A Constitutional Republic
The United States of America, also known as the United States, the U.S., the U.S.A., the USA, the U.S. of A., the States, and America, is a country in North America that extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and shares land borders with Canada and Mexico. The United States is a federal constitutional republic, with its capital in Washington, D.C.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention faced a difficult challenge. They wanted to ensure a strong, cohesive central government, yet they also wanted to ensure that no individual or small group in the government would become too powerful. Because of the colonies' experience under the British monarchy, the delegates wanted to avoid giving any one person or group absolute control in government. Under the Articles of Confederation, the government had lacked centralization, and the delegates didn't want to have that problem again. To solve these problems, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention created a government with three separate branches, each with its own distinct powers. This system would establish a strong central government, while insuring a balance of power.
Governmental power and functions in the United States rest in three branches of government: the legislative, judicial, and executive. Article I of the Constitution defines the legislative branch and vests power to legislate in the Congress of the United States. The executive powers of the President are defined in Article 2. Article 3 places judicial power in the hands of one Supreme Court and inferior courts as Congress sees necessary to establish.
Though in this system of a "separation of powers" each branch operates independently of the others. However, there are built in "checks and balances" to prevent tyrannous concentration of power in any one branch and to protect the rights and liberties of citizens. For example, the President can veto bills approved by Congress and the President nominates individuals to serve in the Federal judiciary; the Supreme Court can declare a law enacted by Congress or an action by the President unconstitutional; and Congress can impeach the President and Federal court justices and judges.
When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention created the executive branch of government, they gave the president a limited term of office to lead the government. This was very different from any form of government in Europe and caused much debate. The delegates were afraid of what too much power in the hands of one person might lead to. In the end, with a system of checks and balances included in the Constitution, a single president to manage the executive branch of government was adopted.
The executive branch of the Government is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land. When George Washington was president, people recognized that one person could not carry out the duties of the President without advice and assistance. The Vice President, department heads (Cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies assist in this capacity. Unlike the powers of the President, their responsibilities are not defined in the Constitution but each has special powers and functions.
Article III of the Constitution established the judicial branch of government with the creation of the Supreme Court. This court is the highest court in the country and vested with the judicial powers of the government. There are lower Federal courts but they were not created by the Constitution. Rather, Congress deemed them necessary and established them using power granted from the Constitution.
Courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws, how they are applied, and whether they violate the Constitution. The latter power is known as judicial review and it is this process that the judiciary uses to provide checks and balances on the legislative and executive branches. Judicial review is not an explicit power given to the courts but it is an implied power. In a landmark Supreme Court decision, Marbury v. Madison (1803), the courts' power of judicial review was clearly articulated.
Article I of the Constitution establishes the legislative or law making branch of government with the formation of a bicameral Congress. This system provides checks and balances within the legislative branch.
Only after much debate did the Founding Fathers agree on the creation of the House of Representatives and the Senate. A major issue was how representation in the legislative body would be determined. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention from larger and more populated states argued for the Virginia Plan that called for congressional representation should be based on a state's population. Fearing domination, delegates from smaller states were just as adamant for equal representation and supported the New Jersey Plan. Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut, proposed the bicameral legislature. The Great Compromise, among other provisions, resulted in the creation of two houses, with representation based on population in one and with equal representation in the other.
Members of Congress are now elected by a direct vote of the people of the state they represent. It has not always been this way for the Senate. Prior to 1913 and the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, Senators were chosen by their state legislatures because the Senate was viewed as representative of state governments, not of the people. It was the responsibility of Senators to ensure that their state was treated equally in legislation.
Agencies that provide support services for the Congress are also part of the legislative branch. These include the Government Printing Office (GPO), the Library of Congress (LC), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the General Accounting Office (GAO), and the Architect of the Capitol.
The first type of government in America was based primarily on state government. Prior to the signing of the Constitution, America had been made up of thirteen colonies, which had been ruled by England. Following the Revolutionary War, these colonies, although they had formed a league of friendship under the Articles of Confederation, basically governed themselves. They feared a strong central government like the one they lived with under England's rule. However, it was soon discovered that this weak form of state government could not survive and so the Constitution was drafted. The Constitution:
This time, it was decided that a government system based on federalism would be established. In other words, power is shared between the national and state (local) governments. The opposite of this system of government is a centralized government, such as in France and Great Britain, where the national government maintains all power.
Sharing power between the national government and state governments allows us to enjoy the benefits of diversity and unity. For example, the national government may set a uniform currency system. Could you imagine having 50 different types of coins, each with a different value? You would need to take along a calculator to go shopping in another state. By setting up a national policy, the system is fair to everyone and the states do not have to bear the heavy burden of regulating their currency.
On the other hand, issues such as the death penalty have been left up to the individual states. The decision whether or not to have a death penalty, depends on that state's history, needs, and philosophies.
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