GED Social Studies Practice Test: Structure And Design Of United States Government
The United States Government is generally broken up into three parts: (1) Federal, (2) State, and (3) Local.
- Federal: The federal government is the central government located in the U.S. Capital, Washington, D.C. It oversees the entire country to a certain extent. It has the power to do things such as make treaties with other countries, regulate currency (the dollar), create federal laws, etc. It’s powers, however, are limited as the state governments have powers of their own. Overall, the powers granted to each level of government are dictated by the U.S. Constitution.
- State: The United States is currently made up of fifty states, excluding territories. Each state has its own government and laws. For instance, the state of Florida has its own governor who serves as executive or leader of that state. Florida also passes it’s own laws, just as long as they don’t conflict with federal laws. That is, some state laws can be more strict than federal laws as they’re still meeting the minimum requirements of federal laws. However, state laws generally cannot be more lenient than federal laws as the federal laws would be violated at that point. Sometimes, however, conflicting state and federal laws can be a matter of debate, especially if both sides feel as though their law making powers take precedence over the other. After all, this exact principle contributed to causing the American Civil War as state governments felt that the federal government did not have the authority to end slavery within each particular state.
- Local: Lastly, there are local governments that control towns and cities within each state. Like a president at the federal level, and a governor at the state level, a city at the local level has a mayor. Cities can also make their own laws, just as long as those laws do not interfere with federal or state laws.
The Federal Government
The federal government is broken down into three branches: (1) Executive, (2) Legislative, and (3) Judicial.
The executive branch is the president. Currently, in 2016, President Obama is the executive of the United States. He is the single leader that Americans look to for unity and direction. Within the executive branch, the president also has many departments he controls. These include the Department of Defense, the Treasury Department, the Department of Transportation, etc.
Due to the president only being one person, he/she could not possibly have enough time and energy to tend to the needs of the many citizens throughout the United States, which is a very large country with over three hundred million people. For instance, the president would not be able to effectively manage the needs and wants of citizens living in Alabama, while trying to simultaneously respond to the needs of citizens living in Nebraska, not to mention the needs of citizens living in the other forty-eight states. Simply put, the president would be too out of touch with the citizens.
How to solve the problem?
When creating the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers wanted citizens from every corner of the United States to have a voice in the federal government when important decisions were being made in Washington, D.C. Now it wouldn’t be possible for millions of Americans to go to Washington, D.C. every time a decision had to be made, so instead they send people on their behalf. Americans send people to the federal capital to represent them. These representatives make up the Legislative Branch of the federal government. They even have their own offices and staff while there in the capital. The Legislative Branch is also known as Congress and they meet at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Congress is also broken up into two separate parts: (1) the Senate, and (2) the House of Representatives.
The Senate is made up of two representatives from each state. They are called senators. In multiplying the number states (fifty) by the number of senators from each state (two), the total number of senators is one hundred. The priority of each senator in making laws at the Capitol Building is to do what’s in the best interest of the citizens of their state. For example, if a new federal law was proposed to place a new tax on tourists who travel outside of their home state to visit other areas of the country, then the result would be less people wanting to travel to other states. Simply put, it would cost Americans more money to travel, thus serving as a hinderance to their desire to visit other places. In looking at the bigger picture, the tourist industry would stand to lose revenue.
In discussing whether or not they should actually make this tax a new law, the two senators from North Dakota may not care either way because the economy of their state does not depend on tourism. The two senators from Florida, however, would be overwhelmingly opposed to the law as tourism plays a very large role in the economy of Florida. Every year millions of Americans and people from around the world flock to Florida to vacation, enjoying the warm sun and fancy beaches. If a law like this would be passed, there’s a good chance that those two Florida senators would not be reelected by the citizens of the state. Florida’s citizens would be very upset that their elected senators in congress did not protect the tourist industry.
50 States X 2 Senators Each = 100 Senators
The House of Representatives
The main problem with only having two senators from each state is basically that there’re only two of them. Even at the state level, only two people couldn’t possibly come to know millions of their citizens and effectively representative them at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Remember, these politicians are supposed to represent the citizens who vote them into office. In response to this, the citizens of each state elect even more people to represent them at the Capitol Building. These representatives are called the House of Representatives. They’re known as congressmen or congresswomen and they come from all over each state throughout the country. In total, there are currently 435 members. Rather than each state getting equal representation, like in the senate, the House of Representatives is based on population. Larger states send more representative to the house, while smaller states send less.
The Judicial Branch
The Judicial Branch is the federal court system. They hear cases involving federal laws and those relating to constitutional violations. Part of this branch is the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States. Currently there are nine justices (judges) on the Supreme Court.
Separation of Powers
After the American colonies rebelled and won independence from England, they never wanted to be ruled by a king again, A king, like a president, is the executive of a country. The founding fathers felt that king’s had too much power and didn’t act in the best interest of the people. Therefore, in making the United States Constitution, the founding fathers deliberately made it so that the executive (president) did not have too much power. Instead, the president would have to share their power with two other branches of the federal government: the Legislative and Judicial. This is known as the “separation of powers.”
|Executive (President)||Legislative (Congress)||Judicial (Courts)|
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Checks and Balances
Each branch of the federal government has different powers and abilities. This was done on purpose so that no one branch could become too powerful. The founding fathers clearly feared tyrant kings and dictators. Directly linked to the separation of powers is something known as Checks and Balances within government. The different branches are meant to put each other in check when one gets out of line, thus keeping a balance of power. It’s almost like a safety mechanism built into the government.
Example of Checks and Balances
For example, let’s assume that congress (Legislative Branch) wants to pass a law that the president does not like. The president can check the power of congress by using something called a veto. This gives the president the power to stop laws passed by congress. To check means to stop the actions of the opposing side. In this case the president showed that he/she has more power. However, Congress can then check the president’s veto if they can get even more congressional members to vote in favor of the law. In this scenario, there is clearly a balance of power as both sides can check the actions of the other. Furthermore, the Judicial Branch can check both sides by claiming that the law does not follow the U.S. Constitution. Any law that does not follow the U.S. Constitution must be terminated.
In the scenario just presented it could clearly be seen that passing a law can be a complicated process if all branches of government do not agree. This could make the law making process very long and frustrating. In the end, the law may never get passed. This process, however, is what makes the United States government stable. It prevents any one interest or branch of government from gaining too much control over the laws of the United States.
Federalism is a type of government in which the central government (federal government) and the states share power in running the whole country. The United States government has federalism built into it. State governments have their own powers as outlined by the U.S. Constitution. There are certain powers that only the states have, such as running education within their state. However, there are also certain powers reserved only for the federal government such as making treaties with foreign nations. Think of it as running a household. In many cases, both parents have a say in the rules of the household. They share responsibility for the house. In the United States government, one parent would be the central/federal government while the other parent would be the states.
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Directions: The following reflection questions are intended to reinforce the information within the section and develop critical thinking skills. Practice writing the answer on a sheet of paper.
Which branch of the federal government do you believe has the most power and why? Explain your answer.
Choose one branch:
Although the system of checks and balances was designed to distribute power among all three branches, overall I believe that the Legislative Branch has the most power. In this, I believe that most of their power rests in their ability to make laws. With this ability they can direct the United States in almost any direction they wish, within reasons of course. Although the president can veto their laws, they can override his/her veto by getting enough votes amongst themselves, thus passing the law anyway. They can even kick the president out of office. An example of this took place during the Reconstruction Period after the American Civil War. President Johnson refused to work with a dominating congress and would veto many of their laws. In retaliation, congress impeached the president on an very minor offense and were going to kick him out of office unless he complied with the laws they wanted to create. Johnson complied and was able to remain in office. The only branch congress would have a really difficult time getting around is the judiciary. In order to keep the judiciary at bay, congress would just have to make sure that their laws do not violate the U.S. Constitution as the Supreme Court can deem them unconstitutional.
Do you believe that the system checks and balances could ever break down? Explain your answer.
Like anything else, yes I believe that checks and balance could break down under certain circumstances. However, I do not believe that it would be a breakdown that couldn’t recover and return to a normal state. For example, during times of war the President of the United States sometimes gains and uses more power than the constitution allows him/her. Congress and the Judiciary branches may allow this because the country may be in a state of emergency and they need the president to play an ever more leading role. This was the case during World War I when President Wilson violated the 2nd Amendment of the Bill of Rights by not allowing Americans to speak out against the war. The law was called the Sedition Act and violators could be fined or arrested for the offense. Wilson, however, should have been “checked” by the Judicial Branch as the Sedition Act violated the 2nd Amendment. After the war was over, the other two branches began to regain their powers and the system of checks and balances became stable again. If President Wilson had been unwilling to relinquish those unauthorized powers when the war was over, the Legislative and Judicial branches could have limited almost all of his powers or even kicked him out of office. Therefore, while it’s possible for the system of checks and balances to break down for a period of time, I do not believe that the breakdown would remain.