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The Constitution The government of the USA is based on the US Constitution . The Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Each state has its own government but the there is one Federal Government for all. The Constitution describes what the Federal Government is allowed to do. Any powers not specified in the Constitution are reserved for the states or the people. The Federal Government is in charge of settling any disputes between states. It is also in charge of the army and foreign affairs as well as issuing currency and running a postal service. By having these provided by one central government US citizens reduce the amount of tax they have to pay. To prevent any person or group from becoming too powerful, the separation of powers and a series of checks and balances were built into the Constitution.
The separation of powers A government must be able to do three things if it is to govern. It must be able to make laws, implement laws and judge according to these laws. These are the legislative function, the executive function and the judicial function. If all three functions are concentrated in too few hands, the government might become a dictatorship. The US Constitution tries to keep these three functions under separate control – the separation of powers . The Constitution gives Congress the power to make laws for the USA. For a Bill to become a law it must be passed by a majority in both the House of Senate and the House of Representatives. The Constitution gives the President the executive function , the power to carry out the laws of the United States. The President appoints Secretaries of State to help him and each Secretary of State is in charge of a Department of State which employs thousands of people to do the day-to-day work. Collectively these Secretaries of State and the President make up the Cabinet which meets regularly to decide what the government needs to do to run the USA. The US Constitution created a Supreme Court to provide the judicial function for the USA. Nine Supreme Court Justices (judges) who decide what the laws of the United States actually mean and how they should be applied in the US courts.
Checks and balances To reinforce the separation of powers, the US Constitution included a series of checks and balances . These try to ensure that no small group can gain too much power. The US Constitution says that all power is reserved for the people or the states. The Federal Government can only do those things the Constitution allows it to do. So the power of the Federal Government is balanced against the rights and powers of the states individually and the people. If the Federal Government wants to increase the power it has, it must change the Constitution. To change the Constitution needs two-thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, and the President, to agree. Three-quarters of the state assemblies have to agree to the change as well. As a result, changes to the Constitution have been very rare indeed.
Congress and President The President is the most powerful person in the USA. This power is held in check by both the Congress and the Supreme Court. If they do not like what the President intends to do, they have the power to prevent him. Presidents can propose changes in law, but Congress must pass them before they become Law. The President himself cannot introduce bills into Congress – he has to find friendly members in both houses to do it for him. Congress can pass new laws, but the President has to sign them. If he uses his veto it is difficult for Congress to override it because two-thirds of both Houses would have to agree.
The Supreme Court Balancing the power of both the President and the Congress is the Supreme Court. Any law passed by the Congress and signed by the President can be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The nine judges review the law in relation to what they think the Constitution intended and if a majority (five) decide the law is not allowed by the letter or the spirit of the Constitution then it is declared unconstitutional and cannot be applied in the courts anywhere in the USA.
Elections Another balance written into the Constitution is the system of election. The President is elected for a four-year term and can only remain President for two terms. Members of the House of Representatives are elected to serve for two years, and Senators are elected for six years with one-third of the Senate being re-elected every two years. A strong President can only remain in office for eight years, during which time a new House of Representatives is re-elected every two years, as is one-third of the Senate. If American voters do not like what the President is doing, within two years they can elect representatives to check his power. No individual can remain President for life and gather more and more power.