Political Science 320B
Prof. P. Quirk
-- exam date: Oct 22.
-- term paper: working on docs. No preliminary plans due.
-- seating chart
--paper assignment delay
--keep following shutdown
Participation assignment: Is there a solution? What? We will come back to this?
Structures: The Presidency, Congress, Bureaucracy, and
Major features of US Political System
Stressing comparisons to Canada and other Parliamentary Systems. Overview: Here are the main features. How US is different than
•Separation of powers—not Parliamentary system. Legislative,
Executive and Judicial Branches.
•Full bicameralism—House and Senate roughly equal.
•Federalism—states independent, but weaker than the Cdn provinces.
•Two-party system, with same two parties in all regions. (Many areas in
effect one party control.)
•Weaker political parties—Members of Congress independent.
(Boehner defeat on deficit deal.) [No edit needed from last year.]
Separation of Powers
Three branches of federal government
Each is independent (theoretically—not always in practice)
President and Congress are separately elected.
Both have roles in the legislative process
Federal judges are appointed for life.
Doctrine of “checks-and-balances”. Each branch has power to block
action by the other (details later). Supposed to keep other in place.
One problem with separation of powers: It doesn’t take into account
political parties. They can reduce effect of separation, or increase it.
1) With unified control, parties may cause two branches to act like one team rather than act independently.
Congress often did not check the Bush administration, and
Obama administration—esp. in periods of unified control.
Controversy over presidential signing statements. Bush
claimed power to ignore provisions of laws.
2) With divided control, institutions may not cooperate at all.
Congress—the most powerful national legislature of any major country,
Bicameralism: Senate and House of Representatives.
- both play full role in the legislative process.
Organization of each chamber:
100 members, two from each state
elected for staggered six-year terms
Party organization in each party
Majority party presides over Senate Committees for each area of policy—budget, foreign affairs,
military, agriculture, health, homeland security, etc.
House of Representatives (“House”)
435 members, allocated to states by population
elected to two-year terms, all elected at same time.
Structures ( parallel to the Senate)
Dem and Republican Party organization (majority party
Ad hoc committees appointed from both houses to reach agreements
on specific provisions of bills, if they have been passed by House and
Senate in different forms. (Often not used nowadays.)
House versus Senate –significant differences.
House: Majority party controls the agenda. House acts by majority vote.
Therefore, the majority party can rule, if it is unified. (E.g., Republicans
Senate: individual members have the right of unlimited debate. They can
filibuster to block action.
-- unanimous consent agreement.
-- certain measures: budget, conference bills
-- cloture procedure ends filibuster (60 votes to invoke)
Mere majority cannot rule. Must have 60 votes to act. Must negotiate with minority party, gain consent of some members.
elected for a four-year term, with limit of two terms;
vice president, elected together—becomes pres if pres disabled
The Executive Office of the President
White House staff
National Security Council Budget
Other staff agencies
Cabinet departments (same as ministries)
Main powers in the legislative process
Legislation must be passed by majority vote by both houses of Congress
and signed by the president.
The president can veto a bill passed by Congress.
Congress can override the president’s veto:
-- both houses must pass the measure by a two thirds vote. This is
rare. To sustain a veto, the president only needs one third +1 member
from either house. Administrative agencies
Agencies develop regulations to implement laws (much as in any other
The president appoints top leadership of agencies.
But Congress also influences them:
Senate confirms appointments (top levels)
holds hearings on agency performance
can shape the budget, potentially reward or punish
can threaten legislation, change agency’s authority
Actions by agencies can often be appealed to the federal courts.
Basic idea: the 50 states are independent governments, not creations of
the federal government.
-- original Constitution gave most powers to the states. But federal power
has grown through changing interpretation. For example,Federal power to
“regulate interstate commerce” has been defined very broadly.
-- federal government plays a larger role than in Canada
-- for example Medicare and Medicaid; most environmental policy.
-- most areas of domestic policy have shared power, federal and state.
Recent, conservative court has been pulling back federal power. E.g.
ruled that an endangered species of fish, in one small stream, was not in interstate commerce. 5-4 vote, narrowly upheld Obama’s health care
Federal elections occur every two years. Every four years it is a
presidential election. Other years, it is a “midterm” election.
All House members (435), every election.
One third of senate (33 or 34), each election.
President (with vice president), every second election (four years).
Midterm elections (e.g. 2010, 2014) are often viewed informally as
referenda on the presidential administration.
Separate Elections, illustration:
Structure of the ballot: [put checks in the blank spaces]
President and vice president
____ Obama and Biden (Dem)
____ Romney and Ryan (Rep)
____ xxxxxxxxxxx (Dem)
____ xxxxxxxxxxx (Rep)
US House of Representatives
____ xxxxxxxxxxx (Dem)
____ xxxxxxxxxxx (Rep)