Friday, March 20, 2009

Accessible Politics: United States Edition

Confused, McCainWow, this one was hard to do. This summary of the American political system has a very narrow focus, so you won't know everything after reading this. This should straighten a few things out though. (Image: CNN) So, the American system is very complicated compared to the Canadian system. Why? The system in the U.S. was designed to have many fail-safes -- the end result has been a lot of bureaucracy and its fair share of corruption.

What Exactly is Congress?

Congress is a simple, but complicated thing. The U.S. Congress is composed of the Senate and House of Representatives. This can be a bit confusing because the title "Congressman" or "Member of Congress" usually refers specifically to a member of the House of Representatives. Despite this oddity, Senators are also members of Congress and, with a few exceptions described below, the two groups that compose Congress are equally important to the legislative process.


The House has 435 voting members and several non-voting members. The Speaker of the House, currently Nancy Pelosi, maintains order and has some agenda setting authority. Behind the Vice President, the Speaker is the second in line for Presidency in any situation where the President loses power. The two parties' House of Representative leaders are the "Majority Leader" and "Minority leader" -- these leaders are elected by the Members of Congress of their party and help set party agenda.

The House of Representatives and Senate both must approve legislation for it to pass, but each has special rights the other lacks. The most important ability of the House is to impeach a President or vote to elect the President if the electoral college is tied. Members of Congress serve four-year terms and represent smaller districts than Senators.


Senators serve six year terms and represent large areas with diverse populations -- as a result there are only 100 Senators. The Senate has Majority and Minority leaders as well -- they have similar power as their House counterparts. The Senate is under the leadership of the Vice President, who is first in line for Presidency if the President loses power.

The longer term of Senators is designed to provide balance throughout electoral cycles. While they lack the power to impeach or elect Presidents, the Senate is responsible for many foreign relation tasks the House is not allowed to handle, such as the signing of treaties.

Where does the President fit in?

The President of the United States is in charge of the executive branch of government. Where as the U.S. Congress handles legislative endeavors, the Executive branch handles most tasks associated with running the country. The President has power to set agenda and oppose legislation by vetoing bills presented to him by Congress. He also can issue executive orders that are orders by the President to shape laws and governing practices.

As mentioned earlier, it is possible for a President to lose power. This happens if the President dies, is impeached, or is incapacitated.

Some Other Key Details:

Party Chairmen

Michael Steele, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) has recently drawn some fire for going on his own marketing campaign to rebrand the party. But, this is not odd behaviour for party chairmen. The Chairmen of the RNC or Democratic National Committee (DNC) are not directly leaders of the party. The RNC and DNC are committees which set the party platform as well as fund and plan campaigns. While Steele is doing his job, his critics may be justified in saying he isn't doing it well.

Seeking Nomination

To seek nomination for the President, a candidate must take part in publicly voted primaries and caucuses to win delegates. These delegates vote on the nominees when at their party's convention, typically two to three months before the election. Delegates are not bound by the will of their electorate and there are members of the RNC and DNC with special privilege to vote how they wish alongside delegates.

There are many complicated ins-and-outs of this process, but this process of citizens voting in primaries and caucuses is why U.S. election cycles seem so long.

The Electoral College

The Electoral College votes on the President of the United States in line with the will of members' electorate. Electoral Votes are granted to states according to population. Like delegates, voters of the Electoral College are not bound to vote as the public has voted, but it is extremely rare for them to defy the will of the people. It is possible for the electoral college to be tied at a score of 273-273, but this is rare. As mentioned earlier, if this does occur, the House of Representatives votes on the President.


I hope you have a better understanding after reading this, but I must admit that it has been hard to compile and took longer than expected. I am adding a sidebar widget for the Introduction, Canadian, and this edition of the Accessible Politics series. It will always be there if you ever get confused by the political maze of either system.

Most of this information comes by way of Wikipedia, and, if interested, I encourage you to read the articles on the U.S. political system.