Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

A Little Bit More American Civics

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In the first part, I covered the Constitution and the Executive Branch (Presidency, Vice Presidency, and Cabinet). In this second part, I'll cover the Legislative Branch (Senate and House), Presidential Succession, the Judicial Branch (primarily the Supreme Court), the flag, and Third Parties and Independents.

The Legislative Branch – Congress

The US Congress is the legislative branch of government, and it consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives. [Although these are occasionally referred to as the upper and lower house, respectively, that is rare, and can give a misleading impression as to the roles of each when compared with a parliamentary system in which the upper house is often a house of review.]

Members are now chosen by direct election (initially, senators were elected by their state legislature).

For the most part, the Senate and House have equal powers. However, only the Senate can ratify a treaty or approve presidential appointments (such as ambassadors, cabinet members, and Federal judges). [As one not-quite-so-well-written high school student wrote, "The President of the United States, in having foreign affairs, has to have the consent of the Senate". It's not clear that President Clinton had such consent, but then again his affairs might have been entirely domestic!] Only the House can initiate a revenue-raising bill. When a President is impeached, charges are brought by the House, whose members act as the prosecution, while the members of the Senate act as the jury. (The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the trial.)

Although only Congress has the power to declare war or to sustain a military action, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, the President can commit the military for up to 90 days without congressional approval. Unless such commitment seems flawed in a major way, most Senators and Representatives will support the President's action, as they don't want to be seen to be "letting the troops down" once they have been committed, even if privately they disagree with the decision. [Note that the Korean and Vietnam "wars" were not declared wars.]

As I suggested earlier, not all Federal employees come under the Executive Branch. For example, the following organizations support the Legislative Branch: Library of Congress (the library with the world's largest collection, and perhaps surprisingly, from which one cannot borrow a book [they can, however, be read on-site by the public, but otherwise are resources available to Congress]), the Congressional Research Service, and the Congressional Budget Office.

A term of Congress runs two years, starting on January 3 of odd-numbered years, and is divided into two 1-year sessions. (Other or special sessions are called from time to time.)

The Senate

Members of the Senate are called—TA DA—senators.

According to the Constitution, each state—regardless of population—has two senators, making 100 senators in all. The Federal Capital, Washington DC, is not represented (and neither are other US territories, such as Puerto Rico). Each senator is elected to a 6-year term, with one third of the 100 senators' terms expiring every congressional term. The 6-year terms of any state's two senators are never the same. There are no Senate Districts; both senators in a state represent that whole state. The idea behind a 6-year term is to allow senators to weather the storm over a longer period, especially if they make unpopular decisions. (Public furor based on their votes can well and truly die down before they are next up for election.)

The VP is the ex officio President of the Senate, and can only vote to break a tie. (For a list of such votes, press here.) However, to run the Senate on a day-to-day basis, the Senate elects a President pro tempore, who is third in line to the President.

The Constitution requires that a senator be at least 30 years old, have been a citizen of the US for at least the past nine years, and be an inhabitant of the state in which they run at the time of their election. (Hilary Clinton moved to New York State, so she could run for senator there.)

Obama (#44), Nixon (#37), LBJ (#36), Kennedy (#35), and Truman (#33) were recent Presidents who served in the Senate.

The House of Representatives

Members of the House of Representatives are called representatives, congressmen, or congresswomen.

The Constitution does not speak to the size of the House, but it clearly was intended that states with larger populations have more Representatives. Also, each state must have at least one Representative. Currently, due to their small populations, seven states have only one, in which case, the whole state is their district; they are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. California, the most populous state currently has 53 Representatives.

As the population grew, the House was expanded until around 1913 when it was frozen at 435 members. In years divisible by 10, a national census is taken and the allocation of seats by state is adjusted as a result of population migration. In 1959, Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as the 49th and 50th states, respectively, and each got one new Representative, making the total 437, temporarily. However, the next year's census reduced that back to 435, resulting in two seats being taken away from other states.

While the Federal Capital, Washington DC, has a Delegate in the House, unlike Representatives she cannot vote on the main floor. Each Representative is elected to a 2-year term, with all 435 Representatives' terms expiring every congressional term. As such, they have to spend a lot more time in their home Districts appeasing their constituents. In fact, soon after they get elected, they start working on getting reelected! [Unfortunately, due a number of factors, most incumbents get reelected.]

The House is led by the Speaker, who is second in line to the President. [It is most interesting to note that the Constitution does not require the Speaker actually to be an elected member of the House he or she will lead! However, all Speakers thus far have been elected representatives. Nor does the Speaker have to be of the majority party in the House.]

The boundaries of Districts in each state are controlled by that state and are purely based on political power. In my humble opinion, that mechanism has been, and continues to be, widely abused, with redistricting often being based on ethnic, income, and partisan political factors. (The process of deciding boundaries is called Gerrymandering, named for Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry who had his 15 minutes of fame back in 1812.)

The Constitution requires that a Representative be at least 25 years old, have been a citizen of the US for the past seven years, and be an inhabitant of the state (but not necessarily the District) they represent.

Bush Sr. (#41), Ford (#40), Nixon (#37), and LBJ (#36) were recent Presidents who served in the House.

Getting a Law Passed

For a law to pass, it must be approved by the Senate, the House, and not be vetoed by the President. (The President can sign or not sign a bill. A Presidential veto can be overridden, however. For an interesting complication, see pocket veto.) [When similar bills pass the Senate and House, a Conference Committee irons out their differences.] Even if a law gets past all that, it can still be overturned—possible many years later—by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional. For example, even if the Senate, House, and President all agree to ban almost all personal ownership of handguns, the resulting law would almost certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court based on the Constitution's 2nd Amendment rights that "Protects an individual's right to bear arms". For such a law to survive, the Constitution would have to be changed, and—by design—that is a much harder job than just making a Federal law.

Presidential Succession

If a President, dies or resigns while in office, who takes over? Well, the obvious answer is, "The VP". But what if the VP cannot take over? The Presidential line of succession is addressed in the Constitution and in Amendments 20 and 25. The bottom line is that the VP comes first, followed by the Speaker of the House, then the President pro tempore of the Senate, and then the Cabinet heads in order of the creation of their Department (with State coming first). [Despite his extensive experience at playing President on a long-running TV show, rumors that Martin Sheen comes next cannot been verified.]

With 15 Cabinet Departments currently, that provides for 18 backup Presidents, which sounds like a lot. However, each January, the President makes his annual State of the Union address in which he reports on the current condition of the country, and outlines his legislative agenda and national priorities for the next year. This event takes place in the House of Representatives. Present are the President, the Vice President, the Cabinet, all 435 members of the House, all 100 members of the Senate, and all 9 Justices of the Supreme Court, unless, of course, they have a note from their Mom excusing them! Basically, the entire US Government leadership is under the same roof at the same time! So, what if a catastrophic event wiped out that whole group? [If you have never seen the movie King Ralph, I highly recommend it.] Fortunately, one Cabinet Secretary agrees to stay (hopefully far) away from that event, so there is someone left to take charge. That said if he/she becomes the new President he/she can't appoint a new VP, any Cabinet members or Supreme Court judges until the Senate and/or House gets repopulated. [The replacement of vacated House and Senate seats is handled by each State's Constitution.]

Note that the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate might not be from the same party as the President. And some Presidents appoint Cabinet Secretaries who are not from their party.

[During the weeks I wrote and revised this essay, I watched all 28 episodes of the 2nd season of the popular TV series 24, which starred Kiefer Sutherland. When the President calls off an attack on three middle-east nations, the VP calls a meeting of the Cabinet to try and get them to vote that the President is unfit and should be relieved. This possibility is in fact provided for by the 25th Amendment.]

The Judicial Branch

The Constitution requires that there be one court called the Supreme Court, which is atop a Federal Court system. Congress is empowered to create additional subordinate courts and structures as part of the federal court system. Like the Legislative Branch, the Judicial Branch has its own set of civil servants to administer its operations, separate from the Executive Branch. Most Federal judges are appointed for life and can only be removed by impeachment. [Some have been imprisoned, but continued to draw their salary!]

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the US is the highest court in the land and its decisions are final; there is no mechanism to appeal any of its decisions. Its job is to interpret the US Constitution when asked to do so. It currently consists of the Chief Justice—who heads the Judicial Branch—and eight Associate Justices (all of whom are naked under those flowing black robes).

Of course, the Founding Fathers had no inkling of the changes technology and evolved thinking has wrought since the Constitution was written, so determining how this document should be applied to such modern-day questions as animal and human cloning, genetic modification, and conducting business on the internet, for example, could be seen as a stretch. In that regard, there are two camps of Justices: the Big-Endians and the Little Endians. Just kidding, OK! After all, this is a pretty dry subject! Actually, there are the more conservative Strict Constructionists who argue one must apply the plain meaning of the actual words as written by the Founding Fathers, and the Judicial Activists who take into account political, historical, scientific, and personal issues when interpreting the present-day meaning of the words in the Constitution. This distinction becomes important when a vacancy occurs, and the sitting President gets to nominate a replacement supposedly "reasonably aligned with his thinking". However, the Senate has to approve. While only 12 nominees have been rejected, many more nominees have been withdrawn when it was clear they had no real chance of getting Senate approval.

[I remember well in 1987 when Reagan nominated Robert Bork. That created a firestorm. I went off to Europe for some weeks during which time I was out of contact with US news. On my return, I learned that not only had Bork's nomination been voted down, Reagan then picked Douglas Ginsburg, who very quickly admitted he'd smoked some marijuana while a professor at Harvard. Eventually, Anthony Kennedy was nominated and accepted.]

The Constitution sets no qualifications whatsoever for service as a Supreme Court Justice. Bush Jr. (whom I prefer to call, "Bush the very much lessor") nominated a lawyer who had also served as White House counsel, but who had never been a judge. Under much protest, he withdrew her name. Interestingly, Chief Justice Earl Warren, who some say was the most powerful jurist in U.S. history, was never a judge until he became Chief Justice.

The Chief Justice need not have been an Associate Justice prior. Indeed, the sitting Chief, John Roberts, came straight in to the top spot, at the grand old age of 50! So, barring any accidents, illness, or his running off with Associate Justice/Hot Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we can expect to have him occupy that seat for a long time.

The Flag

As it exists today, the US flag consists of 13 alternating red and white stripes and 50 5-pointed white stars on a blue background. The stripes represent the original 13 colonies that became the first states, and the 50 stars represent the 50 states.

Back at the beginning of the country, the flag had only 13 stars and 13 stripes. A few years later, two more states joined the union, so two more stars and two more stripes were added, and that was the flag that flew during the War of 1812 when the Brits made an unfriendly visit, and the national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner", was inspired. Later yet, five more states were added, but some smart person at the now-defunct Department of Forward Thinking suggested that adding a stripe for each new state then and later would give rise to some awfully thin stripes [especially if we took over all of Canada as well. Oops, I didn't mean to let that slip!], so they went back to 13, and just kept increasing the number of stars.

Now there are rules and protocols about proper flag usage and disposal, but, unfortunately, these are not widely promoted nor followed. I often see flags flying—even at official buildings and facilities—in inclement weather, in the dark, or in a torn state, all of which are prohibited. I especially remember the days immediately following 9/11 when people attached small flags to the roofs of their cars, so they could flutter freely in the wind at 70 miles per hour. Of course, many of them quickly became tattered although their owners kept flying them. "Yeah; let's wave the flag while disrespecting it!" As for my flag, it hangs loosely on the wall of the main entrance inside my house, in a well-lit, dry, calm place.

Third Parties and Independents

Unlike numerous other democracies, the US seems to have fewer third party and independent candidates. Certainly, we've had Senators and Representatives change parties or leave a party to become independent, and we've had them elected as independents. I am not aware of any Constitutional obstacles to third party and independent candidates running and being elected and even holding the balance of power in either or both the Senate and House. However, having them hold the Presidency is another matter altogether.

As it happens, the President is not elected directly by the people. Yes, the people vote, but once that voting has been counted, there is one final step needed before a result can be ratified, and that involves the Electoral College. There are 538 Electoral College delegate votes (435 [the number of Representatives] + 100 [the number of Senators] + 3 for Washington DC [per the 23rd Amendment]), and becoming President requires a simple majority, 270, to win. In all but two (less-populous) states, it's "winner-takes-all-delegates". For example, the most-populous state, California, currently has 55 delegates, and whoever wins the popular vote in that state gets all 55. (In the two other states, delegates are pro-rated based on the popular vote.) So for a third party or independent candidate to win the Presidency, he/she would have to get on the ballot in at least all the most populous states, and win many of those states. And to be sure, that has been tried, and it likely will be tried again. But even if such a candidate became President, he/she would still need the consent of the Senate and House to get any legislation passed.

To be clear, regardless of the number of candidates in the general Presidential election, the one with the most votes—even if that count is fewer than 50%—is the winner, so long as they get the most electoral votes. (For example, in 1992, Bill Clinton won with 43% of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes, Bush Sr. got 37.5% of the popular vote and 168 electoral votes, while third-party candidate Ross Perot got 18.9% of the popular vote, but no electoral votes, as he did not win any states.)

In other countries, third parties are often seen as partners in coalition governments, and when one or more such partners leave the coalition, the government can collapse with a general election being called. There is no such thing as a coalition government, per se, in the US system; however, the President and the majorities of the Senate and House could come from different parties.

[I have never tried to understand fully the Electoral College system, and I think it's a mystery to a lot of people. And every time we get close to a Presidential election, the debate about whether that mechanism is still relevant raises its head.]


I've implied several times that the National Capital did not have full representation in Congress, so let me explain that here. Prior to 1961, when the 23rd Amendment was ratified, citizens of voting age living in Washington, D.C. could not vote for President or Vice President, as DC is not a U.S. state. Now while that amendment did not make DC a state, it treats it like one for Presidential election purposes by giving it three electoral college delegates, two for the Senators it would have, and one for the single Representative. That said, DC still does not have any representation in the Senate at all, and its lone delegate in the House cannot vote except in subcommittees. To that end, DC auto license plates contain the phrase, "Taxation without representation", which harks back to one of the main complaints colonists had against the British, and that led to the Revolutionary War. So why doesn't DC become a state. That has been tried and it will, no doubt, be tried again. But one main obstacle is that DC is solidly aligned with the Democratic Party. And having two new Democratic members in the Senate could very easily allow the Democrats to control that in a tight election, whereas the winning margin in the House is usually not just by one or two seats. So from the Republican Party viewpoint, they don't want to admit three guaranteed new Democrats to Congress unless the party has a way of offsetting that. [In this regard, when Democratic Hawaii and Republican Alaska were admitted as new states in 1959, they countered each other.]

The number of terms a President may serve is limited as are those for Governors of many states, but that is not the case for Senators or Representatives. What do you think about term limits?

Among others, my birth country, Australia, makes voting compulsory, and fines citizens who do not vote. The claim there is that voting is one's civic duty. On most days, I'd just as soon ignore those who chose not to participate, but on others, well maybe I see the point.

For a humorous read about Microsoft's "reported" acquisition of the US Government as a wholly owned subsidiary, click here.

Recently, I was reading a book called Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults upon our Language, by Richard Lederer. One entry appropriate to this essay is, "Senators are chosen as committee chairmen on the basis of senility." Now while that might have been true in a few instances, the writer/speaker probably meant seniority instead.