By Vihansa Samarakkody
The US federal government is a foundational pillar of American democracy. It operates under a system of checks and balances designed to protect individual liberties and promote the common good, brought to life by the supreme law of the United States of America: The Constitution. This article aims to make sense and order out of the jumble of jargon and misinterpreted ideas many Brits hold about the ‘Free World’ of a Country- no doubt stemming from the likes of ‘Parks and Recreation’ and ‘Scandal’-and make those 4,255 miles across the pond seem that little bit shorter.
We the people of the United States,
in order to form a more perfect union,
establish justice, ensure domestic tranquilly,
provide for the common defence,
promote the general welfare and secure the blessings
of liberty… do ordain and establish this constitution for
the United States of America”Preamble to the Constitution
While it appears futile to engage yourself in foreign politics; the sheer, unprecedented power of the States does and will have a profound and enduring impact on the rest of the world, and generations to come. In a world where the flutter of a butterfly’s wings one day may lead to a tornado the next, it may not be the worst idea to familiarise yourself with the inner workings of the world’s largest economy and military power; think of such knowledge as a useful addition to your nuclear survival pack. Furthermore, it is the people’s responsibility to know their own rights, what they’re fighting for, because every vote counted will either break or make the people around us. We must all choose our leaders carefully, for the stance we hold reaches far beyond the English Channel.
The basics of the Federal Government is composed of three distinct branches: legislative, executive, and judicial, whose powers are vested by the U.S. Constitution in the Congress, the President, and the Federal Courts, respectively. Each branch has their own unique, innovative way of operating:
Back when the founding fathers drafted the constitution, the inability to decide between an equal or proportionally representative legislature resulted in the birth of a legislative branch with two houses: the house of representatives and the senate, combined in matrimony to make the Congress.
The house of representatives is made up of 435 elected officials, each state is allotted a number of these congressmen, determined by their total population. Only this house can initiate tax laws and spending bills and lead an impeachment of a president or other officials. The senate is made up of only 100 elected officials (2 from each state), so that each state is given an equally strong voice when it comes to matters such as approving presidential appointments and treaties; the senate is run by the Vice President of the United States. Together, both houses have the power to tax, coin money, declare war and regulate commerce.
The president heads the Executive branch, with a long list of authorities, including appointing federal judges and chiefs of federal agencies, the Cabinet, the President is also Commander-in-Chief of the military. The President’s cabinet acts as an advisory board and contains the secretaries of specific departments, such as Education or Labour.
The president can check Congress through Vetoes, when the President will reject the legislation enacted: Only the Judicial branch can check and overturn Executive orders.
Made up of the Supreme Court and all other federal courts, the Judicial branch’s function is to rule on all matters related to the law and Constitution. Led by 9 Justices, who are traditionally lawyers and overlook the entire judiciary branch: their word is final and cannot be overruled. Unlike the Executive and Legislative branches, the Judicial branch operates outside of voter input and elections, however, there’s no uncertainty that it has a sincere effect on the population: by evaluating the constitutionality of laws to keep the government in check.
To learn more, visit the White House website here.
UK versus US
Checks and balances is a system put in place by the writers of the United states constitution in order to limit the power each branch of government has. Each branch checks the other branches thus balancing powers of government. In a similar way, the UK parliament’s two-chamber system acts as a check and balance for both Houses.
The obvious difference between the two systems is that the UKs parliamentary legislature picks its prime minister and can remove them more easily using votes of no confidence. By contrast, the United States elects its president directly every four years.
In the United States, the Democratic and Republican Parties dominate federal and state elections with independents securing only small proportions of the vote. In the United Kingdom, the two main political parties – Conservative and Labour – win a smaller and declining share of the total vote, with a growing share being taken by the likes of the Liberal Democrat Party and the UK Independence Party at national level and by the likes of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalist Parties at the devolved level.
Today, Republicans are typically socially conservative and believe in lower taxes and occupy much of rural America, whilst Democrats tend to favour higher taxes on corporations and high-earners and are clustered in urban and coastal regions. Respectively, the Conservative party of the UK also promotes those ideas of private enterprise and low taxes and the Labour party opposing it with ideas of a minimum standard of living and the taxation of large incomes of wealth.
Embedded within the pages of the ‘Supreme Law’ is the timeless Bill of Rights: the first ten amendments that guarantee essential freedoms and liberties. The constitution embodies the principles of federalism, sharing powers between the national and state governments, and ensuring a balance of centralised authority and local autonomy. Its enduring relevance is demonstrated by the 27 amendments they have adjusted to meet the evolving needs and values of American Society, illustrating its adaptability and capacity to serve as a living, breathing document. As the guardian of American democracy, the U.S. constitution remains a testament to the wisdom of its framers and the resilience of a nation built upon the principles of justice, liberty, and the pursuit of a more perfect union.
Enduring for over two centuries, evolving to meet the challenges and needs of a changing society, this system remains a testament to the power of democratic principles and the ongoing commitment of the American people to self-governance. Many people claim, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but no system is perfect. In fact, over recent years, more people have begun to find cracks in the tightly sealed capsule that is the U.S Federal System, and often-times the solution is not to patch up the fault, but to replace the shell entirely.