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USA. Political system


1. The Constitution

2. The Congress

3. Political Parties

4. President

5. Supreme Court

6. Religion

1) The Constitution of the USA was adopted after the war of Independence on September 17, 1787.It lists the set of rules, laws and regulations which provide the practical norms regulating the work of the Government. The main principles were as follows: private property is the backbone of liberty. It was put by the owner from Virginia, James Madison, who is known to be the “Father of the Constitution”.

The Constitution consists of the Preamble and 7 articles. 26 amendments have been added to its original text. The 1st 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights were added in a group in 1791. These amendments establish the individual rights and freedoms to all people of the USA. All the amendments adopted by the Congress become an integral part of the Constitution. Here are the examples of the most famous amendments: the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 19th gave the vote to women, the 26th amendment lowered the voting age to 18 years.

2) THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES grants all the legislative powers of the federal government to the Congress, which consists of two Houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Its residence is on Capitol Hill, in the center of Washington. The authors of the Constitution expected that the legislature (the Congress) would be the strongest branch of the new government. Though the role of the President and the executive branch of power has become too great today, the Congress still plays a very important part in the country's representative government.

The Senate, the smaller House, is composed of two members from each state, as provided by the Constitution. Membership in the House of Representatives is based on the number of population, therefore its size is not mentioned in the Constitution.

Until 1913 the Senators were not elected directly by the people, but were chosen by state legislatures. The Senators were looked on as representatives of their home states. Their duty was to ensure that their states were treated equally in all legislation. The 17th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1913, provided for direct election of the Senate. To be elected to the Senate a person must be at least 30 years of age, a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and a resident of the state from which he or she is elected. To become a member of the House of Representatives a person must be at least 25, a citizen for seven years, and a resident of the state which he represents.

As has been mentioned above, each state, regardless of population, has two Senators. Thus, there are 100 Senators in the Senate from fifty states. The number of members of the House of Representatives is 435. This number was finally determined by Congress in 1913 and has never changed since that time. While a Senator represents his home state, each member of the House of Representatives represents a district in his home state. The size of a district or a constituency today is 530, 000 persons. Despite the number of population, every state is constitutionally guaranteed at least one member of the House of Representatives. At present, six states — Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming — have only one representative. On the other hand, six states have more than 20 representatives, and California alone has 45.

The Senators are elected for a term of six years, but one third of the Senate is elected every two years. So, two Senators from the same state never finish their terms at the same time. Hence, two-thirds of the Senators are always persons with some legislative experience. Members of the House of Representatives are elected for two years. But in practice most members are reelected several times, and the House, like the Senate, may rely on a group of experienced legislators.

The Congress meets in regular sessions, beginning with January 3, almost all the year round. The President may call a special session when he thinks it necessary. Sessions are held in the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The presiding officer of the House of Representatives is the Speaker, who, as a member of the House, is elected by its members at the start of each Congress. His prestige is rather high; he is second to the Vice President in the line of presidential succession.

By Constitution the presiding officer of the Senate is the Vice President. The Senate chooses a President pro tern-pore to preside when the Vice President is absent. The Speaker and the Presi­dent pro tempore are always members of the political party which has the majority in each House.

At the beginning of each new Congress, members of the political parties select their political leaders in both Houses (the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties). These majority party leaders together with the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Vice President constitute the " Big Four". They maintain close contacts with the President, exercise strong influence over the making of laws and have a direct hand in the consideration of current home and foreign policy.

The legislative work of Congress is done mostly in standing (permanent) committees. Today there are 22 standing committees in the House of Representatives and 16 in the Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both Houses. With the increase in the amount of work, the standing committees have over 300 subcommittees to study specific problems. Each standing committee specializes in certain spheres of lawmaking: foreign affairs, defense, finance, agriculture, commerce and other fields. The committees are headed by influential chairmen. The majority party in each House controls the committee work. Minority parties are proportionally represented in the committees according to their numbers in each House.

The Congress is the supreme legislative organ. The Senate and the House of Representatives have equal constitutional rights. Each House has the power to introduce bills on any subject. Important bills may be suggested by the President or other executive officials. After introduction all bills are sent to certain committees. When a committee is in favor of a bill, it is sent to the Congress for open debate. When the debate is over, members vote to approve the bill or to defeat it.

A bill passed by one House, is sent to the other. After the bill is passed by both Houses, it is sent to the President for his approval. However, the President has the right to veto the bill. The bill vetoed by the President must be re-approved by a two-thirds vote in both Houses to become law, an Act of Congress. The bills, proposed by the White House or the Cabinet, usually pass all stages without any difficulty.

As part of its legislative role, Congress has great investigative power. Members of the government can be called to a Congress committee to account for their administrative work.

The Congress exercises some other important influences on the other two branches of power (executive and judicial). For example, the Senate must approve treaties made with foreign countries by the President before they come into force. Only the Congress has the power to declare war against a foreign nation. The Senate has the power to approve or reject the President's candidates for the Supreme Court, other federal judges, Cabinet ministers (in the USA they are known as Secretaries), ambassadors, etc. The Congress is empowered by the Constitution to remove federal officials for crimes. In such cases an official is first impeached by the House of Representatives, and then tried by the Senate, which finds him guilty or not guilty. If this official (he may be a President) is found guilty he is removed from public office.

3) POLITICAL PARTIES ARE ORGANIZED GROUPS OF PEOPLE who share a set of ideas about how the country should be governed. They work together to have members of their group elected in order to influence the governing of the country. When members of a political party form a majority in Congress, they have great power to decide what kinds of laws will be passed. With few exceptions, presidents tend to appoint members of their party to governmental positions, including those of secretaries (ministers, heads of federal executive departments) within the presidential cabinet.

Political parties are the basis of the American political system. They are in fact important institutions in American democratic life. The Constitution does not mention parties or make any provision for them. The authors of the Constitution feared that parties representing narrow interests rather than the general interests of all the people could take over the government. They hoped the government would be run by qualified people who did not have a second loyalty — a loyalty to a party. They believed their government would work well without parties. Despite this, parties began to form shortly after the Constitution was ratified (1789) and they proved to be effective in the American political system.

At the national level, the United States makes use of a two-party system that has remained practically unchanged throughout the nation's history, even though rival national parties have appeared and disappeared from the political scene. The Federalists, for example, who rallied around President George Washington, disappeared slowly after 1800. And the Whig Party, which arose in the 1830s in opposition to President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, collapsed two decades later.

Today the United States has two major political parties. One is the Democratic Party, whose origins go back to the nation's third president, Thomas Jefferson and which formed before 1800. The other is the Republican Party, which was formed in the 1850s, by people in the states of the North and West, such as Abraham Lincoln, who wanted the government to prevent the expansion of slavery into new states then being admitted to the union.

Party membership in any American party is rarely formal. Members of the Democratic and Republican parties are not registered; they do not have cards and do not pay membership dues. There are no official formalities for admission. Any voter during elections may become a Republican or a Democrat by a simple declaration, that he is a member of this or that party. He takes no responsibilities when he makes that declaration. Associating with a party is strictly and exclusively a matter of individual self-expression.

Americans do not have to join a political party in order to vote or to be a candidate for a public office. However, running for office without the money, which can be provided by a party, is difficult. Many voters become members of a party because they feel strongly about the party aims or want a voice in selecting its candidates. Everyone votes in secret, and no one can know how other votes or force another person to vote for any particular programme or candidates.

One explanation for the long life of the Republican and Democratic parties is that they are not strong ideological organizations, but loose alliances of state and local parties that unite every four years for the presidential election. Both parties compete for the majority of the American voters. These parties have supporters among a wide variety of Americans and embrace a wide range of political viewpoints. Most Americans today consider the Democratic Party the more liberal party. As they understand it the Democrats believe that the federal government and the state governments should be active in providing social and economic programmes for those who need them, such as the poor, the unemployed or students who need money to go to college. The Democrats earned that reputation in the 1930s when there was a worldwide economic depression. During the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt the government under the Democratic Party established the Social Security programme, which ensures that those who are retired or disabled receive monthly payments from the government. Labor unions also received government support.

Republicans are not vividly opposed to such programmes. However, they believe that many social programmes are too costly to the taxpayers and that when taxes are raised to pay for such programmes, everyone is hurt. They place more emphasis on private enterprise and often accuse the Democrats of making the government too expensive. For that reason Americans tend to think of the Republican Party as more conservative.]

There are so many differences in both major parties that not all members of Congress or other elected officials who belong to the same party agree with each other on everything. There are conservative Democrats who tend to agree with many Republican ideas. There are liberal Republicans who often agree with Democratic ideas. Very frequently in Congress, there are both Democrats and Republicans who do not vote the way their party leaders suggest. Sometimes members of Congress cast votes which the people they represent do not favor. They do this as a matter of conscience or because they believe they are acting in the best interests of the nation.

There are other, smaller parties in the United States besides the two major parties. None of these smaller parties has enough popular support to win a presidential election. But some of them are very strong in certain cities and states. They can have their own state or city candidates elected, or can determine which major party wins by supporting one or the other.

At every level of political life including town councils, state governorships, Congress and the presidency, the Republican and Democratic parties struggle for public office. The selection of these officials is a two-stage process, first, to win the party nomination, and second, to defeat the opposing party's candidate in the general election. Persons elected to office exercise the power to make and execute laws as representatives of the people.

4) THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES is head of the executive power, or the Chief Executive, and his office is one of the most powerful in the world. Under the Constitution he must " take care, that the laws be faithfully executed". In addition he has important legislative and judicial powers. The official residence and office of the President is in the White House, Washington, D.C.

Constitutional qualifications for the Presidency are relatively simple: the President must be at least 35 years old, a resident of the country for at least 14 years and a national born citizen.

The President, together with the Vice President, is elected to a four-year term. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, 1951, limited the Presidency to no more that two terms. Franklin D. Roosevelt had been the only President to be elected four times (the first time in 1933).

If a President dies or is unable to carry out his duties, he is succeeded by the Vice President. The Constitution does not delegate any specific executive powers to the Vice President (or to members of the presidential Cabinet or to other federal officials). Except for the right of succession to the Presidency, the Vice-President’s only Constitutional duties are to serve as the presiding officer of the Senate. Next in line of succession to the Presidency come the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate (who presides over the Senate when the Vice President is absent). After them in line of succession to the Presidency, in order of importance, come the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Treasury, the Secretary of Defense and the rest of the Cabinet ministers.

The method of electing President is peculiar to the United States. The presidential election is technically an election of presidential electors, not of a President directly. The people of each state do not vote directly for the President. They elect as many electors as this state has Senators and Representatives in the Congress. These electors are selected exclusively by the corresponding party machines. The candidate with the highest number of votes in each state wins all the electoral votes of the state.

The electors of all 50 states and the District of Columbia (3 electors) -a total of 538 persons — compose what is known as the Electoral College, though it never meets as a body. Instead the electors gather in the state capitals shortly after the election and cast their votes for the candidate with the largest number of popular votes in their respective states. To be elected President, a candidate for the Presidency must receive 270 votes.

The Constitution provides that if no candidate has a majority, the decision should be made by the House of Representatives, with all members from a state voting as a unit. In this case, each state and the District of Columbia would be given one vote only. Candidates for the Presidency are chosen by political parties several months before the presidential election, which is held every four years (every leap year) on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The presidential term of four years begins on January 20 (the next year). He starts his official duties with an inauguration ceremony, traditionally held on the steps of the Capitol, where Congress works. The newly-elected President publicly takes an oath of office, which is traditionally administered by the Chief Justice of the United States. The words of the oath are provided by the Constitution:

" I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States".

As head of the government (the executive branch), the President must carry out the government programmes. He has an important legislative role. He recommends laws to Congress and requests money for federal government operations. He can veto any bill passed by Congress, and his veto may be overruled by a two-thirds vote in both Houses of Congress. The President, as head of a political party and as chief executive officer of the government, has a strong influence on public opinion, on what the course of legislation in Congress very often depends. Within the executive branch, the President has broad powers to issue the so-called executive orders, which have the force of law. He is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States.

The President has the authority to appoint the heads of all executive Departments and agencies, together with hundreds of other high-ranking officials, including judges, from the district court level to the US Supreme Court.

One more important function of the President is that he can grant a full or conditional pardon to anyone accused of breaking a federal law — make shorter prison sentences and reduce fines.

Under the Constitution the President is responsible for foreign relations with other nations. With the Secretary of State, the President manages all official contacts with foreign governments, concludes treaties with other countries. Such treaties must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

Everyday work of the government is carried out by different executive departments (ministries), created by Congress to deal with national and international affairs. The heads (ministers) of these departments, chosen by the President and approved by the Senate, form the Cabinet. Today, these 14 departments are: State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs. Each department has thousands of employees, with offices all over the country as well as in Washington.

In addition to the executive departments, there are over fifty agencies in the Federal Government, the heads of which are directly responsible to the President. Each executive agency has certain duties and responsibilities.

In 1947 the National Security Council was formed, which includes the President, the Vice President, the Secretaries of State and Defense. It is the main centre of planning the American foreign and military policy. The influence of the NSC is so great, that it is often called " the super cabinet".

A constitutional protection against misused executive power is contained in the following provision: " The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for treason, bribery or other high crimes..."

5) THE JUDICIAL POWER OF THE UNITED STATES is the third branch of the Federal Government. It consists of a system of courts spread throughout the country and is headed by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Constitution says: " The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time establish". With this in mind, the first Congress divided the country into districts and created federal courts for each district.

Since that time the following federal court structure has been established in the United States: the Supreme Court, 11 Courts of Appeals and 95 district courts. The Congress has the authority to create and abolish federal courts, as well as to determine the number of judges in the federal judicial system. However, the Congress cannot abolish the Supreme Court.

All the courts are independent. The federal judges are appointed by the President for life, in practice, until they die, retire or resign. They can be removed from office only for misconduct and after trial in the Congress.

Federal courts have judicial power over cases arising out of the Constitution, laws and treaties of the United States, maritime cases, and cases dealing with foreign citizens or governments and cases arising between states. Usually federal courts do not hear cases arising out of the laws of individual states.

In addition to federal courts, each state has its own judicial system, including its own Supreme Court. This means, that the United States has two distinct systems of law, state and federal. As a matter of fact, the country has 51 sets of courts (in fifty states and the District of Columbia). As a result the United States has the most complex judicial system in the world.

The federal and state courts have the power to declare legislative acts unconstitutional that is in violation of the Constitution. By Constitution the courts have the power to hear and decide the two classes of cases — criminal and civil.

THE SUPREME COURT of the United States meets in the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. The figure over the entrance represents the national ideas of law and liberty. Above the main entrance are the words: " Equal Justice Under Law".

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country and the head of the judicial branch of the US Government. It consists of a Chief Justice and eight associate Justiies. The Court meets on the first Monday of October each year and continues its session until June. One of the most important duties of the Supreme Court Justices is to decide whether laws passed by the Congress agree with the Constitution. The Justices do this by interpreting and explaining the laws of Congress and the provisions of the Constitution. If the Supreme Court decides that the Constitution does not give Congress the power to pass a certain law, the Court will declare that law to be unconstitutional. Such a law will never come into force.

Most of the cases heard by the Supreme Court are on appeal from lower federal courts. A few of these cases come directly from federal district courts and from courts of appeals. The great majority of requests for hearing that the Court receives each year are rejected. The number of cases decided at an annual session is about 150.

Decisions of the Court are taken by a simple majority. The legal quorum of Justices, participating in the decision, is six (out of nine).

COURTS OF APPEALS, Immediately below the Supreme Court stand the courts of appeals, created in 1891. They make up the second highest level of the federal judiciary. The United States is divided into 11 separate regions, each of them being served by a court of appeals. Each court has from three to fifteen sitting judges. The courts of appeals were established to hear most of the appeals growing out of district court actions. Only the Supreme Court reviews the decisions of the appeals courts.

DISTRICT COURTS. Below the courts of appeals are the district courts. The 50 States are divided into 89 districts. Additionally, there is one in the District of Columbia and one in Puerto Rico, which is not a state, but part of the United States. Each state has at least one district court. But many states have two, three and even four such courts. The Congress fixes the borders of the districts according to the population, size and volume of work.

Each of the district courts has from one to twenty-seven judges, depending on the volume of cases. Sometimes one judge serves two or more districts. A small state may itself constitute a district. District judges must live in the district, or one of the districts, for which they are appointed. Court is usually held at regular intervals in various cities within each district.

Most cases start in district courts. Cases begun in state courts are occasionally transferred to them. Almost all accused of committing federal crimes are tried in the district courts.

SPECIAL COURTS. The Constitution gives Congress the authority to establish other courts and to increase or decrease their number, as the need may arise. In addition to the federal courts of general jurisdiction, it has been necessary from time to time to set up courts for special purposes. Judges in these courts like in other federal courts are appointed for life terms by the President.

One of the most important of these special courts in the Court of Claims, which was established in 1855. It deals with monetary claims against the Federal Government. Usually claims are for unpaid salary, property taken for public use, contractual obligations, and personal injuries for which the Federal Government is allegedly responsible. The Court of Claims consists of a chief justice and four associate justices.

Another important special court is the Customs Court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over cases, connected with taxes or quotas on imported goods. The Customs Court includes nine members.

6) A basic American principle is separation of church (religion) and state (government). The US Constitution says that people have the right to worship as they choose and that no

religion can be made the official religion. In keeping with this principle, government money cannot be used to support church activities and prayers may not be said in public schools

; (The US Congress, however, opens each year with a Prayer.)

Studies show that about 9 in 10 Americans identify with a religion and that about 6 in 10 belong to a church.

About 94 percent of Americans who identify with a religion are Christians. Among Christians there are more Protestants than Catholics. However, there are many different Protestant denominations, or groups. For example Protestants include, among others, Baptists, Methodists, and Lutherans, and each of these groups is divided into smaller groups. So Catholics, although outnumbered by Protestants, are the single largest religious group.

Jews are the largest non-Christian group, with about 4 percent of the population. About 2 percent of the population is Moslem, and smaller numbers are Buddists and Hindus. Native Americans often preserve their tribal religions.

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