The Legislative Branch of Federal Government: People, Process, and Politics

The Legislative Branch of Federal Government: People, Process, and Politics

The Legislative Branch of Federal Government: People, Process, and Politics

The Legislative Branch of Federal Government: People, Process, and Politics

Synopsis

This volume focuses on the U.S. Congress, its history, constitutional powers, daily workings, and the politics that affect its operation.

Excerpt

Most of us know something about the federal government. At the very least, we can name its three branches—executive, legislative, and judicial—and discuss the differences between them. At an early age, we are taught in school about the president of the United States and his official roles and responsibilities; we learn about Congress and the courts and their place in our government. in civics classes, we often get a skeletal picture of how the nation’s government works; we are told that Congress writes the laws, the president executes them, and the Supreme Court acts as the interpreter of the U.S. Constitution. News reports, blogs, and editorials we read as adults add to this knowledge. Many of us can go further and explain some of the basic interactions among the branches. We know that the laws Congress passes are subject to the president’s veto power and the Supreme Court’s powers of judicial review; we understand that the president names the members of his Cabinet and nominates justices to the Supreme Court, but that the Senate has to confirm these nominations; and we can discuss how the Supreme Court, as the “caretaker” of the Constitution, can declare laws unconstitutional, but that it is up to the legislative and executive branches to enforce these rulings. We bandy around such terms as checks and balances and separation of powers. We talk about majority votes and filibusters in the Senate.

For most of us, however, this is about as far as our knowledge goes. According to newspaper accounts spanning decades, most Americans have trouble naming members of the Supreme Court, or key figures in the congressional leadership, or the members of the president’s Cabinet. Still fewer of us can explain in detail how a bill becomes a law, or the president’s authority in foreign affairs, or how the Supreme Court decides a case. If we ask about the historical development of these institutions and officials and their powers, the numbers of those who understand how our federal government works drop even further.

It is not surprising that most of us do not know a lot about the workings of our government. Government is a large and complex enterprise. It includes thousands of people working on subjects ranging from tax reform to national security, from voting rights to defining and enforcing environmental standards. Much of the work of government, although technically open to the public, is done out of sight and hence out of mind. We may know about those parts of the government that affect us directly—the Social Security Administration for the elderly, the Defense Department for those with family members in the military, or the Supreme Court when the news is filled with such controversial topics as abortion or the right to die or prayer in schools—but our understandings are generally limited to only those parts that directly affect us. Although this state . . .

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