An Overview of Governments in the United States Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

An Overview of Governments in the United States

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The United States has a very complex system to govern itself and conduct its business around the world. In the US, the term 'government' refers to the offices and positions that exist to conduct the business of the nation, state or local area - it has nothing to do with the people who occupy those offices and positions. Every two years after the election, the congress number is increased by one - the year following the election is the first session and the year preceding the next election is the second session. The congressional session of 2003 is the first session of the 108th congress and 2004 will be its second session; 2005 will have the first session of the 109th congress. The Executive branch is know by the name of the President, such as the 'GW Bush administration' or the 'Clinton administration'. The Supreme Court uses the name of the Chief Justice. Most Americans consider their government today as the same government that existed during the Washington1 administration. Here is a brief summary, for those who are interested, in how some of the government bodies are structured.

The Federal Government

The federal government is perhaps the easiest to study, as its rules are all based on The Constitution of the United States of America. The Constitution was drafted to formally divide the powers of government between the individual states and the federal government. Before the Constitution could be ratified, the states insisted that ten amendments be added to clarify the rights of the states and the people. These are known as the Bill of Rights. The balance of power between the individual states and the federal government has been a hot topic of debate from the very beginning of the country's history. In 1861 it was arguably the prime cause of a bloody war. Before the Constitution, the states had each tried to act as individual countries, not unlike the European Union that exists today. Although this separation still officially exists, the federal government has found ways to bypass its limits. One example is the national speed limit which each of the states were forced to accept on the threat of losing millions of federal highway tax money.

There are three branches to the federal government:

The Legislative Branch

The legislative branch is normally referred to as Congress. Congress is further subdivided into two chambers, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The US still has several territories and protectorates outside the United States including Puerto Rico, The US Virgin Islands, Guam, Commonwealth of Northern Marianas, and American Samoa. The District of Columbia where the Capital is located was formed from a small part of Maryland and Virginia as an independent district so that no state would have any jurisdiction over the Federal property. The south-west corner was returned to Virginia and is now Arlington. No-one living in the territories and district have any vote in Congress, although some are allowed to have delegates attend the sessions. It is also interesting to note that Native American lands, called reservations, exist and are exempt from state law and are self-governing. In many areas they support themselves through gambling and tax-free cigarette sales.

Although sometimes referred to as Representatives, house members are properly addressed as Congressmen or Congresswomen and are elected every two years. The number of seats in the house is set by Congress and at the time of this writing there are 435; the first Congress had only 65 members. Normally new seats are only authorised when a new state is added. By law, every ten years a national census is held that is supposed to count every person living in the country. Although some people may be missed and others counted twice, the process is quite thorough with census-takers going door to door for those who fail to return their form in the post.

After the results of the national census have been released, the President is charged with determining how many Congresspersons each state will have. No matter how small the population, each state must have at least one representative, and as of this writing California has the most with 52. District boundaries must be redrawn in each state and may not cross the border of an other state. The practice of adjusting these borders to keep the party not in power from having a majority in certain areas is not unheard of and even has its own name - 'gerrymandering'2 after a map that was so full of lines and squiggles it looked like a child's drawing of a salamander.

Even though they also serve in Congress, members of the Senate are called Senators and serve a six-year term with one third of the Senate up for election every two years. Each state is equally represented by two Senators regardless of size or population. Originally, members of the Senate were elected by their state's legislature - however, in 1913 the Constitution was amended to allow them to be elected directly by the people of each state. The Vice-President is automatically given the title of President of the Senate and may preside at his pleasure - however, he is only allowed to vote if there is a tie vote on the floor. This position actually holds no power under normal circumstances.

The party that controls the majority in each chamber can appoint all of the committee chairpersons, however the committees themselves are divided according to the rules that are in use at the time. The leader of the house is the Speaker of the House who is elected by the full house. The Senate also elects a President Pro Tempore who presides over the body on a day-to-day basis. Each party will also elect a leader and a whip who are responsible for keeping the party members unified and are available for important votes. They are designated as either majority or minority depending on which party controls their chamber.

The Executive Branch

The executive branch is headed by the President who is assisted by the Vice President - who has no real duties unless the President is unable to preform his office, in which case he assumes the full office of president. The President appoints his cabinet and the leaders of all the major departments of the government. The Congress must ratify each of these appointments. Originally, the Vice President was the second-placed presidential candidate. After the party system began to emerge, the President and Vice-President were invariably harsh political rivals so the Constitution was amended in 1805 to allow the President and Vice-President to run on one ballot entry. In 1951 an amendment to the Constitution was ratified that limits the President two terms of office - if he has served less than two years as President after assuming office between elections he may run twice and if he has served more than two years he may only run once. The President is elected by the electoral college with each state having one vote for each member they are entitled to have in Congress. In 1961 the District of Columbia was given three votes (the minimum possible) in the electoral college.

The Judicial Branch

The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and such lesser courts as the Congress may authorise. Federal judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Congress. They serve for life unless removed for bad conduct or they resign. It is not unusual for a judge to schedule their retirement on the political leanings of the president, either retiring early or staying on until they feel they will be replaced by someone who is like-minded.

Checks and Balances

The main reason for the above divisions is to keep any one branch from taking control of the government. The President's appointees can fail to be confirmed by Congress. The President can veto any bill passed by Congress. The Supreme Court can find a law unconstitutional. The Congress can amend the constitution to fit its will (with the support of two-thirds of the states).

The people themselves have the real power over both the legislative and executive branches - not only through their votes, but if enough support can be gained they can demand a new constitutional convention and change the whole government.

The State Governments

Each state is required to have a 'republican form of government' - however, how this is accomplished by each state is their own choice. Most, if not all, have their own constitution.

Most states have two legislative chambers, similar to the federal congress with the senate much smaller than the house. One notable exception to this rule is Nebraska which has only one legislative chamber (and so is unicameral). Terms and term limits are established by the states and vary greatly.

The state executive is the Governor - like the president he has a second-in-command, commonly a Lieutenant Governor. Unlike the federal government, many states elect the leaders of each department in the state, but in others they are appointed.

State Judicial systems are established to try any case involving state law. It is in the state courts that most cases are tried. The highest court in each state is its Supreme Court. State Judges may be elected or appointed, it is quite common to see a list of judges on your ballot asking if they should be retained in office with a yes/no option.

The County Governments

Each state is further subdivided into counties, except Louisiana, where parishes serve the same function. County governments again diverge into many different forms - however, their primary duties are to provide schools, supervise the actual election process, and to provide services to any area not incorporated into another lower government. Most counties have a county commission which passes local laws and regulations and have responsibility to oversee the business of the county. There is usually a School Board that manages the schools, establishes curriculum requirements, and serves as a place where individuals can appeal a decision by the individual schools.

The City/Township Governments

This is the most local form of official government. Quite often they will have a mayor who is elected to oversee the executive duties of the city. In some cities a city manager will replace the mayor, while in others there may be both. The City Council will serve as the legislative functions with a certain number of people who may either be elected by the residents of one district of the city, or they may be elected 'at large', which means that the entire population of the incorporated area can vote for them.


This has obviously been a simplification of a very complex subject; there are literally hundreds if not thousands of small variations and each responsible citizen should know at least the basics of where they live, and, if they wish to relocate, where they are going.

1George Washington was the first President to be elected under the Constitution.2Named after Massachusetts Governor, Elbridge Gerry, in the early 19th century.

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