As August marches on, and things in Washington, D.C. are relatively quiet (Congress is on vacation), this seemed like a good time to address some of the basics of how our political systems work.
Our government is composed of three separate branches. There is the executive branch (of which the President is the head), the legislative (the U.S. Congress), and the judicial (the courts). The legislative branch is made up of two houses, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Each of the fifty states gets to elect two members to the Senate. The number of representatives elected to the House is based on a state’s population, with each state being guaranteed at least one. Judges in the Federal courts are appointed by the executive branch and are confirmed by the legislative branch.
The American system was designed so that all the branches of the government are equal. Yet, in our media and public discourse, this has been lost. It is natural to understand the inclination to focus on the President of the United States as the focal point of American politics, as the President is only one person, making coverage easier. There are one hundred members of the Senate, and four hundred and thirty-five members of the House of Representatives. Additionally, there are many levels of Federal Courts, making the president easily the most recognizable and covered figure in politics.
However, just because the President is the most talked about does not mean that the American Presidency is above the two other branches of government. Americans often misunderstand the relationship between the three branches, leading to pieces like the New York Times’ “If I Were President” which appeared over the weekend. As others have pointed out before me, articles like “If I Were President” demonstrate the public’s misunderstanding of the nature of having “co-equal” parts of government. Understanding this underlying principle of our government helps to shine a light onto what previously may have seemed like unbelievable positions. One may ask “Why doesn’t the president do this or that,” but understanding what the president does and does not actually have the power to control really can help to make confusing news stories more understandable.
When our nation was founded, devising a way to ensure a weak executive was a high priority for the founding fathers. Preventing a tyrannical king, like the one from whom they were declaring their nation’s independence, was in a sense the entire point of the Constitution. While the presidency has many tools and powers, it is important to realize that there are many more that it does not have, and that the office itself was designed that way from the very beginning.