US government and politics

Topic 1 Constitutional framework of US government.

Q.1. Examine the concept of federalism in the USA.

Answer: Federalism is a type of government in which the power is divided between the national government and the various sub-units. Federalism is different from the Unitary form of government, whereby, the central unit assumes all the power. There is another form of government, known as the confederation, in which the states are the most powerful.

The US government emerged as a confederation of 13 independent states and then later organized themselves into a federal unit. On July 4th, 1776, 13 North American countries declared independence from Great Britain, they realized the growing need to coordinate their efforts in times of war and for other general matters. They adopted the Articles of Confederation, a constitution which created a league of sovereign states. These states were required to cooperate and coordinate among themselves in matters relating to military affairs, foreign policy and other important matters. There is no mention of the word federalism in the US Constitution, nor does it provide any extensive details about the federal system. Nevertheless, the framers helped create a federalist system in the United States, particularly in the ways the Constitution allocates power.

In US federalism, sovereignty remains with the states where the individuals are citizens of their respective states and not of the national government. The people retain their basic sovereignty and they delegate some powers to the national government and reserve other powers to the states. Individuals are, therefore, citizens of both the general government and their respective states.

There are two aspects to be understood. First, the US federalism is not simply a decentralized hierarchy. The states are not mere administrative units which exist only for the execution of policies directed by some central government. It means that the states are fully functioning constitutional units having their own right, empowered by the American people to make a wide range of policies for their own citizens.

Second, the framers argued that the states would be the principal policymakers in the federal system. The powers granted to the federal government are relatively fewer and deal mainly with foreign and military affairs and national economic issues. Most domestic policy issues were left to the states to resolve in keeping with their own histories, needs and cultures.


There are two significant developments in the evolution of the US federal system which marked federal authority. The first is known as the ‘New Deal’. This program was implemented under Franklin D. Roosevelt in which, Social Security, unemployment compensation, federal welfare programs, price stabilization programs in industry and agriculture, and collective bargaining for labor unions were implemented, which eventually led to the expansion of the federal powers. The second was between the 1950s and 60s, where the national government came to be the national defender and promoter of civil rights and liberties.

Until the New Deal, the federal structure was known as dual federalism, which is a system in which the national government and the states have totally separate sets of responsibilities. Cooperative federalism was a character of American intergovernmental relations through the 1950s and 1960s. The primary key of cooperative federalism was the grant-in-aid, a system by which the federal government uses its financial resources to give money to the states to pursue mutually agreed-upon goals. Since the 1960s, a system of regulated federalism and national standards have emerged in which the national government began to attach “strings” to the federal aids to the states and at times imposed rules without funding, thus further shifting the balance of federal power toward the national government.

The current state of federalism is known as New Federalism, which involves a struggle for power, with the states resurging in the federal framework. Though the national and the government of the state continue to cooperate toward common goals, the struggle for power continues with the Supreme Court often acting as the referee in a number of significant legal cases.

Q.2. To what extent do the separation of powers and checks and balances limit government in the USA?

Answer: The Founding Fathers of US government were well aware of the evils of the concentration of power by a single person or body of government is the greatest threat to liberty. Separation of powers, a much-celebrated feature of a democratic constitution is adopted from the writings of Montesquieu where the powers are shared through a system of checks and balances. The separation of power plays an important role of checks and balances by keeping the three branches - legislative, executive, and judicial in the government systems equal to one another and sees that neither branches become too powerful over the other. All three branches play a significant role in acting as checks and balances and separation of powers, in the US government and rely on each other to make sure that all of the power is equally distributed. For example, the legislative power of the Congress is limited by the presidential veto, while it is in turn checked by the use of congressional override. Meanwhile, the judicial review of all the branches by the Supreme Court enables them to call any law or policies unconstitutional.

Historically, the concept of Separation of Powers goes back as far as ancient Greece. Aristotle advocated for a mixed government composed by mixing the best ideas of the three structures of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. In 1656, James Harrington in his book Oceana updated these concepts and proposed a series of systems based on the separation of power. John Locke, in his Civil Government 1690, second treatise, separated powers of the government into an executive and a legislature. Montesquieu's 1748 Spirit of the Laws expanded on Locke, adding a judiciary. The concepts were updated by the Framers of the US Constitution, and influenced the establishment of the three branches in the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution took all of these ideas and converted the theories into practical applications.

In the Legislative branch, power is distributed among the component parts of Parliament including Senate, House of Representatives and the Governor-General. The power of each House is also distributed among the members. A majority is required for the House to take actions. Each House has a different constituency and is elected through different methods.

In the Executive branch, ministers apart from having the duty to govern in the interest of the whole nation, are obliged to work with an impartial public service, where such traditions of impartiality will prevail. An impartial public service acts as a pause button upon favouritism, corruption, discontinuity, nepotism and inefficiency. On the other hand, executive decision-making and policy legislation remains in the hands of the ministry. On the other hand, within the Westminster system, the ministry is constrained by the reserve powers of the Crown (which may be exercised to dismiss a ministry which attempts to govern unlawfully) and, more immediately, by ministerial responsibility to Parliament.

In the Judiciary branch, power is distributed among a hierarchy of courts. Judicial discipline is therefore enforced by the appeals process. To be more precise, the selection of the judiciary from an expert profession trained in the traditions of the law and equipped by experience for the administration of justice gives a high standard of competence and professionalism. Judicial independence is further guaranteed by the tenure of office subject only to the ultimate disciplinary threat of removal on the grounds of misbehaviour or Parliamentary impeachment by the Governor on the address of both Houses of Parliament, except in situations where judicial independence has been undermined by the establishment of a judicial tribunal.

It can also be emphasized that the system of checks and balances is not merely one of separation of powers. The system is one of the powers balanced against each other so as to check one another. Thus, each House of Parliament must concur before in order to enact statutes. Where the condition of judicial review prevails, statutes are subject to judicial review. Executive actions are also subject to judicial review. In federal systems, the upper houses of federal Parliaments usually consist of representatives of the states. In Westminster systems, the executive ministry is responsible to Parliament. Ministries are, therefore, restricted by civil service impartiality.

Ultimately, the framework of separation of powers contained in the US constitution can be seen to act as the condition to limit the government. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the system does create a spirit of bipartisanship with all branches of the government coordinating cooperatively towards the common goal. It is also arguable that the system of checks and balances enshrined in the US Constitution ensure limited government and empower citizen’s liberty through provisions of more levels of the government which provides for greater access of citizens and therefore ensuring responsiveness of the government to the people. As a consequence, the system of checks and balances as a necessary feature of separation of powers leads to the limited power of the government in favour of the people.

Topic 2 The Legislative Branch of Government: US Congress

Q.3. Explain the importance of the advice and consent powers of the US Senate.

In the US political system, advice and consent are a power of the Senate to be consulted on and approve treaties signed and appointments made by the President to public positions, including Cabinet secretaries, federal judges, and ambassadors. Several state Senators also hold this power.

The US Constitution describes a number of functions and powers that are exclusive to the Senate. The term ‘advice and consent’ appear in the US Constitution in Article II, Section 2, Clause 2. It is mainly referred to the Senate's role in the signing and ratification of treaties. This term is also used to describe the Senate's role in the appointment of public officials. Additionally, a number of presidential powers are being described as subject to the powers of advice and consent of the Senate. These focus on two specific areas. In the first case, presidential appointments to the cabinet, the Supreme Court and other federal appointments such as the US Ambassador to the United Nations, are all subject to a confirmation process in the Senate. A simple majority of the Senate is required for a nomination for the president to be confirmed. The second area concerns international treaties. Article II of the US Constitution gives the president the power to sign such treaties. The Senate is given the power to ratify or reject such treaties. Without ratification, the treaty cannot be incorporated into US law. Both of these powers are significant in so far as, if deployed to block appointments or treaty ratification, they could limit the power of the president. During the twentieth century, the Senate rejected seven treaties. A famous early example was the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles in March 1920. The founding fathers of the United States included the term as part of a compromise concerning the balance of power in the federal government. Many preferred to develop a strong executive control vested in the president, while others preferred to strengthen the Congress as they were worried about a strong authoritarian control.

The twenty-fifth Amendment required appointments to the Office of Vice President to be confirmed by a majority vote in both Houses of Congress, instead of just the Senate.

A more recent example of the use of this power was in 1999 when the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In the case of blocking presidential appointments, Robert Bork’s appointment to the bench of the Supreme Court was blocked by the Senate in 1987. It may be argued that most appointments go through without being blocked and that, in practice, this power is not significant. A counter-argument to this might be to suggest that the reasons why most appointments go ahead are because the president is normally careful to nominate figures who are unlikely to prove controversial to Senators. In evaluating the power to reject treaties, it may be argued that successive presidents have circumvented this by signing executive agreements with the heads of foreign governments; these do not require the consent of the Senate.

Q.4. Assess the role of political parties in the US Congress.

Political parties and the Parliament help members to work together in performing their duties effectively. The US Constitution says very little about the organization of the Congress. Most of the functions of political parties have developed through the time as members have shaped the institution over time. Traditionally, the political parties have been seen as less of a significant force in the US legislature than in the United Kingdom. The main reasons for this are a separation of the powers and the puzzled electoral cycles. The US Congress does not fulfil the role of sustaining the executive in office and in the past, party cohesion in Congress has not been strong. In particular, the whips in Congress have never been as effective in maintaining party discipline as their counterparts in Westminster. Bipartisanship and cross-party co-operation were not uncommon. Sometimes legislation has been cosponsored by figures from both the Democrat and Republican parties in order that it could gain widespread congressional support such as the McCain–Feingold reforms to campaign finance.

Political parties also provide with an unconditional form of discipline. The Democratic and Republican parties act as a powerful presence in Congress. In effect, almost all Congress members are either Republicans or Democrats. Parties facilitate the process of law making and are the foundation for the most stable coalitions in Congress by uniting individuals who share common ideological orientations and policy goals and help them work together to pass legislation. Formal party organizations consisted of caucuses and committees where the majority party control the top positions and the minority party forms an opposition to the majority party.

All members of the US Congress belong to a political party and play a significant role in the formation of that party’s caucus or conference. The main function of the caucuses is to elect leaders, approve committee assignments, and appoint task forces to examine specific issues. They also act as a platform to debate debating policies and develop strategies for legislation. On the other hand, party staffers serve the members by delivering reports on pending legislation and assisting them with media relations. Caucuses are also successful at promoting party loyalty by granting rewards to members, such as prestige committee assignments. As an instance, only a few members switch parties, with only twenty-seven instances in the Senate and fewer than ninety in the House since the 1880s.

In American political system, the two major parties (the Republicans and the Democrats) have established party committees to perform specific tasks. In the House, steering committees which consist of party leaders recommend members to serve on larger legislative committees. Each party’s Congress policy committee conducts research and advises members about various legislative proposals. The main function of campaign committees is to raise funds, conduct election research, organize volunteers, and develop campaign publicity to promote the election of party members to Congress. House Democrats’ Organization, Assignment, and Review Committee recommends changes in party organization and rules.

Congressional parties promote party voting on bills. Party votes usually occur when a majority of members of one party votes against a majority of members of the opposing party on major legislation. Political parties’ influence on members’ decisions and actions have been on the rise since the 1970s, especially in the House of representatives. An explanation for this increase is that members come from those districts where constituents are strongly affiliated with either of the two major parties. The tension between the institution of Congress and individual members is evident in party voting. The main reason of conflict within party ranks arise from members’ disagreement with a party’s policy position because it deviates from their commitment to the voters back home. Party voting usually declines in election years, as members are reluctant to face criticism in their districts for supporting unpopular policies.

Therefore, Political parties are central to the organizational structure of Congress. They also provide a measure of discipline that helps the House and Senate to function more efficiently. Members who switch parties often lose the benefits of seniority, such as committee chair positions, and face an uncertain future when they seek re-election.

Topic 3. The Executive branch of Government.

Q.5. Explain the significance of the ‘spoils system’ in the executive branch of US government.

Answer: Spoils system is a practice in which the winning party in the election rewards its members and other active supporters by appointing to government posts and by other favours. It is also known as a patronage system. It involves a series of political activity by public employees in support of their party and the employee'' removal from office if their party loses the election. A change in party control of government necessarily brings new officials to high positions carrying political responsibility, but the spoils system extends personnel turnover down to routine or subordinate governmental positions.

The practice began during the administration of President Andrew Jackson, 1829. His supporters described it as a necessary and an overdue effort at reforming the federal government. It was intended to be a reform. He was suspicious of his political rivalries and therefore needed to change the way the federal structure was functioned. The spoils system, therefore, was introduced to remove or acquire people from federal jobs and replace them with people loyal to his administration.

Although the term is used in a negative connotation and attracted a lot of criticism, it was made famous in a speech made by Senator William Marcy of New York in 1832. Defenders of this system argue that it is a means of maintaining an active party organization by offering loyal worker with rewards. It also acts as a guarantee loyalty of the office workers and other cooperative employees. Those who support this practice also claim that this gives rise to a more effective government as the appointed officials have a stake in assisting the elected in carrying out his policies and fulfil campaign mandates.

But the practice has been criticized on a variety of grounds that it is corrupted as it required appointments that were based strictly on the accounts of party needs, without keeping in mind the candidate’s qualifications or his capability. In addition to this, the term has also come to be used in a negative meaning. It has come to refer to other abuses of political power which were fairly designed for the benefit of the ruling party. These practices may be discriminatory and may involve delivering public funds to the party by signing contracts with the contributors to handle public projects at rates which are higher than normal or by granting public franchises to party contributors at very low prices. Spoils system also came to known as favoring supporters in areas like the prosecution of law cases, placing insurance policies or levying taxes.

To further explain, it is known that when a candidate wins an election, current and former elected officials of the new winning party makeup the bulk of the Cabinet. However, other supporters and active members may be awarded here. Numerous campaign staff is awarded jobs at the White House and other positions at the executive branch. For example, David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign chief strategist, was awarded the job as the Senior Advisor to Obama.

Q.6. ‘The reality of the modern presidency is one of vulnerability not strength.’ Discuss.

Topic 4. The Judicial branch of the Government: The Supreme Court

Q.7. Explain the significance of the ‘spoils system’ in the executive branch of US government.

Answer: The US Constitution does not mention the process of nomination of the Supreme Court Judges and therefore it is left entirely to be governed by tradition. It provides detailed qualifications for the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the presidency, but it is silent on judicial appointments other than mentioning that justices should exhibit “good behaviour”. The US President nominates all federal judges and the Senate has to confirm the appointment. Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the US Constitution mentions that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint ... Judges of the Supreme Court.” Recommendations are often made by the Department of Justice, the FBI, members of Congress, sitting judges and justices, and the American Bar Association. A special and a very powerful tradition for recommending district judges is called senatorial courtesy in which, the senators from the state in which the vacancy occurs actually make the decision.

The selection by the President is preceded by a thorough examination and a background check of the candidates. In selecting, there are few criteria to be considered which include, the candidate’s experience, political ideology, party and personal loyalties and ethnicity, race and gender. In this process, the President often considers and discusses with other Senate leaders and Judges committee before making the final selection. The nomination is then referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee who does its own investigation. The Judiciary Committee then holds hearings during which the nominee and supporters and opponents testified. The president’s administration generally trains a nominee before these hearings. The Judiciary Committee members may ask nominees about their political views and backgrounds. The next step for the Judiciary Committee is to vote on whether or not to send the nomination to the Senate floor. Finally, the senators then can vote after reaching the floor to confirm or reject the nomination, or to filibuster so that a vote is delayed or does not take place.

Q.8. ‘The main role of the Supreme Court is to protect the rights and liberties of US citizens.’ Discuss.

Answer: Protection of civil liberties and civil rights is known to be the most fundamental political value in American society. The Supreme Court plays an important role in protecting civil liberties. People can take up a case to the court if they feel their civil liberties are violated. If the lower courts rule against a person, they can refer to the Supreme Court to hear the case. There have been instances where the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the citizen and announced that civil liberties have been violated.

The Supreme Court plays an important role in US political system. First, being the highest court of the land, it is the court of last resort for those seeking justice. Second, due to its power of judicial review, it plays an essential role in ensuring that each branch (legislative, executive, judiciary) of government recognizes the limits of its own power. Third, it aims to protect civil rights and liberties by striking down laws that violate the Constitution. Finally, it provides for appropriate limitations on democratic government by ensuring that popular majorities cannot pass laws that harm or take undue advantage of minorities.

Most civil liberties that Americans enjoy today are protected by the Bill of Rights which is described by the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. These liberties include freedom of thought, belief, expression, and assembly; protection against unreasonable searches and seizures; and provisions for a court hearing prior to government taking of a person's life, liberty, or property. The Bill of Rights was applied to the federal government, so citizens were not protected from the state's' violation and encroaching on their civil liberties. But eventually, the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, paved the way to protect citizens against state infringements of the rights and liberties guaranteed by the US Constitution. However, by 1969, the entire Bill of Rights had been incorporated by the Supreme Court.

The most famous power of the Supreme Court is judicial review, or the ability of the Court to declare a Legislative or Executive act unconstitutional if found against the will of the Constitution. The Supreme Court established this doctrine in the case of Marbury v. Madison of 1803. Here, the Court had to decide whether an Act of Congress or the Constitution was the supreme law of the land. The Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Supreme Court original jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus. Since Article VI of the Constitution establishes the Constitution as the Supreme Law of the Land, the Court held that an Act of Congress which was in contradiction to the Constitution could not stand. In few other instances, the Court also established its authority by striking down state laws which were found to be in violation of the Constitution.

After the passage of the 14th Amendment Act, the Supreme Court began ruling that most of its provisions were applicable to the states as well. Therefore, the Supreme Court has the final say over a condition when a right is protected by the Constitution or when a Constitutional right is violated. The decisions of the Supreme Court have a large impact on society at large, not just on lawyers and judges. For example, the decisions of the Court have a profound impact on high school students. In fact, several landmark cases decided by the Court have involved students, e.g., Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District of 1969 held that students could not be punished for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. In the Tinker case, the Court held that "students do not shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate." The freedom of expression as provided in the First Amendment was protected in the Texas vs Johnson (1989) case ruling of Supreme Court which included on flag desecration while Engel vs Vitale was a landmark case which ruled that it is unconstitutional for state officials to make up an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools. Copyright © 2016 AQA and its licensors. All rights reserved