So dig. Back in the day there were some old white dudes who got together to come up with the rules of the American political system. They yelled at each other for like 100 days in a small room, and ultimately came out with a document explaining the theory and rules (the Constitution!).
While everybody SHOULD know the function of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, I find that fewer people understand how the entire system works, and WHY the branches exist and are structured the way they are.
I think this should provide some insights as to why the system is the way it is.
Ah the House. … the most-insane of federal governmental structures. Why is it a house? Because we’re all one family up in these states!
Why is it insane? First, because there are 435 people in it. I mean really, things get nuts when there are 3 people debating let alone a few hundred — so there are lots of rules to prevent incoherent screaming and stuff. Second, the House is the portion of the federal government that is meant to be “of the people.” Really, it’s the most-democratic element in the federal government. And this makes it insane. ** Your local and state governments are WAY more democratic than the federal government … because you actually have a chance of knowing those officials.
The THEORY: The idea is that if you have to get elected every two years, so you spend very little time doing actual work, because you always have to worry about re-election — and politicians always want to stay in power.
Why is it constructed like this? The position was designed so that the politician always had to worry about re-election all the time. Why? So that (s)he always stays reactive to what “the people” want. Theoretically this office is closest to “the people,” so they have to listen to them most, because they have to ask them for a job every two years.
The House focuses on the yearly budget (it always has to start here), because that’s really the only thing common citizens care about. Also, they can impeach the president, because the people might want to do that now and again (because Americans are skeptical of power). This organization is called the “lower chamber” because it’s meant to reflect the ideas of “the people” at the bottom level.
The REALITY: Well … the reality is that once you get in office, there is a huge probability you’ll be able to stay there for like 30 years. Why? Horrible voter turnout, general lack of knowledge, lazy voting research, and other stuff. Also, people vote for who they know. If they see a familiar name, chances are they’ll vote for that person.
BUT, to be fair, the United States has the most elections out of any country in the world. We have local, district, state, and federal elections and appointments, and the are going on ALL the time. So, I mean really, truly “informed” voters have to spend a lot of time researching … and frankly people don’t have that time.
Also, I’m not sure how to reconcile the re-election cycle and donations. I think I can safely say that donors have more say in policy. So, the one-vote-one-say principle probably doesn’t translate very well … because Coca-Cola has more say than you do, let’s face it.
Dig this: the ‘sen’ prefix means old. The ‘ate’ suffix means office. So, literally (derived from old languages), Senate means “old office.” It really means senile, and that’s what it was meant to be, an older, wiser organization.
The THEORY: Senators are in office for six years; way more than the House. So, the average senator has way more time to not listen to people. They make more-controversial decisions, and generally don’t have to listen to people until elections come around.
Why? Because the focus of the Senate is to agree or disagree with the House (the people), and make good decisions, not popular ones. That’s right, so the people who wrote our “democratic” Constitution were ironically skeptical of democracy.
The system was designed so that the old, wise dudes had to agree with the people representing “the people” before it goes to the person who “executes” the laws. Again, the dudes who wrote the rules were skeptical of any one idea taking hold.
The REALITY: Well, most of the stuff that happens in the House is the same in the Senate. Big money and big interests tend to dominate these organizations.
Although, I will say that there has been legislation to prevent it.
PACS: Political action committees were designed to give money to whatever candidates they want for elections (get the “right guy” in office). But there are now laws that limit how much individuals and corporations can give to any one person. So, if you’re a wealthy person or organization, what do you do? Make another organization with a more-vague purpose than giving money to any specified person.
Super PACS: These nifty little organizations are a pool of money, and you can give as much as you want to this one. Why? Because the purpose is to distribute the money however they want. SO, you can put millions of dollars in this organization, and then the organization distributes how ever they want. It’s a backdoor way of giving candidates money, and there hasn’t been any legislation governing how much money you can donate to these things, so most of the money comes from Super PACS, not PACS, individuals or individual organizations.
This is difficult to combat because you can’t limit the amount super PACS can give out, because they are allowed, as an organization, to distribute money however they please. So, these aren’t “donations,” they’re simply funding the party, and it’s not in the name of any one person, because it’s a pool of lots of donor’s money. Legally it’s a difficult thing to grapple.
So, that’s part of the money problem. Moving on with the theory:
Da prez. Hot shot. Big office; the shot caller. Commander and CHIEF, son.
The rule makers who designed this office were afraid it would turn into a dictatorship or monarchy, so the Constitution explicitly says no monarchy. It also initially didn’t say how many terms there could be. But, since Georgie Washington was such a cool cat, he stepped down after two terms, and it became customary until the Great Depression when FDR did three terms, and then the 2-term amendment passed.
The THEORY: This is a unique office, because it’s the ONLY single representative responsible for considering the entire population of the US when making decisions (the Supreme Court does too, but there are nine of them).
The word ‘execute’ derives from the ‘executioner,’ in the old days, which means to carry out. So, this position was meant to carry out the agreements. You say that you want to legalize marijuana? Cool, now how are you going to do it? That’s the job of the prezzzz to figure that out.
This office is good for four years, so it’s kind of reactive to the people, but not really at all, actually. The rule makers decided that “the people” weren’t capable of being informed enough to responsibly elect such an important office, and they were concerned that the “majority” of Americans would put a real dictator in place anyway.
So, they made a cute thing called the electoral college. This is a buffer between the people and the office, and was mean to keep “the people” from making bad decisions about the office. The College is made up of people (elected as well), and they generally go with the popular vote … but not always. Again, it was designed to prevent bad decision making at that level.
This presidential position was meant to work closely with the Senate in making wise decisions, and taking care of the international stuff like treaties (Senate approves treaties). Also, this person is in charge of the military and how it’s used.
The REALITY: Well, this office is prone to intense scrutiny, which is strange because the original theory assumed that everything would be in order by the time laws were ready to be placed into effect. But the military thing was a bit messy, because the president can use the military but only Congress can actually declare war … so that’s a bit odd.
Because of the evolution of the system, the layers of bureaucratic implementation, and the history of party development, contemporary presidents have far more power than before. This is because “the people” expect it, especially post FDR timeframe; because the presidential position implemented a lot of benefits that ordinary citizens benefit from like Social Security, unemployment benefits, or food stamps. Also, progressive thinkers advocated the presidential position to be a reverend-like leader, and one that could inspire the entire population. So, the focus has shifted a bit.
Now people look to the president and expect that whoever in office can go above the rules to make stuff happen. In reality, this position is limited as well, just like all of them are. Again, the idea is that not any one office has power over the other, and we can see that today more than ever.
I do feel like president Obama has unique challenges inherent in being the first black president; meaning, every move he makes will have repercussions on the impression of black Americans in general, will be criticized for favoring black Americans, and generally the American public doesn’t know what to do with a brotha in the office.
Executive orders have emerged as a useful tool for presidents. Keep in mind that this order is a law that affects the federal government ONLY. SOOooooo, the president CANNOT create a law for the general public with this order; it only applies to the federal government. So you people claiming that executive orders are destroying the American way of life, sorry; these laws don’t apply to you.
THE JUDGES! HUH!
There is one more office in the American political theory. And, I would say, it’s the most-important.
The THEORY: It’s a bit of an odd office (the Supreme Court), because the Constitution doesn’t say much about it other than there is a judiciary, and there are nine of them, and they uphold the Constitution (rules). … that’s about it.
There are nine judges, and they judge stuff. These peeps are appointed by the PREZ, but have to get the OK from Senate too. … so the wise dudes say OK on the whole thing. (See how this system actually favors those in power, and it’s less-democratic than one might think?) These judges get their job FOR LIFE.
The idea behind the life of the position was so that the justices had the time and were free from political pressures to actually contemplate the rules, and make insightful decisions. These decisions are important because they direct the country one way or another. The organization was designed to be the highest decision maker, and it decides how the United States interprets the vagueness of the Constitution.
What qualifications does one need? NONE! The catch is that you have to have an in with the president and Senate, because they have to OK you too. If you don’t know these people, chances are you won’t get the job.
The REALITY: So, because of the vagueness in the Constitution, the organization just said “OK, we’ll review actions and say whether or not it’s in line with the rules.”
They hear two sides, look at evidence, discuss for multiple weeks, and all they do is write OPINIONS. That’s it. They say whether or not these cases are OK or not according to the rules.
What ultimately happens is that the courts below them follow the same ruling that the Supreme Court opines on. That’s called a precedent.
The office also just kinda said they get to judge whether or not what Congress or the president does is Constitutional or not. So, they just took that power.
At one point in time, the Court upheld that states can have separate but equal facilities for blacks and whites. Later, they said that was a bad idea. So the organization can change it’s mind, and makes decisions based on the majority vote. But yes, at the end of the day, it’s only an opinion guiding the United States and people follow it.
Wrapping it up!
To recap: the House reflects “the people,” the Senate and president are elite-centric positions, and the Supreme Court determines whether or not these organizations follow the rules.
The Constitution is super vague, with terms like “necessary and proper.” What the hell is that? What is necessary or proper? These things are debated all the time.
Also, because of the vagueness in language, there are procedures to add new rules or take them away — although this is extremely difficult to do. In fact the original Constitution had 10 rules (amendments called the Bill of Rights — they target rights of the individual), and now there are 27. Yup, throughout American history, there have been 17 amendments added. So, rules have been added to allow women to vote, stop slavery, give black Americans voting rights, give those 18 and up the right to vote, and several other rules. There was also that prohibition thing that went away pretty quickly. Because Americans want their BOOZE! What a bad idea prohibition was.
Now you know how the system was designed, and somewhat how it functions today. Again, we live in a federal system, so there are power structures in your local state government (as long as it follows the rules); and the federal government exists to take care of broad, general, blanket domestic laws for states to follow, and deals with international stuff. Also, it overrides the individual states when they don’t follow the rules.
Got it? Good.