2.2 Structure and Design of U.S. Government

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2.2 Structure and Design of U.S. Government

Lesson Introduction

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Before the Constitution was ratified, under the Articles of Confederation, the nation was a loose league of states. Each state governed itself almost independently. The central government itself held little power.

The Constitution changed this, making the central government much stronger. However, the writers of the Constitution built in limits on the powers of the central government by creating federalism. In a federal system, one national government and many state governments share power. The Constitution further restricts the national government’s power by listing its powers. All other powers, according to the Constitution, are reserved for the states or the people.

The framers of the Constitution also divided power among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the federal government. They set up the government to make sure that each branch cannot abuse the power it has. Thus each branch of government has the power to check the actions of the other branches. (In this context, the word check means “to restrain” or “to hold back.”) Our government’s system of power sharing is called checks and balances.

In the lesson, you will learn more about how the checks and balances system of power sharing works at the national, state, and local level.

Federal and State Government

Division of Power

The Constitution gives the national government responsibility for maintaining the general welfare of the nation and its citizens. Therefore, the national government protects national security and manages trade relations with other nations. In the interest of maintaining a strong national economy, the Constitution permits the national government to maintain a national monetary system and to regulate trade among states.

Many day-to-day government functions are reserved for the states. These include providing education, licensing drivers, issuing marriage licenses, and establishing city and county governments and courts.

The national government and the states also share certain powers. Among these shared powers are the power to collect taxes, the power to borrow money, and the power to enforce the laws.

The Structure of State Government

According to the U.S. Constitution, every state has responsibilities to its people. To carry out these responsibilities, each of the 50 states has created a government structure much like the structure of the national government. For example, each state has a constitution. Like the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions describe the structure of the governments they create.

Like the national government, each state government also has three branches—a legislative, an executive, and a judicial branch. In 49 of the 50 states, the legislature has two houses. Nebraska, with its one-house legislature, is the exception. In every state, the legislature is responsible for passing laws and deciding how money collected by the state will be spent.

Each state executive branch is headed by a governor, who is elected by the state’s citizens. The job of the governor is to make sure the state’s laws are enforced. Other state executive officers help the governor do this work. So do various departments and agencies that also report to the governor.

The responsibility of the state judicial branch is to interpret the laws. State courts deal with both criminal cases, in which someone breaks the law, and civil cases, in which there is a dispute between citizens or groups. In every state, a state supreme court tops the court hierarchy.

Together the state government branches, with the guidance of their constitutions, provide many services. They offer education, administer public welfare programs, protect the environment, and help maintain the highway system. In addition, states are involved in regulating banks and public utilities. They also safeguard citizen health by establishing standards for things ranging from restaurant cleanliness to water purity. 

Why should you care about how state government works? A former governor has a quick answer.

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Local Government

States Create Local Governments

One very important power states have is the power to create local governments. These local governments help the state meet the needs of its citizens. Each state decides what local governments it will use and what responsibilities they have. Counties, municipalities—urban areas such as cities and villages—school districts, and townships and towns all are examples of local governments. Other local governments are called special districts, because they are created to provide a specific service, such as overseeing the county’s environment.

The relationship between a state and its local governments is not the same as the relationship between a state and the national government. That is because local governments have no authority of their own. Their authority comes from the state.

Not all local governments provide the same services, but some examples of common services include removing snow, fixing potholes in most streets, providing public transportation, putting police on patrol, maintaining local libraries, and lighting up streets. It keeps records of births, marriages, and deaths; collects and disposes of garbage; and offers health services to its residents. In fact, local governments probably affect daily life more than any other level of government

 

Government Power Shifts

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You know that the Constitution carefully divides powers among the national and the state and local governments. But recently there has been a trend toward concentrating power and responsibility at the national level of government. Here is an example of how that can happen.

Providing education is the responsibility of the states. But the cost of education is high. For example, many people agree that, in order to provide a solid education, U.S. schools and libraries must be connected to the Internet. But the expense of equipment, wiring, and Internet access is more than many local and state governments can afford.

That’s where the national government stepped in. President Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It set up a fund to help schools and libraries buy Internet-related products and services at a specially discounted education rate, nicknamed the E-rate.

Some representatives tried to place limits on the fund. They wanted to pass a law that would deny the E-rate to any school or library that did not use filtering software. Filtering software limits what can be accessed on the Internet. However, librarians and others argued that policies about filtering were best left to the local governments, such as library boards and school districts. Eventually, the government officials dropped the filtering idea. 

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Checks and Balances

The Constitution’s amendment process allows people to change their government. However, no amendment can go against the Constitution’s basic principles.

One of the principles underlying the Constitution is separation of powers. According to it, government power is divided to ensure that no one person or group gets too much power. This principle is so important that the Constitution devotes its first three parts to explaining it. Article I describes the legislative branch, with its Senate and House of Representatives, and its power to make laws. Article II outlines the executive branch, with the president at its head, and its power to enforce the laws. And Article III details the judicial branch, made up of the Supreme Court and other courts, and its power to interpret the laws.

In addition, the Constitution uses a system of checks and balances to limit the power of any one branch of the government. This system provides each branch with ways to influence—or even undo—the actions of the other branches. For example, the system of checks and balances allows the president to veto, or reject, a bill passed by Congress. (A bill is a proposed law.) However, Congress can, with enough votes, override, or cancel, a veto

EXAMPLE

Read the following article. Then answer the questions that follow.

When to Amend

One way the Constitution limits the power of the government is by making it hard to change the Constitution itself. Note that 11,000 changes to the Constitution have been suggested but only 27 have passed! This article is about the process that one recently proposed amendment is following.

In 1989, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law against flag burning. The court said flag burning was protected under the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment. Congress responded to this decision by proposing an amendment that would outlaw flag burning.

Those supporting the flag-burning amendment say that the flag should be protected because it is a symbol of our nation. Those against the amendment worry that it limits rights of expression guaranteed to all U.S. citizens by the Constitution. They argue that the First Amendment also protects free speech that is ugly and hateful to us. They also point out that there have been only a few reported flag burnings in our history, generally not more than five per year since 1989.

In 1995, the amendment passed in the House and failed in the Senate. It was reintroduced in the House again in 1997, and again it received approval. In 2000, the Senate debated and voted on the flag-burning amendment. The amendment received only 63 votes, 4 votes short of a two-thirds majority. On June 27, 2006, the Senate again voted down the proposed Flag Desecration Amendment by the slimmest margin ever. The vote was 66-34, just one vote short of the two-thirds needed to approve a constitutional amendment.

If two-thirds of the senators had approved it, the amendment would have been sent to the states for approval. The Constitution requires that three-fourths of the states ratify an amendment before it becomes part of the Constitution.

Are the following statements facts or opinions?

1. The flag burning amendment will never pass. ________
2. The amendment process was designed to be difficult to complete. ________
3. Those against the flag-burning amendment are unpatriotic. ________
4. For a proposed amendment to become part of the Constitution, it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. ________
5. Out of 11,000 proposed amendments, only 27 have passed into law. ________

Answers

1. Opinion
2. Fact
3. Opinion
4. Fact
5. Fact

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Application of Ideas: Requirements for U.S. Office

One of the purposes of learning about social studies is to use what you have learned. Often, you learn a general principle or idea and apply it to a specific situation. For example, arithmetic skills such as addition and subtraction can be applied to balance a checkbook or plan your food budget.

On social studies tests, you may be given some general facts, such as those in the following table, and asked to apply them to a new situation.

Requirements for U.S. Office
Office Citizenship Age Residency
President and Vice President Natural (born in the United States) At least 35 Has lived in the United States for 14 or more years
Senator U.S. citizen for 9 or more years At least 30 Lives in state where elected
Representative in Congress U.S. citizen for 7 or more years At least 25 Lives in state where elected

Read the following passage about Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President. Then use the table to check his qualifications for office.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in 1890 in Texas. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1911-1915. He became a professional soldier and served in the U.S. Army for many years, including World War II. He was elected president on November 4, 1952.

Use this information to see how Eisenhower fulfilled each of the three requirements listed in the row next to President.

  • Citizenship—Eisenhower was a natural citizen because he was born in the United States (in the state of Texas).
  • Age—He was at least 35 years old. Actually, he was 62 when he was elected.
  • Residency—Even though he was overseas off and on during the 14 years before his election, he had lived in the United States from his birth to his first overseas assignment in 1922 at the age of 32. The 14-year requirement does not need to be consecutive years, nor must the 14 years be those immediately before the election.

Eisenhower met all three requirements for the office of president.

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