Large-Scale State

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The Executive [The President]

The President heads the executive branch. He is elected every 4 years through a complex voting system. Technically speaking, the electorate does not vote directly for the President. There is both a popular vote and Electoral College cast all their votes for the candidate who has won a majority in the popular vote in the state.
The President is charged with carrying out the laws; he cannot actually make them himself. Traditionally he would ask Congress to draft legislation he favoured and would very rarely draft laws himself. President Franklin D Roosevelt broke with this tradition during the New Deal years of the 1930s and increasingly produced his own legislation for Congressional approval. The President has always appointed a Cabinet to help him govern, but the number of Presidential staff grew significantly during the New Deal years as the executive branch took a far more proactive role in the running of the country.

The Legislature [The law-making body]

Congress is the legislature in the USA. It has the job of framing the laws. It is divided into two houses:

  • House of Representatives: this is composed of congressmen directly elected and representing the people of the USA. In particular it has the task of raising revenue.

  • Senate: this was composed of 96 senators during the 1920s-1930s, two from each state. The Senate has the power to ratify or reject presidential appointments and may if necessary impeach (prosecute) the President or any of his Officers.

Both houses need to agree before a law is passed.

The Judiciary

At the head of the judiciary is the Supreme Court, made up of nine senior judges appointed by the President. Their job is to ensure laws are actually legal and follow the principles of the Constitution. Below the Supreme Court there is a network of federal courts in each state spread throughout the country.



Political Parties

The two main parties are the Democrats and the Republicans. Candidates for President are nominated by each of these two parties and then the American people elect the candidate of their choice.


Congress makes the laws, declares war and checks the work of the President. It is made up of two houses – the Senate and the House of Representatives. The American people elect the Senators and Congressmen, who may be Republican or Democrats. Both houses of Congress need to agree before a law can be carried out. Congress can eventually pass laws even if the President is against them.

The President

The President is elected every four years. If the President resigns or dies, his Vice-President takes over. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and is on charge of American foreign policy. He asks the Congress to raise money and make laws. He can delay the introduction of laws he dislikes.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court approves the laws and decides whether the laws suggested by the President fit in with the Constitution. The President appoints the judges of the Supreme Court. These judges do not belong to a political party.

Source B: The USA, 1919-1941, Peter Mantin, Hodder, 1997, p2

The Constitution of the USA

The Constitution defines the activities of government and the rights of the people. It is a federal constitution because the original 13 colonies wished to federate or join together for certain purposes of Government e.g. defence, but to remain separate for other purposes, e.g. education. The constitution therefore divides the legislative, executive and judicial powers of Government between the Federal Government in Washington and the states. This means that the US citizen is subject to two sets of laws – federal and state law.

Federal Government

President Congress

Supreme Court

State Government

The Federal Government has powers such as these throughout the USA.

The State Government has powers such as these within its own boundaries.

  1. To provide for the nation’s defence

  2. To collect taxes and borrow money

  3. To control trade between states and between the USA and other countries

  4. To control foreign policy

  5. To provide for the nation’s ‘general welfare’

  1. To keep law and order

  2. To protect public health

  3. To provide educational facilities

  4. To control living and working conditions

  5. To help those in need

NB In the twentieth century the powers of the Federal and State Governments have overlapped increasingly as the Federal Government has begun to take action on matters that were previously left entirely to the State Governments.

Source C: Roosevelt and the United States, D B O’Callaghan, Longmans, 1966, p19

The constitution was originally written by the ‘Founding Fathers’, the men who created the United States in the late 18th century. It clearly sets out the different roles of the different branches of Government in addition to defining the responsibilities of state Governments and outlining individual rights. It was designed to set up a series of ‘checks and balances’ so no one branch of Government could become too powerful. When the majority in either or both Houses of Congress is of a different political party to the President, he can find it very difficult to govern effectively. He may have to administer laws he disagrees with; often he cannot get Congress to pass laws he wants. The President does have the power to veto – ‘say no to’ – laws he disagrees with, but if both houses agree by a two-thirds majority, they can override his veto. The Supreme Court too can smother the legislative programme of the administration by declaring laws unconstitutional.

Political Parties

The main political parties in the USA over the course of the c.20th were the Republicans and the Democrats. To simplify:

  • 1920s-Republicans tended to favour wealth, businesses and a reduced Government role. The republicans carried rural areas and small towns, except in the South where they were seen as the party who freed the slaves.

  • Democrats tended to have a wider base of support and adopted a more liberal line on issues. They tended to be supported by liberals, minority ethnic groups, and the less well off and urban dwellers. During Roosevelt’s period in office there was a significant realignment in political affiliation, with blacks in particular turning to his party, the Democrats.

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