5 Things to Know About Politics (For Someone Who Doesn’t Know Anything about Politics)

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”
-Plato
This is for all of you out there who want to understand the complex processes of American Politics, but did not want to major in it during college.
1)      The Basics
–          Separation of Powers: The legislative branch – the Congress – is comprised of two houses (a “bicameral” body): the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both the House and Senate must approve new laws. While the legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch oversees the enforcement of all federal laws, and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) interprets the laws and ensures that they are constitutional.
–          535 Voting members of Congress (435 in the House and in 100 the Senate)
–          6 non-voting members of Congress (represent US territories such as Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, etc.)
–          Need 2/3 majority to overturn a presidential veto in the House and Senate
–          Term Length: Senate (6 Years), Congress (2 Years), President (4 Years, maximum of 2 terms), Supreme Court (Life)
–          Checks and Balances: Since the functions of the branches of government overlap in some areas, each branch has the latitude to limit or “check” the power of the other branches. For example:
o   Congress – the legislative branch – has the power to pass laws, but the president – the executive branch – has the power to veto them.
o   The president has the power to nominate Supreme Court justices, but they must be approved by the Senate.
o   The Supreme Court – the judicial branch – has the power to nullify laws passed by Congress – the legislative branch – by declaring them unconstitutional.
o   Congress has the power to impeach federal officials, including the president, vice president and federal judges
–          The president lives with his family at The White House (renamed from the Executive Mansion by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901) and his favorite movie is The Godfather: Part II.
2)      The Debt Ceiling
   Two summers ago, the United State government came to a screeching halt because of the debt ceiling negotiations. The fiscal cliff battle in congress was caused because of the compromise reached for the debt ceiling. And again, just a day or two ago, Congress authorized the debt ceiling to be raised. So what does this have to do with you and why is it so important? In the United States, the federal government can pay for expenditures only if Congress has approved the expenditure in an appropriation bill. If the proposed expenditure exceeds the revenues that have been collected, there is a deficit or shortfall, which can only be financed by the government, through the Department of the Treasury, borrowing the shortfall amount by the issue of debt instruments. Under federal law, the amount that the government can borrow is limited by the debt ceiling, which can only be increased with a separate vote by Congress.Prior to 1917, Congress directly authorized the amount of each borrowing. In 1917, in order to provide more flexibility to finance the US involvement in World War I, Congress instituted the concept of a “debt ceiling.”Since then, the Treasury may borrow any amount needed as long as it keeps the total at or below the authorized ceiling. Some small special classes of debt are not included in this total. To change the debt ceiling, Congress must enact specific legislation, and the President must sign it into law.I found the best explanation came from the hit NBC show “The West Wing” (which is the case with pretty much everything needing an explanation revolving around American politics):http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5igKuNF1rI
3)      Understanding Middle East-US Relations
–          To understand the constant conflict between the United States and the Middle East, you must understand the hostility of the region. For the United States, we have done a subpar job over the past decades of trying to understanding how politics work in the Middle East and how history can affect the future in that region.Political efficacy is one key to understanding Middle Eastern politics because it is the driving force behind almost all of the political developments of the past 100 years within the region. Political efficacy has been the lynchpin, so to speak, behind the rise and fall of political structures throughout the Middle East. Previously, under the control of foreign powers, whether it was by the Ottoman Empire or European powers, a minority of people governed the majority (the top one percent governed the ninety-nine). But today, because of the increase in political awareness and efficacy over the last 100 years, it is much harder for governments to control their populations in an authoritarian fashion (minority governing the majority). Before, they had to overthrow a minority, but now they have a whole country. Outside powers or established rulers were able to rule their countries with relative easy for so long with an authoritative hand and have no repercussions because the levels of political efficacy were too low to provoke a response from the people. As the level of political efficacy in the population increases, it is harder for the minority based political structure to control the population. Take Iran for example with the fall of the Shah in the late 1970s. Political efficacy, during the 19th century, had been very low, allowing the political elite to govern with relative ease. But, as the political efficacy level within Iran increased throughout the 20th century, the Shah’s ability to control the population became less and less. Some factors that have helped to increase political efficacy has been the presence of an unpopular outside power or outside influence. Take Iran as an example again; the Shah was seen as a political puppet of the United States, ultimately delegitimizing him. As the Shah’s rule became more authoritative, the political efficacy finally caused the Shah’s overthrow in 1979. Also, there was the introduction of the internet within these countries. Before, these nations were very poor and barely had food let alone a laptop and internet connection. Now with the expansion of the internet and social media, more and more people are feeling encouraged to participate in the political process whether that is through voting or through speaking about their political beliefs openly.
4)      Why Isn’t Tax Reform a “No Brainer” To Help The Economy?
 With bipartisan tensions high in Washington D.C. over the best approach to help jumpstart the economy, the likelihood of Congress and the president working together to pass some kind of tax reform is low. Still, there should be no cause for alarm. Historically, tax reform has been a difficult policy to pass in the United States. Since the beginning of the 20th century, only three major tax reforms have taken place to cut personal marginal tax rates and change economic incentives: the Harding-Coolidge Reform in the early 1920s under then Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, the Kennedy-Johnson Reform in the mid-1960s, and the Reagan Reform during the mid-1980s. But when those reforms were eventually passed, periods of strong economic growth with significant increases in GDPfollowed. The 1920s reform was sparked by fear of a severe post-war recession following a steep decline in trade and production after World War I. In the eight years following the 1920s reform, the American economy grew by more than five percentage points per year, resulting in rapid industrial expansion and job growth within the United States. This set the groundwork for the United State to become the 20th century’s dominant global economic force. The Kennedy-Johnson reform in the 1960s contributed to economic growth of almost five percentage points per year, which helped to further the United States’ global economic supremacy in the postwar period. The Reagan tax reform in the early 1980swas driven by an economic lull that began during the Ford administration. In the seven years after these cuts, the economy grew by almost four percentage points per year while federal revenues rose by 26 percent. The measures taken by President Reagan to lower the marginal tax rate on personal income eventually paved the way for the economic boom of the 1990s under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.In 1994, President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers summarized the Reagan tax reform’s economic benefits, writing that it was “undeniable that the sharp reduction in taxes in the early 1980s was a strong impetus to the economic growth and expansion of that decade.”
5)      Presidential Power and the Constitution
 When it comes to the constitution and the power of the executive, the general rule of thumb is the vaguer the description, the more power for the President. The United States Constitution is littered with vague references, if any references at all, on the limits placed on the power of the president. After the collapse of the Articles of Confederation in 1789 and the rise of Shays’ Rebellion, it was evident that the main cause of the collapse was the lack of executive powers (which had been all but forbidden in fear of the rise of another tyrannical monarch).So, in the new Constitution written in 1789, the outline of the executive branch was the least descriptive in comparison to the legislative and judicial branches. So what does that have to do with us today? Executive orders seem almost common place today. We hear about them in the news, but what exactly are they? United States presidents’ issue executive orders to help officers and agencies of the executive branch manage the operations within the federal government itself. Executive orders have the full force of law, since issuances are typically made in pursuance of certain Acts of Congress, some of which specifically delegate to the President some degree of discretionary power, or are believed to take authority from a power granted directly to the Executive by the Constitution. However, these perceived justifications cited by Presidents when authoring Executive Orders have come under criticism for exceeding executive authority; at various times throughout U.S. history, challenges to the legal validity or justification for an order have resulted in legal proceedings. President Abraham Lincoln directed the Civil War almost entirely by executive orders, with his most famous being the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in conquered US territory in the South. Recently, with the Wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Presidents’ Obama and Bush have come under fire for the use of executive orders to subvert the legislature. With President Bush, both wars overseas were not declared as wars officially since all declarations of war need to go through Congress, but were instead declared as interventions through executive orders. With President Obama, the recent push for greater gun restrictions after fatal shootings at schools was countered with 23 new executive orders restricting gun ownership since Congressional action seemed almost impossible. And don’t look for this trend by Presidents’ to end anytime soon. The 21st century president seems more and more restrained by Congress, and as a result executive orders are being used to conduct actions that would normally take years to go through the House and the Senate.

-TJ Lonergan

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