"Of the people, by the people, and for the people." That's how Abraham Lincoln described the American government in his Gettysburg Address. These simple phrases capture the essence of American democracy. Instead of ruling over U.S. citizens, the government is ruled by them. Elected officials are known as public servants who represent their constituents. Americans can get involved in government by voting, by writing letters to their representatives and even by organizing peaceful demonstrations to make their voices heard. Each American citizen has a vested interest in how he or she is governed. Former President Theodore Roosevelt expressed the American view of government well: "The government is us."
At first glance, it might seem that the U.S. president, as "leader of the free world," is the "ruler" of America. On Inauguration Day, the swearing in of President Bill Clinton for his second term will reflect the pomp and circumstance of a coronation ceremony, with dignitaries from around the world in attendance. Even as far back as George Washington, who once rejected a suggestion to become "King of America," people have sought to ascribe far-reaching powers to the president. But the Constitution ensures that the president will not become an all-powerful ruler.
The U.S. government, as outlined by the Constitution, is divided into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. The legislative branch passes the laws, the executive enforces the laws and the judicial interprets the laws. The legislative branch is comprised of the two houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Thanks to CNN, C/SPAN and the nightly news, many lawmakers have almost become celebrities in their own right. The executive branch is represented by the president, who is called the chief executive or chief of state. Besides that, as commander in chief of the armed forces, the president carries more than a little clout in world affairs. The judicial branch is made up of the Supreme Court and about 100 other federal courts. The nine Supreme Court justices hold office for life.
In order to prevent any one branch of government from becoming more powerful than the other two, the Constitution has established a system of "checks and balances." For instance, when Congress passes a bill, it must have the signature of the president in order to become law. But even if the president rejects the bill, Congress can override his veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate. The Supreme Court, as final arbiter of the Constitution, can overturn legislative acts or executive orders if it finds them to be unconstitutional. In this way, the powers of government are balanced, or held in check.
In many countries, power rests with a strong centralized government. In contrast, under the American federal system, the national government shares its power with the state governments. The federal government possesses only those powers clearly delineated in the Constitution; all remaining powers are reserved for the states.
The English political theorist Thomas Paine wrote in 1776, "Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one." The American government, like every government, has its share of thorny problems. An increasing number of governmental agencies and government workers has created the problem of bureaucracy, where a mountain of paperwork stifles efficiency. Lobbyists make appeals to Congress on behalf of special interest groups. As a result, those with the biggest lobby--and the most money--tend to have the loudest voice in Washington.
Americans harbor mixed feelings about their own government. They recognize the need for it, but they remain suspicious of it. To some Americans, the government is Big Brother, an oppressive organization which delights in taxing its people and meddling in their affairs. To others, the government is a rich Uncle Sam who provides for the poor and protects his people from bullies at home and abroad. But no matter how they view their government, Americans wouldn't trade it for any other on the face of the earth.
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