Political system of the USA

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Course: The United States of America: History and Political System
Book: Political system of the USA
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Date: Utorok, 27 september 2022, 12:17 PM

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lecture

Political system

The United States of America is a federation of 50 states with 48 on the continent, Hawaii in the Mid-Pacific south - west of San Francisco and Alaska in the North. There is also one district, D.C.-District of Columbia. The capital city, Washington D.C., is situated there. Each state is different from all the others. It has its own state government, laws, education, taxes and customs. The structure of American government is really a mosaic composed of thousands of interlocking units. In addition to the federal government, there are 50 state governments and the government of the District of Columbia, and further down the ladder there are still smaller units that govern counties, cities, towns and villages, to name a few.

The Constitution of the USA establishes a stronger federal government empowered to collect taxes, conduct diplomacy, maintain armed forces, and regulate foreign trade and commerce among the states, but most importantly, it establishes the principle of a balance of power. It means that the power in the USA is divided into three branches - legislative, executive and judicial, each one having powers (checks and balances) over the other.

The President

The executive branch is represented by the President and 13 executive departments. The official residence of the President is the White House in Washington D.C. The President, together with his Vice-President is chosen in nation-wide elections every four years and he can be re-elected for only a second term. The only President who was elected four times was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1932, 1936, 1940, 1944). The President must be a natural-born U.S. citizen and must be at least 35 years old. The Vice-President takes over president in case of death, resignation or sickness, which happened so far in eight occasions. However, the role of a Vice-President is not well-definied in the Constitution.

The national presidential elections play a significant role in the citizens' lives and they are held on the first Tuesday in November (the Election day). The President is inaugurated on 20 January the following year. Anyone who is an American citizen, at least 18 years of age, and is registered to vote may vote. The President is elected by electors (electoral college) pledged in advance to one presidential candidate. The candidate who wins the most votes within a state recieves all its electoral college votes, no mater how small majority there is. The only exception are the states of Maine and Nebraska, where the votes are counted proportionaly. Such a principle caused, for example, the election paradox in 2000. The number of electors depends on how populous the state is, but at least there have to be three electors per state. Altogether, there are 538 electors in the whole USA With the principle that the winner takes it all, the candidate who wins at least 270 electors becomes the president. Since 1960 there was no president without having won elections in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Presidential powers are rather big. Just to mention some, he proposes bills, he can veto or refuse a bill, he is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, he makes treaties with foreign countries (with the approval of the Senate), he appoints federal judges and ambassadors.

Under the President there are 13 executive departments. The heads of these departments form a council known as the President's cabinet. The head of each department is appointed by the president and is directly responsible to him. Secretaries, as the department heads are usually called, serve as long as the President wants them to. Currently these are the departments of State, Treasury, Defence, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Energy, Education and Housing and Urban development.

The Congress

The legislative branch makes federal laws, levy federal taxes, declare war or put foreign treaties into effect. The main body is called the Congress and it is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Its seat is in the Capitol, Washington D.C.

The House of Representatives consists of 435 lawmakers who serve two-year terms. House of Representatives is rather a dynamic institution. Each House member represents a district (consisting of approximately 520 000 people) in his or her home state. The number of districts depends on a count of the population taken every 10 years. The most heavily populated states have more districts and, therefore, more representatives than the smaller states, some of which have only one. The Representatives are elected in a general election, held in November every second year. A candidate must be at least 25 years old and a citizen of the USA for 7 years. The chairman of the House of Representatives is called the Speaker.

The Senate comprises 100 Senators who serve six-year terms. In contrast to the House of representatives, the Senate is a more conservative institution. A Senator has to be at least 30 years old, a citizen of the USA for 9 years, living in the state that elects him. Each state, regardless of population, has two Senators. That assures that the smaller states have an equal voice in one of the houses of Congress. One-third of the Senators are elected every two years making sure that there are some experienced senators in the Congress after each election. The Senators represent all of the people in a state and their interests.

The U.S. Congress is a law-making body and each house has the power to introduce legislation. Each can also vote against legislation passed by the other. A law begins as a proposal called a bill. It is read, studied in committees, commented on and amended in the Senate or House chamber in which it was introduced. Then it is voted upon. If it passes, it is sent to the other house where a similar procedure occurs. When both houses of the Congress pass a bill on which they agree, it is sent to the President for his signature. Only then it becomes a law. The Senate and the House of Representatives sit separately. They meet in joint session in the House of Representatives to hear the President's State of the Union Address and on other special occasions.

Federal Judiciary

This branch is made up of Federal District Courts (91), Federal Courts of Appeal (11) and at the top is the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court determines whether or not the laws and acts of the other two branches are in accordance with the Constitution. To safeguard the authority and independence of the judiciary against the interests of the executive and legislative branches, judges are protected from a political reprisal by the Constitution. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices. All of them are nominated by the President but must be also approved by the Senate. Their appointments are for life, unless they commit some offence for which they can be impeached and removed. Federal courts decide cases involving federal law, conflicts between states or between citizens of different states, issues involving foreign citizens or governments, etc.

Political Parties

The United States of America has had only two major parties throughout its history, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Neither the Democrats, nor the Republicans have ever completely dominated American politics. When one party dominated national politics, the other party retained much support at state or local levels. These two parties have alternated in power since the beginning.

There are also other political parties in the USA besides the two major parties. There is the Libertarian Party, the Constitution Party, the Green Party and also several smaller parties. But none of them has enough popular support to win a presidential election. However, some of them are very strong in certain cities and states. In most cases, minor parties have just faded away.

The Democratic Party evolved out of Thomas Jefferson's party, formed before 1800. Most Americans today consider this party the more liberal party. This means that the Democrats believe the federal government and the state governments should be active in providing social and economic programs for those who need them (the poor, the unemployed or students). They are centre-left oriented with traditionaly poor voters and their symbol is the donkey, or the rooster (opposed to the eagle of the Republicans). Some Democratic presidents: Andrew Jackson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John .F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.

The Republican Party was formed in the 1850s, by the people in the states of the North and West, such as Abraham Lincoln, who wanted the government to prevent the expansion of slavery. Republicans are considered to be more conservative. This party puts more emphasis on private enterprise and individual initiative. They also oppose the involvement of the federal government in some areas of public life, which they consider to be the responsibility of the states and communities. They are centre-right oriented with traditionally rich voters and their symbols are the elephant and eagle. Some Republican presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Dwight D. Eisenhover, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Donald Trump.