authority
to ratify all treaties by a two-thirds vote. Unfavorable action in
either instance nullifies executive action.
In the case of impeachment of federal officials, the House has the sole
right to bring charges of misconduct that can lead to an impeachment
trial. The Senate has the sole power to try impeachment cases and to
find officials guilty or not guilty. A finding of guilt results in the
removal of the federal official from public office.
The broad powers of the whole Congress are spelled out in the eighth
section of the first article of the Constitution:
— to levy and collect taxes;
— to borrow money for the public treasury;
— to make rules and regulations governing commerce among the states and
with foreign countries;
— to make uniform rules for the naturalization of foreign citizens;
— to coin money, state its value, and provide for the punishment of
— to set the standards for weights and measures;
— to establish bankruptcy laws for the country as a whole;
— to establish post offices and post roads;
— to issue patents and copyrights;
— to set up a system of federal courts;
— to punish piracy;
— to declare war;
— to raise and support armies;
— to provide for a navy;
— to call out the militia to enforce federal laws, suppress lawlessness
or repel invasions by foreign powers;
— to make all laws for the District of Columbia; and
— to make all laws necessary to enforce the Constitution.
A few of these powers are now outdated—the District of Columbia today is
largely self-governing—but they remain in effect. The 10th Amendment
sets definite limits on congressional authority, by providing that
powers not delegated to the national government are reserved to the
states or to the people. In addition, the Constitution specifically
forbids certain acts by Congress. It may not:
— suspend the writ of habeas corpus, unless necessary in time of
rebellion or invasion;
— pass laws which condemn persons for crimes or unlawful acts without a
— pass any law which retroactively makes a specific act a crime;
— levy direct taxes on citizens, except on the basis of a census already
— tax exports from any one state;
— give specially favorable treatment in commerce or taxation to the
seaports of any state or to the vessels using them; and
— authorize any titles of nobility.
A congressman once observed that “Congress is a collection of committees
that come together in a chamber periodically to approve one another’s
actions. ” That statement correctly identifies the standing and
permanent committees that are the nerve centers of the U.S. Congress. In
a recent two-year session of Congress, for example, members proposed a
total of I], 602 bills in the House and 4,080 in the Senate. For each of
these bills, the committees responsible had to study, weigh arguments
[or and against, hear witnesses and debate changes, before the bills
ever reached the House or Senate floors. Out of almost ] 5,000 measures
introduced, only 664—fewer than six percent—were enacted into law.
The Constitution does not specifically call for congressional
committees. As the nation grew, however, so did the need for
investigating pending legislation more thoroughly. The committee system
began in 1789, when House members found themselves bogged down in
endless discussions of proposed new laws. The first committees dealt
with Revolutionary War claims, post roads and territories, and trade
with other countries. Throughout the years, committees have formed and
disbanded in response to political, social and economic changes. For
example, there is no longer any need for a Revolutionary War claims
committee, but both houses of Congress have a Veterans’ Affairs
Today, there are 22 standing committees in the House and 16 in the
Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both
houses: Library of Congress, printing, taxation and economics. In
addition, each house can name special, or select, committees to study
specific problems: Because of an increase in workload, the standing
committees have also spawned some 300 subcommittees. Almost 25,000
persons help with research, information-gathering and analyses of
problems and programs in Congress. Recently, during one week of
hearings, committee and subcommittee members discussed topics ranging
from financing of television broadcasting to the safety of nuclear
plants to international commodity agreements.
And what do ail these “little legislatures” actually do? After all the
facts are gathered, the committee decides whether to report a new bill
favorably or with a recommendation that it be passed with amendments.
Sometimes, the bill will be set aside, or tabled, which effectively ends
its consideration. When bills are reported out of committee and passed
by the full House or Senate, however, another committee goes into
action, ironing out any differences between the House and Senate
versions of the same bill. This “conference committee, ” consisting of
members of both houses, completes a bill to all members’ satisfaction,
then sends it to the House and Senate floors for final discussion and a
vote. If passed, the bill goes to the president for his signature.
Congressional committees are vital because they do the nuts-and-bolts
job of weighing the proposals, hammering them into shape or killing them
completely. They continue to play a large part in the preparation and
consideration of laws that will help shape the United States in its
STANDING, OR PERMANENT, COMMITTEES OF CONGRESS
Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs
District of Columbia
Education and Labor
Energy and Commerce
Interior and Insular Affairs
Merchant Marine and Fisheries
Post Office and Civil Service
Public Works and Transportation
Science, Space and Technology
Standards of Official Conduct
Ways and Means Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry
Banking. Finance and Urban Affairs
Commerce, Science and Transportation
Energy and Natural Resources
Environment and Public Works
Labor and Human Resources
Rules and Administration
OFFICERS OF THE CONGRESS
The Constitution provides that the vice president shall be president of
the Senate. He or she has no vote, except in the case of a tie. The
Senate chooses a president pro tempore to preside when the vice
president is absent. The House of Representatives chooses its own
presiding officer—the speaker of the House. The speaker and the
president pro tempore are always members of the political party with the
largest representation in each house.
At the beginning of each new Congress, members of the political parties
select floor leaders and other officials to manage the flow of proposed
legislation. These officials, along with the presiding officers and
committee chairmen, exercise strong influence over the making of laws.
THE LAWMAK1NG PROCESS
One of the major characteristics of the Congress is the dominant role
committees play in its proceedings. Committees have assumed their
present-day importance by evolution, not by constitutional design, since
the Constitution makes no provision for their establishment.
At present the Senate has 16 standing (or permanent) committees: the
House of Representatives has 22. Each specializes in specific areas of
legislation: foreign affairs, defense, banking, agriculture, commerce,
appropriations and other fields. Every bill introduced in either house
is referred to a committee for study and recommendation. The committee
may approve, revise, kill or ignore any measure referred to it. It is
nearly impossible for a bill to reach the House or Senate floor without
first winning committee approval. In the House, a petition to discharge
a bill from a committee requires the signatures of 218 members; in the
Senate, a majority of all members is required. In practice, such
discharge motions only rarely receive the required support.
The majority party in each house controls the committee process.
Committee chairmen are selected by a caucus of party members or
specially designated groups of members. Minority parties are
proportionally represented on the committees according to their strength
in each house.
Bills are introduced by a variety of methods. Some are drawn up by
standing committees; some by special committees created to deal with
specific legislative issues; and some may be suggested by the president
or other executive officers. Citizens and organizations outside the
Congress may suggest legislation to members, and individual members
themselves may initiate bills. After introduction, bills are sent to
designated committees which, in most cases, schedule a series of public
hearings to permit presentation of views by persons who support or
oppose the legislation. The hearing process, which can last several
weeks or months, opens the legislative process to public participation.
One virtue of the committee system is that it permits members of
Congress and their staffs to amass a considerable degree of expertise in
various legislative fields. In the early days of the republic, when the
population was small and the duties of the federal government narrowly
circumscribed, such expertise was not as important. Each congressman was
a generalist and dealt knowledgeably with all fields of interest. The
complexity of national life today calls for special knowledge, which
means that elected representatives often acquire expertise in one or two
areas of public policy.
When a committee has acted favorably on a bill, the proposed legislation
is then sent to the floor for open debate. In the Senate, the rules
permit virtually unlimited debate. In the House, because of the large
number of members, the Rules Committee usually sets limits. When debate
is ended, members vote either to approve the bill, defeat it, table
it—which means setting it aside and is tantamount to defeat—or return it
to committee. A bill passed by one house is sent to the other for
action. If the bill is amended by the second house, a conference
committee composed of members of both houses attempts to reconcile the
Once passed by both houses, the bill is sent to the president, for
constitutionally the president must act on a bill for it to become law.
The president has the option of signing the bill—by which it becomes
law—or vetoing it. A bill vetoed by the president must be reapproved by
a two-thirds vote of both houses to become law.
The president may also refuse either to sign or veto a bill. In that
case, the bill becomes law without his signature 10 days after it
reaches him (not counting Sundays). The single exception to this rule is
when Congress adjourns after sending a bill to the president and before
the 10-day period has expired; his refusal to take any action then
negates the bill—a process known as the “pocket veto.”
CONGRESSIONAL POWERS OF INVESTIGATION
One of the most important nonlegislative functions of the Congress is
the power to investigate. This power is usually delegated to
committees—either the standing committees, special committees set up for
a specific purpose, or joint committees composed of members of both
houses. Investigations are conducted to gather information on the need
for future legislation, to test the effectiveness of laws already
passed, to inquire into the qualifications and performance of members
and officials of the other branches, and on rare occasions, to lay the
groundwork for impeachment proceedings. Frequently, committees call on
outside experts to assist in conducting investigative hearings and to
make detailed studies of issues.
There are important corollaries to the investigative power. One is the
power to publicize investigations and their results. Most committee
hearings are open to the public and are widely reported in the mass
media. Congressional investigations thus represent one important tool
available to lawmakers to inform the citizenry and arouse public
interest in national issues. Congressional committees also have the
power to compel testimony from unwilling witnesses, and to cite for
contempt of Congress witnesses who refuse to testify and for perjury
those who give false testimony.
INFORMAL PRACTICES OF CONGRESS
In contrast to European parliamentary systems, the selection and
behavior of U.S. legislators has little to do with central party
discipline. Each of the major American political parties is basically a
coalition of local and state organizations which join together as a
functioning national party—Republican or Democratic—during the
presidential elections at four-year intervals. Thus the members of
Congress owe their positions to their local or state electorate, not to
the national party leadership nor to their congressional colleagues. As
a result, the legislative behavior of representatives and senators tends
to be individualistic and idiosyncratic, reflecting the great variety of
electorates represented and the freedom that comes from having built a
loyal personal constituency.
Congress is thus a collegial and not a hierarchical body. Power does not
flow from the top down, as in a corporation, but in practically every
direction. There is only minimal centralized authority, since the power
to punish or reward is slight. Congressional policies are made by
shifting coalitions which may vary from issue to issue. Sometimes, where
there are conflicting pressures—from the White House and from important
economic or ethnic groups—legislators will use the rules of procedure to
delay a decision so as to avoid alienating an influential sector. A
matter may be postponed on the grounds that the relevant committee held
insufficient public hearings. Or Congress may direct an agency to
prepare a detailed report before an issue is considered. Or a measure
may be put aside (“tabled”) by either house, thus effectively defeating
it without rendering a judgment on its substance.
There are informal or unwritten norms of behavior that often determine
the assignments and influence of a particular member. “Insiders,”
representatives and senators who concentrate on their legislative
duties, may be more powerful within the halls of Congress than
“outsiders,” who gain recognition by speaking out on national issues.
Members are expected to show courtesy toward their colleagues and to
avoid personal attacks, no matter how extreme or unpalatable their
opponents’ policies may be. Members are also expected to specialize in a
few policy areas rather than claim expertise in the whole range of
legislative concerns. Those who conform to these informal rules are more
likely to be appointed to prestigious committees or at least to
committees that affect the interests of a significant portion of their
OVERSIGHT POWERS OF CONGRESS
Of the numerous techniques that Congress has adopted to influence the
executive branch, one of the most effective is the oversight function.
Congressional oversight prevents waste and fraud; protects civil
liberties and individual rights; ensures executive compliance with the
law; gathers information for making laws and educating the public: and
evaluates executive performance. It applies to Cabinet departments,
executive agencies, regulatory commissions and the presidency.
Congress’ oversight function takes many forms:
—committee inquiries and hearings;
—formal consultations with and reports from the executive;
—Senate advice and consent for executive nominations and treaties;
—House impeachment proceedings and subsequent Senate trials;
—House and Senate proceedings under the 25th Amendment in the event that
the president becomes disabled, or the office of the vice president
—informal meetings between legislators and executive officials;
—congressional membership on governmental commissions; and
—studies by congressional committees and support agencies such as the
Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office or the Office
of Technology Assessment—all arms of Congress.
The oversight power of Congress has helped to force officials out of
office, change policies and provide new statutory controls over the
executive. In 1949, for example, probes by special Senate investigating
subcommittees revealed corruption among high officials in the Truman
administration. This resulted in the reorganization of certain agencies
and the formation of a special White House commission to study
corruption in the government.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s televised hearings in the late
1960s helped to mobilize opposition to the Vietnam War. Congress’ 1973
Watergate investigation exposed White House officials who illegally used
their positions for political advantage, and the House Judiciary
Committee’s impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon the
following year ended his presidency. Select committee inquiries in 1975
and 1976 identified serious abuses by intelligence agencies and
initiated new legislation to control certain intelligence activities.
In 1983, congressional inquiry into a proposal to consolidate border
inspection operations of the U.S. Customs Service and the U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service raised questions about the
executive’s authority to make such a change without new legislation. In
1987, oversight efforts disclosed statutory violations in the executive
branch’s secret arms sales to Iran and the diversion of arms profits to
anti-government forces in Nicaragua, known as the contras. Congressional
findings resulted in proposed legislation to prevent similar
Oversight power is an essential check in monitoring the presidency and
controlling public policy.
THE JUDICIAL BRANCH
THE FEDERAL COURT SYSTEM
The third branch of the federal government, the judiciary, consists of a
system of courts spread throughout the country, headed by the Supreme
Court of the United States.
A system of state courts existed before the Constitution was drafted.
There was considerable controversy among the delegates to the
Constitutional Convention as to whether a federal court system was
needed, and whether it should supplant the state courts. As in other
matters under debate, a compromise was reached in which the state courts
were continued while the Constitution mandated a federal judiciary with
limited power. Article III of the Constitution states the basis for the
federal court system:
The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme
Court, and such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time
ordain and establish.
With this guide, the first Congress divided the nation into districts
and created federal courts for each district. From that beginning has
evolved the present structure: the Supreme Court, 11 courts of appeals,
91 district courts, and three courts of special jurisdiction. Congress
today retains the power to create and abolish federal courts, as well as
to determine the number of judges in the federal judiciary system. It
cannot, however, abolish the Supreme Court.
The judicial power extends to cases arising under the Constitution; laws
and treaties of the United States; admiralty and maritime cases; cases
affecting ambassadors, ministers and consuls of foreign countries in the
United States; controversies in which the U.S. government is a party;
and controversies between states (or their citizens) and foreign nations
(or their citizens or subjects). The 11th Amendment removed from federal
jurisdiction cases in which citizens of one state were the plaintiffs
and the government of another state was the defendant. It did not
disturb federal jurisdiction in cases in which a state government is a
plaintiff and a citizen of another state the defendant.
The power of the federal courts extends both to civil actions for
damages and other redress, and to criminal cases arising under federal
law. Article III has resulted in a complex set of relationships between
state and federal courts. Ordinarily, federal courts do not hear cases
arising under the laws of individual states. However, some cases over
which federal courts have jurisdiction may also be heard and decided by
state courts. Both court systems thus have exclusive jurisdiction in
some areas and concurrent jurisdiction in others.
The Constitution safeguards judicial independence by providing that
federal judges shall hold office “during good behavior”—in practice,
until they die, retire or resign, although a judge who commits an
offense while in office may be impeached in the same way as the
president or other officials of the federal government. U.S. judges are
appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Congress also
determines the pay scale of judges.
THE SUPREME COURT
The Supreme Court is the highest court of the United States, and the
only one specifically created by the Constitution. A decision of the
Supreme Court cannot be appealed to any other court. Congress has the
power to fix the number of judges sitting on the Court and, within
limits, decide what kind of cases it may hear, but it cannot change the
powers given to the Supreme Court by the Constitution itself.
The Constitution is silent on the qualifications for judges. There is no
requirement that judges be lawyers, although, in fact, all federal
judges and Supreme Court justices have been members of the bar.
Since the creation of the Supreme Court almost 200 years ago, there have
been slightly more than 100 justices. The original Court consisted of a
chief justice and five associate justices. For the next 80 years, the
number of justices varied until, in 1869, the complement was fixed at
one chief justice and eight associates. The chief justice is the
executive officer of the Court but, in deciding cases, has only one
vote, as do the associate justices.
The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in only two kinds of cases:
those involving foreign dignitaries and those in which a state is a
party. All other cases reach the Court on appeal from lower courts.
Of the several thousand cases filed annually, the Court usually hears
only about 150. Most of the cases involve interpretation of the law or
of the intent of Congress in passing a piece of legislation. A
significant amount of the work of the Supreme Court, however, consists
of determining whether legislation or executive acts conform to the
Constitution. This power of judicial review is not specifically provided
for by the Constitution. Rather, it is doctrine inferred by the Court
from its reading of the Constitution, and forcefully stated in the
landmark Marbury vs. Madison case of 1803. In its decision in that case,
the Court held that “a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is
not law,” and further observed that “it is emphatically the province and
duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” The doctrine
has also been extended to cover the activities of state and local
Decisions of the Court need not be unanimous; a simple majority
prevails, provided at least six justices—the legal quorum—participate in
the decision. In split decisions, the Court usually issues a majority
and a minority—or dissenting—opinion, both of which may form the basis
for future decisions by the Court. Often justices will write separate
concurring opinions when they agree with a decision, but for reasons
other than those cited by the majority.
COURTS OF APPEALS AND DISTRICT COURTS
The second highest level of the federal judiciary is made up of the
courts of appeals, created in 1891 to facilitate the disposition of
cases and ease the burden on the Supreme Court. The United States is
divided into 11 separate appeals regions, each served by a court of
appeals with from three to 15 sitting judges.
The courts of appeals review decisions of the district courts (trial
courts with federal jurisdiction) within their areas. They are also
empowered to review orders of the independent regulatory agencies, such
as the Federal Trade Commission, in cases where the internal review
mechanisms of the agencies have been exhausted and there still exists
substantial disagreement over legal points.
Below the courts of appeals are the district courts. The 50 states are
divided into 89 districts so that litigants may have a trial within easy
reach. Additionally, there is one in the District of Columbia and one in
the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, not a state of the union, but part of
the United States. From one to 27 judges sit in each of the district
courts. Depending on case load, a judge from one district may temp!)
rarity sit in another district. Congress fixes the boundaries of the
districts according to population, size and volume of work. Some of the
smaller states constitute a district by themselves. while the larger
states, such as New York, California and Texas, have four districts
Except in the District of Columbia, judges must be residents of the
district in which they permanently serve. District courts hold their
sessions at periodic intervals in different cities of the district.
Most cases and controversies heard by these courts involve federal
offenses such as misuse of the mails, theft of federal property, and
violations of pure food, banking and counterfeiting laws. These are the
only federal courts where grand juries indict those accused of crimes,
and juries decide the cases.
In addition to the federal courts of general jurisdiction, it has been
necessary from time to time to set up courts for special purposes. These
are known as “legislative” courts because they were created by
congressional action. Judges in these courts, like their peers in other
federal courts, are appointed for life terms by the president, with
Perhaps the most important of these special courts is the Court of
Claims, established in 1855 to render judgment on monetary claims
against the United States. Other special courts include the Customs
Court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over civil actions involving
taxes or quotas on imported goods, and the Court of Customs and Patent
Appeals which hears appellate motions from decisions of the Customs
Court and the U.S. Patent Office.
Although the Constitution has changed in many aspects since it was first
adopted, its basic principles remain the same now as in 1789:
— The three main branches of government are separate and distinct from
one another. The powers given to each are delicately balanced by the
powers of the other two. Each branch serves as a check on potential
excesses of the others.
— The Constitution, together with laws passed according to its
provisions, and treaties entered into by the president and approved by
the Senate, stands above all other laws, executive acts and regulations.
— All persons are equal before the law and are equally entitled to its
protection. All states are equal, and none can receive special treatment
from the federal government. Within
the limits of the Constitution, each state must recognize and respect
the laws of the others. State governments, like the federal government,
must be democratic in form, with final authority resting with the
— The people have the right to change their form of national government
by legal means defined in the Constitution itself.
Few Americans, however, would defend their country’s record as perfect.
American democracy is in a constant state of evolution. As Americans
review their history, they recognize errors of performance and failures
to act, which have delayed the nation’s progress. They know that more
mistakes will be made in the future.
Yet the U.S. government still represents the people, and is dedicated to
the preservation of liberty. The right to criticize the government
guarantees the right to change it when it strays from the essential
principles of the Constitution. So long as the preamble to the
Constitution is heeded, the republic will stand. In the words of Abraham
Lincoln, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people
shall not perish from the earth.”
The Bill of Rights______________________
THE EXECUTIVE BRANCH___________
THE LEGISLATIVE BRANCH__________
THE JUDICIAL BRANCH______________
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