Here’s one of my first blog posts ever. I figure it’s a good refresher and also a good introductory post for new followers. In order to do our job as employers of the federal government, we need to know the basics about our government and our government’s job descriptions. So, here are eleven basic facts that every educated American citizen needs to know.
One: The founders wrote the Constitution to only apply to the federal government.
That’s right! The United States’ founders (Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, etc) were not so concerned about state power (or abuse). They’d just won their freedom from an abusive “federal government” in England and were attempting to get as far away from consolidated power as they could. The result? Extreme mistrust of federal power. They knew that in order to contain the abuse that usually follows consolidated power, they must make that power accountable to something outside of itself. In the case of the US federal government, the Constitution was that outside power. It was created to confine and define federal power and tell it what it could do and by default what it could not do. Hence, the Constitution prevents our federal government from using arbitrary power. Anything not mentioned as a federal power in the Constitution would be left to the states to handle.
This means that even the Bill of Rights was not meant to protect “free speech” or “gun rights” from state government. The Bill of Rights was created to protect these rights only from the federal government. In other words, if states wanted to abuse these “rights”, they had every right to do so (although most states couldn’t because of their own Bill of Rights), but the federal government did not. This specific Constitutional application changed during and after the Civil War when the Court began to hold state governments accountable to the Bill of Rights.
Two: Congress (the legislative branch) writes the laws, the executive branch executes the laws, and the judicial branch interprets the laws.
This may seem overly simplistic or obvious, but unfortunately, most people don’t know this. Believe me, in my classes, perhaps the most mind-blowing piece of information for all my students was learning each branch of government’s job. We may all think we “know” what each branch does, but how many of us, when put on the spot, could really articulate what each branch is supposed to do and why? On top of this, how many of us could compare what each branch is supposed to do to what it actually does?
To put things simply, Congress (the legislative branch; legislate=to make law) is the only branch tasked with actually writing laws. That’s their job. The other two branches of government wouldn’t exist without Congress. (if you want to learn more about Congress specifically, read my post about Congress as the preeminent branch).
The executive branch exists to execute the laws written by Congress, handle foreign affairs (with the support of the Senate) and appoint judges and bureaucratic officers (again, with the support of the Senate). A law is only as powerful as its implementation (how many of you would speed without hesitation if there were no police officers to pull you over?).
The executive branch expands every time a new law is written. In other words, all the “agencies” that exist (think the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Defense etc), only exist to implement the laws that Congress writes.
So, originally, there were no agencies. Then, Congress wrote a law and had to also create (by law) an executive agency to enforce the law they wrote (Really, it’s not like the members of Congress are going to go to every county and enforce the law). Make sense?
Finally, the judicial branch, although initially created to simply handle disputes between states or individuals, is now the interpreter of the law. So, if a law is written and there is a problem understanding whether or not it’s Constitutional or perhaps even what the law means, the courts are the ones who solve the problem. Admittedly, the courts gave themselves the power of judicial review (determining the Constitutionality of law), so I’m not promoting this power as a good thing, but it is, ultimately, the way the courts work right now.
So, the key here is that Congress writes the laws and the other branches exist to either enforce or interpret those laws. However, today, the executive and judicial branches of government both write law and the fact that they do write law is a problem. And, you would not be able to recognize this problem without knowing the jobs of each branch first. This issue of lawmaking is a topic for another post and another time; however, I hope I’ve gotten your attention with this fact.
Three: Congress is the only branch of government that can declare war.
Why? Because war is not something that should be entered into emotionally, quickly or irrationally, and it should only be entered into if the people—who are going to go, fight, and die in the war—agree that the war is worth entering into. Congress is most closely connected to the U.S. citizenry and is, therefore, the only branch that can truly vote on whether or not their constituents want to be sent into war. On top of this important reason, passing a law through Congress requires more people, more opinions and more time than it would take for one executive to decide to go to war. In order for Congress to declare war then, irrationality (because of emotion), is able to be tempered. Remember this anytime you notice the executive engaging in war (unconstitutionally) without Congressional approval.
Also, at the time of the Constitution’s writing, the founders didn’t want individual states declaring war on different countries. That could lead to some major issues. So, the power to declare war was made to be a federal power.
Four: Congress can “overrule” a presidential veto by simply writing a new law.
This might sound odd to you, but it’s true. If the president vetoes a bill, Congress can simply write another one almost identical and pass it. Or better yet, role the vetoed bill (as an amendment) into another (popular) bill that the president won’t want to veto, thereby getting it past him and avoiding the nearly impossible override process that requires two-thirds of the House and the Senate. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says that when a law is written, passed and vetoed, it can’t be written and passed again. A little crazy, right?
Five: The President can force Congress’ hand with the use of the veto.
While Congress can use tricks to get a bill past a president who is set on vetoing it, Congress still has a difficult game to play. Usually, the following example is what happens between the president and Congress. The president can’t write law. Get that…the president can’t write law. So, since he can’t write law, he uses whatever methods he can find to force the hand of those who can write law.
While Congress can use tricks to get a bill past a president who is set on vetoing it, Congress still has a difficult game to play. Usually, the following example is what happens between the president and Congress. The president can’t write law. Get that…the president can’t write law. So, since he can’t write law, he uses whatever methods he can find to force the hand of those who can write law. The veto acts as a useful tool here. The president will meet with the leaders of Congress and present to them what he wants in some bill. He then establishes that he will veto the bill unless Congress writes and passes the bill how he wants it written and passed. Congress, wanting to get the bill passed, will usually concede. Or, the president will veto the bill and send it back with a list of changes that Congress must make in order for him to sign it into law. This is the game.
Six: The president is only the tip of the iceberg in the executive branch.
Now, this is perhaps the most important fact you need to know. As I said earlier, when Congress writes a law, they need to create an executive agency to implement the law they wrote. So, write a law —> create an executive agency. A lot of executive agencies equals what we call bureaucracy. Once you realize that over time, Congress has written a lot of laws and that those laws all require an agency to implement them, you’ll better understand why the bureaucracy is so expansive.
Let’s step back a second. The bureaucracy is the part of government that implements the laws Congress has written. The bureaucracy is the executive branch. Yes, the president is the head of that branch, but he is only the very tip of an ever growing, ever expanding, bureaucracy. It is ever expanding because we, the people, keep demanding more government to solve our problems, which causes Congress to write more law, which creates more executive agencies (and their regulations) to implement the law. Get it?
The bureaucracy is made up of the executive office of the president, the executive departments, the executive department sub-agencies and bureaus, the independent agencies, the boards and commissions and the quasi-official agencies (this doesn’t include all the private companies that are now contracted by the federal government, nor the state bureaucratic agencies that are also tasked with implementing federal law). So, when I say the president is just the tip of the iceberg, that iceberg is huge. If this seems overwhelming or confusing to you, understand, we’re reaping what we’ve sowed.
Seven: The courts have little to no real power.
Think about the following example for a second. The Supreme Court says that states cannot outlaw gay marriage anymore—-that it is unconstitutional for states to do so. What is going to happen now? Are the nine Supreme Court justices going to go to every state legislature and enforce the “law” they just wrote? NO!
I want you to really stretch your brain here. The Supreme Court (or any of the courts for that matter) does not have an enforcement agent. The courts were never created to write law, meaning they were never given an executive branch to execute the laws they wrote (in the same way that Congress was given the executive to implement Congressional law). So, when the courts write law (by altering written law), they are completely dependent on the other branches of government (executive, legislative and state) to respect and enforce the law/ruling they have made.
Let’s take this a step further. Congress, the President, and the state governments rely on their constituents to vote for them in order to keep their jobs. Which means that they want to keep us happy. If we buy into the power of the courts (legitimize them) and want our representatives to do what the courts say (or if the court ruling is popular), it is within these other branches’ best interest to enforce the ruling/law that the courts just made.
However, if we, the people, were to suddenly decide we do not buy into the courts’ power, nor approve of a ruling, then the other branches of government could easily decide to simply disregard what the courts have said. Really, what are the courts going to do about it? They very literally could do nothing, meaning that without the other branches of government to implement and obey what the courts say, the courts would have absolutely no power. This blew my mind, and I assume it may also blow yours!
Eight: Congress has the power to determine which cases the courts have jurisdiction over.
Yes! Guys, Congress has an immense amount of untapped power. Congress decides the entire jurisdiction of the lower courts and the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. In other words, if Congress did not want the courts to rule on a specific issue, Congress could simply change the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court or the lower courts. Congress creates the Courts, Congress decides how many justices serve on the Supreme Court and Congress determines what kinds of cases the courts can rule on (for instance, if Congress said that “gay marriage” was not within appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court could not hear a case on “gay marriage”). I’m not making this up, but isn’t it a little surprising? Here’s what the Constitution says:
“The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”
“In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.”
“The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.” Article III of the Constitution
Nine: Congress can overrule a Supreme Court ruling by passing a Constitutional amendment.
Think about this. The Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of law. So, if Congress really wanted to pass a law against the will of the Court, all Congress needs to do is simply pass a constitutional amendment. If this happens, the courts can literally do nothing. What can they do? Say that the Constitution is unconstitutional?
Congress has done this on numerous occasions. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Twenty-Sixth Amendments were ratified to undo Supreme Court cases.
Ten: The President cannot write law.
Don’t be fooled by presidential candidates who run for office and say they will make changes in education/healthcare/immigration/climate change etc. Why? Because the president does not have any Constitutional power to do any of those things (technically, neither does Congress, but that’s neither here nor there right now). I want to reiterate. The president cannot write law. He is simply there to make sure that the laws written are properly enforced. He must see that the laws be faithfully executed. So, when you hear any president saying that they are going to write this or that law, or pass this or that legislation, remind yourself of this simple Constitutional reality…he’s telling you he is going to do something he cannot do.
Eleven: Around 90% of all bills die in committee…and that is how its supposed to work.
During the 116th Congress of the 14,764 bills and resolutions introduced, only 746 made it out of committee. This is how it works every year and it is a good thing. The founders wanted the process of passing a law to be slow, difficult and contentious.
There are so many opinions, perspectives and constituents being represented and they are all supposed to collide and force a very difficult compromise. Just imagine: what if there weren’t so many built in checks and balances? What if all ten thousand laws were passed and what if that happened every year?! Just thinking about that gives me nightmares. There’s a reason that the founders wanted a system of checks and balances!
While these facts may seen obvious to some of you, there are many in America, who know little to none of these facts. Share with friends and family who need a refresher on the basics.
After all, knowledge is power.
The Liberty Belle
2 thoughts on “Eleven Facts You Need to Know About the U.S. Government”
Thank you for this! Our national civic fluency is so low. This should be required reading!
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