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Congress, the President, the Bureaucracy and the Courts

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 6 months ago

Image by Nina Paley

Image by Nina Paley



Focus Question:  What are the institutional arrangements of political and governmental power in the United States?



Topics on the page

Congress (the Legislative Branch)


  • How Should Congress Spend Your Taxes?


  • Citizen Legislatures in the United States


  • Women in American Government


  • African Americans in American Government


  • Hispanic Americans in American Government


The President

  • Can A President Be Indicted for a Crime?
  • The Vice President in American Politics 





Federal Courts







Congress (The Legislative Branch)

  • Bi-cameral
    • Two bodies: the Senate and House of Representatives
  • Create laws
  • Declare war
  • Power to tax
  • Establish and control courts
  • Establish post offices
  • Regulate commerce
  • Create currency
    • For a full list of powers, click here.


Locate Members of Congress at Congress.gov from the Library of Congress


The Power of the Purse


The Federal Power to Spend, from Exploring Constitutional Conflicts


The Power of the Purse, National Archives



There are two types of federal spending:  Mandatory and Discretionary


Mandatory:  Required spending on entitlements and interest on the national debt


Discretionary:  Everything else, including

  • The Military
  • Federal judiciary and law enforcement
  • Infrastructure
  • Education
  • Agriculture
  • Science and technology
  • Environment, wilderness, National Parks
  • Foreign Policy
  • National Weather Service
  • Police the border
  • Explore space
  • Develop energy resources
  • Ensure Safety of foods, drugs, airlines, consumer products, banks


America's Indefensible Defense Budget, Jessica T. Mathews, The New York Review of Books (July 18, 2019), p. 23



Who Sets Fiscal Policy--the President or Congress?  Investopedia (August 19, 2018)


The National Priorities Project


  • Northampton, Massachusetts-based organization dedicated to making the federal budget accessible to citizens 
  • Online tool for seeing how your taxes were spent



For more, link to Revenue and Expenditures for Local, State and Federal Government



 A Day in the Life of US Congressman John Carney from Delaware on YouTube, February 12, 2012.


Click here for a video from PBS about The Congress of the United States of America.


For a fun singing bill becoming a law, click here



 Women in the American Government


    • Article from The Nation pondering why the US still has so few women in government.



African Americans in the American Government

Hispanic Americans in the American Government



Keith Ellison, First Muslim Congressman
Keith Ellison, First Muslim Congressman

Faith on the Hill: The Religious Composition of the 114th Congress from Pew Research Center (January 5, 2015)



Is the legislative branch becoming corrupt? This article from The Hill explores this question.


The Presidency (The Executive Branch)


  • Commander in Chief of the armed forces
  • Veto legislation
  • Grant pardons
  • Appoint people to cabinets and courts
  • Can issue "executive order"
  • Foreign policy
  • For a full list of powers, click here.


Read here about Barack Obama, America's first African American President.


    • In The Undefeated 44 read how Barack Hussein Obama grew into the influential man he is today. 



Read here about John F. Kennedy, America's first Roman Catholic President. 


    • Link to 

PDF of the past female candidates for President and Vice President.


For a timeline of all U.S. presidents, click here


One Observatory Circle, Official Residence of the Vice President

Public Domain




The Vice-President


Vice-President of the United States (President of the Senate)


The Vice President's Residence & Office


Pictures of the nation's 48 Vice Presidents from John Adams to Mike Pence



Fourteen of the former vice presidents became president of the United States—more than half of them after a president had died.

  • One defeated the sitting president with whom he served.
  •  One murdered a man and became a fugitive.
  • One joined the Confederate army and led an invasion of Washington, D.C.
  • One was the wealthiest banker of his era.
  • One received the Nobel Peace Prize
  • One composed a popular melody.
  • One served as a corporal in the Coast Guard while vice president.
  • One had cities in Oregon and Texas named after him. Two resigned from the office.
  • Two were never elected by the people.
  • One was the target of a failed assassination plot.
  • Another was mobbed in his car while on a goodwill mission.
  • Seven died in office—one in his room in the U.S. Capitol and two fatally stricken while on their way to preside over the Senate.
  • And one piano-playing vice president suffered political repercussions from a photograph showing him playing that instrument while a famous movie actress posed seductively on top of it.




Background Information on Indicting a President for a Crime


In 2012, reviewing evidence that was not available at the time of the break-in, reporters Woodward and Bernstein suggested that Nixon did commit crimes for which he could have been tried in a court of law. In 1974, Gerald Ford, the Vice President who became President, ended any opportunity for future criminal prosecution by issuing an “absolute pardon” to Nixon for any crimes he may have committed as President.


The question of Presidential immunity from indictment and prosecution has been a central issue during the Trump Presidency.  In 2019, as part of two cases related to the release of his tax records, lawyers for Donald Trump argued that a President is immune from prosecution while in office. Responding to state grand jury subpoena for Trump’s tax returns, his lawyers said that the Constitution “prohibits investigating, prosecuting or indicting a President while he is in office” (CNN Politics, 2019). The lawyers contend that legal proceedings would prevent a President from performing his constitutional duties by diverting his time from governing to defending himself in court.


The extent or non-existence of Presidential immunity is a subject with different interpretations.  William Consovoy, an attorney in one of the Trump tax return cases, famously said that if the President shot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York City, he could not be arrested and charged with that crime until he was no longer in office. However, in Clinton v. Jones(1997), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a President was not immune from a civil lawsuit based on events that took place prior to becoming President. For more information about that case, explore Clinton v. Jones from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.


U.S. v. Nixon(1974) is a landmark Supreme Court case related to the limits of what information a President can keep secret from the public and the press under the doctrine of “executive privilege.” President Nixon had taped many of his oral office conversations with the Plumbers and others. When asked for the tapes, Nixon refused to deliver them citing executive privilege. Executive privilege is the concept that a President (or other top government officials) has a right to keep information from the public.An issue in this situation was the extent of President Nixon’s executive privilege in regards to information about the Watergate Break-In and the President’s role in devising and carrying out the plans.


In a unanimous decision in United States v. Nixon, the Supreme Court stated that Nixon must hand over the tapes. The decision upheld the longstanding precedent of Marbury v. Madison (1803), which gave the Supreme Court the power of Judicial Review.  The Court asserted that it had the responsibility under the U.S. Constitution to interpret the powers of the President. Nixon disagreed with the decision.


  • Dialog and Debate:  Can the President be Indicted for a Crime? Have students explore reasons for making the case for and against Presidential immunity from prosecution and how this issue relates to the checks and balances between the three branches of the United States government. 






The Bureaucracy


  • Ensures that policies and programs set by Congress are followed
  • Considered part of the Executive Branch
  • Execute laws
  • Government corporations
    • Post Office
    • Amtrak
  • Regulatory commissions and agencies
    • FDA
    • Federal Trade Commission
    • Nuclear Regulatory Commission
  • Click here for more information.


Click here 






Infographic from USA Gov



The Federal Courts


  • Federal courts handle:
    • Constitutionality of laws
    • Laws and treaties
    • Ambassadors and public ministers
    • Disputes between states
    • Admiralty law 
    • Bankruptcy
    • For more information on the federal courts, click here.




Why Does The Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?











African Americans in the Supreme Court

The first African American judge on the Supreme Court was Thurgood Marshall. 


When he was a lawyer for the NAACP, he successfully argued and won Brown v. Board of Education, the case where the Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional.


  • After Marshall retired, his seat was filled by Clarence Thomas, the second black American Supreme Court judge.




Sandra Day O'Connor, First Female Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, 2011 

Women in the Supreme Court


Sonia Sotomayor is the first Spanish Supreme Court judge. Read 8 things you may have not know about her from PBS here.


Sandra Day O'Connor was the first women elected to the Supreme Court and served for 24 years. She was appointed by Ronald Reagan and was the swing vote on many landmark cases as such the case in upholding Roe v. Wade


Link to more about the Supreme Court

This article from the Washington Post takes an interesting look at Supreme Justice limits (it's the only branch without term limits).






external image Stack.pngCitizen Legislatures in the United States


Vermont State House, Montpelier


Vermont State House, Montpelier
Full and Part Time Legislatures organizes the 50 state legislative bodies into five major categories.


  • Green (full-time, well-paid, large staff; average compensation $82,358)
  • Green Lite
  • Gray (hybrid; average compensation $41,100)
  • Gold Lite
  • Gold (part-time, low pay, small staff; average compensation $18449)



Debating the Pros and Cons of a Citizen Legislature, a podcast from Vermont Public Radio (February 6, 2012). Vermont does not have a full-time professional legislature.


For more, see Under the Golden Dome: The Stories Behind Vermont's Citizen Legislature: Program 10.

Some Vermonters Can't Afford to Serve in the Citizen Legislature.

State Legislature Session Length from the University of Vermont compares Vermont's citizen legislature to Maryland's professional one.

Vermont's Legislative Process describes the working of the Vermont legislature.

1. AP Gov Review



President Abraham Lincoln and General George B. McClellan in the general's tent at Antietam, Maryland, October 3, 1862


Lesson Plans & Teaching Strategies 

Click here for a fun, interactive game that educates children on the American government system and the three branches.



The United States Post Office



Delivering the Mail by Dog Sled in Alaska, 1906

Image on Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain



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