How the US Government Works – A Brief Summary of Civics

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How the US Government Works – A Brief Summary of Civics

Constitutional Theory

Adopted initially on September 17, 1787, the US Constitution and its twenty-seven amendments enacted between 1791 and 1992 are the supreme law of the land. They create “balance of power” between three co-equal branches of government (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial), limit the power of the federal government, empower the individual citizen to maintain control of government officials, and create a series of individual rights that government cannot remove.

The Preamble to the US Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Creating Legislation: An Overview:

Local Law:

1. A member of the community or a council member has an idea for a law.

2. A council member proposes or introduced the idea.

3. City council members (or village trustees) often form a committee to evaluate the proposed law, or assign the proposal to an appropriate committee. This step is not required.

4. A public hearing is required for some ordinances, such as zoning ordinances. Citizens must have at least 10 days notice of the hearing.

5. The members of the committee vote on whether or not to adopt the ordinance.

6. The committee recommendation goes to the Council. A majority of the Council must approve the ordinance for it to pass. Usually the mayor or village president does not vote except in the case of a tie.

7. The mayor or village president can veto an ordinance, but only if it
a) Creates liability against the city
b) Provides for spending of money
c) Involves selling any city property

8. The members can override the executive’s veto with a 2/3 vote.

Federal Law:

The detailed process for how a bill becomes a law can be complicated and tedious. The system of checks and balances is designed to make sure that there is significant agreement before a new law is enacted.

1. Where does a bill start?
An individual or group gets an idea for a new law or a change to an old law.

2. What is a bill?
An idea that is written as a proposed law.

3. After a bill is drafted, Representative(s) (either Congresspersons or Senators) propose(s) a bill in the House or Senate.

4. The bill is read to the representatives on the floor of the House or Senate (a proposed bill must be read into the Congressional record three times before it moves forward).

5. The bill is sent to the appropriate House or Senate committee (For example, an issue dealing with education would be sent to the Education Committee; an issue dealing with the interstate highway system would be sent to the Transportation Committee).

6. The committee holds public hearings on the bill where individuals or interested groups can give public comment or testimony on their opinions of the bill.

7. The committee debates and votes on whether to approve the bill and send the bill back to the floor (with or without amendments), or to “kill” the bill by keeping it in committee for further debate.

8. If the committee approves the bill, it goes to the floor of the originating house where it is read a second time. At this point, any amendments made to the bill are debated by the members of this house of Congress.

9. After the debate is finished, the bill is read a third time. The members debate again, and vote on the bill.

10. If the first house passes the bill, it goes to the second house (for example, if the bill started in the House of Representatives, it would then go on to the Senate).

11. The whole process starts over again in this second house.

12. If the House and Senate pass different versions of the same bill, the bill is sent to a conference committee made up of members from both houses to try and reach a compromise on the bill. Both houses must then agree to the compromise by majority vote.

13. If both houses agree on a final version of the bill, it goes to the President for his or her signature.

14. The President can sign the bill into law or veto the bill.

15. If the President vetoes the bill, it is sent back to Congress. Congress can then re-vote on the bill. If each house of Congress votes to override the veto by a 2/3 majority vote, the bill becomes a law.

Voting is a Right, not a Privilege:

Election Day in the United States of America is the day set by law for the election of public officials, initiatives and referendums. For federal offices (United States Congress, President and Vice President), it occurs on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November in even-numbered years; the earliest possible date is November 2 and the latest is November 8. Presidential elections are held every four years, elections to the United States House of Representatives are held every two years, and a US Senator runs for election every six years. General elections in which Presidential candidates are not on the ballot are referred to as midterm elections. Many state and local government offices are also voted upon on Election Day as a matter of convenience and cost savings. Election Day is a civic holiday in some states, including Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia.

Amendment 14:

Section 1.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Amendment 15:

Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Amendment 19:

Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Amendment 24:

Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.

Amendment 26:

Section 1.
The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.

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