No Minister

A primer on US Government

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With the US Mid-term elections less than a month away (November 8) and with voting already underway in some places, it’s worth looking at what the US Government actually is and why these elections are just as important as the Presidential elections, to which far more attention is paid.

The latter is understandable. Given the military power a US President potentially wields as Commander in Chief and the media coverage of a President, people around the world assume that when they look at the President they’re seeing the US government in action.

But the President is just one component of that government – a very important component of course, but limited in power in some respects. So here’s a concise view of that government:

  • The President: Head of State & Government, Commander in Chief, Head of Govt. Departments
  • Congress – House (Legislation – detailed) and Senate (Legislation-high level, appointing Federal judges, Foreign Treaties)
  • Supreme Court (Judicial review to ensure the President, Congress and States are acting within the Constitution)
  • The States (Miniature USA’s; the primary source of day-to-day government)

Keep this in mind during the elections because the political control of each, not just one, is very important.

THE PRESIDENT:

A four year term, limited to two terms. FPP elections by voters in States then enable “Electors” from the Electoral College to select the President. The number of Electors for each State equals the number of House Reps they have, plus the two Senators each State has, e.g. California has 53 Reps so 55 EC votes. The EC forces Presidential candidates to contest more widely than just the highest population centres, thus hopefully widening representation. President’s can veto Congressional legislation but their veto can be over-ridden if the numbers are present in Congress.

  • Commander in Chief:
    The Founders wanted this because you can’t run a war by committee, but they never could have seen the CiC controlling such a vast, permanent military, least of all thousands of nuclear weapons.
  • Foreign Policy leader:
    There was a time when this didn’t matter much, and when it became more important in the 20th century the US Senate was quite aggressive in getting involved. It’s why President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations effort died in the USA. It’s also why FDR could not make much progress in getting the US involved in WWII, against the bi-partisan Isolationists in the Senate, until Pearl Harbour made it a moot point. In the 3rd volume of his biography of LBJ, Master of The Senate, Robert Caro makes a convincing argument that the Pearl Harbour attack caused the Senate to permanently retreat from trying to lead foreign policy initiatives, to the detriment of America in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, plus the Cold War in general. Sure, they’ll argue inside the Senate against Presidential ideas and efforts on this front, but you never see a group of Senators leading the charge.
  • Domestic Bureaucracy:
    The Founders absolutely never saw this coming. Domestically the Presidency was designed to be very weak because of the fear of a new King or Emperor or outright dictator rising to power. But through the 20th century the Congress has created one huge bureaucracy after another and they all report to the President. Even though the President can’t make or change laws, there is now enormous scope to use American Sir Humphrey’s to push the envelope out with rules and regulations that effectively act like legislation. Not to mention the simple directives to just not enforce the law – or perhaps enforce it in detail – to push party political and ideological positions. Bush’s “War on Terror”, Obama and Biden on Immigration and now Biden with his Department of Justice injustices.

THE CONGRESS:

Consisting of two bodies of directly elected representatives.

THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Four Hundred and Thirty Five members, each representing their own slice of dirt (no list members) and with only a two year term. Seven states have only one representative: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

The Parliament of the USA. This is where the sausage gets made, where legislation in detail is generated. The Senate has their thumb on the scale too as they have to sign off on every piece of legislation, but they don’t typically get into the weeds as the House does. Instead they take a 35,000 foot view, with major fights only occurring if there’s something that egregiously screws with their States (hence the tag for NASA’s SLS rocket – the Senate Launch System).

But the House is the engine room of the US Federal government. Control that and you control most of what can happen inside the borders of America* and even, when it comes to funding foreign efforts – like wars – they have some influence there, via funding.

* The Democrats controlled the House for forty consecutive years, from 1954 to 1994, often with big majorities as well as the Senate and the Presidency in their pocket.

THE SENATE

Two Senators from each state equals 100 Senators. The Vice President is the tie-breaking vote. Senators have six-year terms and only one third of the Senate face election every two years. This is designed deliberately to prevent waves of populism allowing the tyranny of the majority, which could happen if only the House made law. No such thing as Parliamentary Supremacy here.

The culture of the Senate, is much more bi-partisan and “matey” than the House. Issues are discussed and debated slowly – “The Greatest Deliberative Body in the world” and all that – or as the Economist put it in 2010, Lazing on a Senate afternoon: Revisiting the world’s most indolent body. But they do have two powers that they jealously guard: the appointment of Federal judges and the approval of treaties with foreign nations.

The former is most obvious during Supreme Court nominations where the process has descended from the bi-partisan heights of as recently as the early 1980’s to all-out ideological brawls starting with the infamous war the Democrats waged on Judge Bork’s nomination in 1987. But the Senate appoints all Federal judges across the nation and that has a long-term impact given that it’s the stepping stone for future SCOTUS nominees. Suffice to say that the GOP pushed this throttle to the max between 2014 and 2020.

The latter doesn’t happen often because foreign treaties can have large, long-term impacts on the local legislation of the USA and so are debated even more slowly than anything else. They’re often rejected as well. When you see a President signing some foreign “agreement” it means only two things. First, if the Senate approved it, the President’s action is just a flourish, for very few Presidents ever push back on such approval (and always lead the charge: see above). Second, if it’s rejected by the Senate then the President’s signature is worthless, for the treaty has no force of law. That’s happened often, from the rejection of President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations in 1920, to SALT II in the late 1970’s (Democrat Senators clashing with Democrat President Carter), to Climate Change stuff like the Kyoto accords. On that last matter it means that MSM claims that Obama took the US into the Paris Accords, while Trump took them out and Biden put them back in are meaningless fluff. No Senate approval means no binding international law.

THE SUPREME COURT (SCOTUS):

Nine justices approved by the Senate after being nominated by the President. Lifetime appointments until death or retirement

One power only but it’s a biggie; to be the umpire calling balls and strikes on whether the actions of a Presidency, the laws passed by Congress, the actions and laws of the States, and the actions of US citizens are constitutional.

But even SCOTUS has pushed its boundaries**, by effectively re-writing law to make it Constitutional instead of sending it back to the legislators (Obamacare’s black letter “individual mandates” turned into “tax”) or effectively legislating themselves (the abortion law Roe v Wade). With the powerful rise of Originalist judges determined to read both legislation and the Constitution as they are written, that era may be coming to an end.

** It could be argued that this happened almost from the start when the Court simply declared in 1803 (Marbury v. Madison) that they had the authority to review the constitutionality of Congress’s legislative acts. That’s not specifically in the Constitution (in fact the exact powers of SCOTUS are not laid out), although the power of judicial review of law had been around a while in the lower courts. It also took a couple more decades before the idea grew that SCOTUS was the supreme interpreter.

THE FIFTY STATES

A wild mix of limited and unlimited terms and election methods but generally following the Federal pattern of four year terms for Governors, two for State House reps, six for State Senators, lifetime appointments for State Supreme Courts.

Because they’re not a branch of the Federal government these are often ignored, especially by foreigners. But that’s actually quite crazy when you realise that the Constitution itself was very specific in identifying what powers the Federal government has – and then clearly stating that everything not so identified belonged to the individual States. Moreover during the Constitutional Convention there was a lot of debate and fighting over precisely this issue and ultimately the approval of the Constitution relied upon the agreements over these delineated powers.

And it’s a lot of power. It’s not just that US States like California, Texas and Florida would be very big international economies were they nations themselves. For the everyday American their State – and sometimes their city – has far more effect on their day-to-day lives than the Federal government.

Most of the spending on healthcare, social welfare and education is actually the responsibility of each State and comes from them, and even when some of the money does comes from D.C. the State controls how it’s spent. Similarly with law enforcement and regulations and of course some States have their own taxation systems (California has a flat tax of 13.3% on income, on top of the Federal rates).

They’re basically miniature versions of the USA; each with a State House, State Senate and a “President” called a Governor, plus their own Constitutions (which must fit within America’s), appointing their own judges, and with their own bureaucracies and Courts, including a State Supreme Court. They even have military units in the form of a National Guard which use the same weapons as the Federal military, i.e. the Hawaii Air National Guard, which employs part-time civilian pilots, flies the F-22 Raptor. As such they can often be seen as experiments for what might happen nationally. The 1990’s welfare reforms in Wisconsin by Governor Tommy Thompson (R) were very influential on Bill Clinton’s Federal welfare reforms. We’ve also seen State powers during the C-19 Pandemic, where Texas and Florida took quite different approaches than New York, California and Illinois and where the Federal Government was largely a bystander with advice and (eventually) vaccines.

Finally there’s the fact that future US Presidents are increasingly found from the pool of Governors, because unlike Senators and House Reps, they exercise executive powers and can be judged on that crucial component of the Presidency. So control of the States has a long-term impact on control of the USA.

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Written by Tom Hunter

October 17, 2022 at 6:00 am

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