Congress (The Legislative Branch)
This unit begins the study of the most important component of American government and politics, the institutions that create government policy. The founders listed the legislative branch first in the Constitution, signifying its primacy in their view of the new government they were creating. Today, Congress has grown, its powers have expanded, and it faces problems never dreamed by the men who met in Philadelphia in 1787. Congress faces criticism from every angle, citizens deride its increasing partisanship and its inability to get anything done, and yet the re-election rates for representatives remain above 90% in most elections. In order to become informed participants in our democracy, you will investigate how Congress is organized and operates, how members decide on voting, and what formal and informal powers Congress has.
The President (Executive Branch)
In the modern political arena, the President shines above everyone else. In fact, most Americans believe the President can do anything he wants, and presidential candidates back up that belief by making promises during the campaign season about what they will do if elected. The reality, of course, is that the President is subject to the system of checks and balances created in the American Constitution. While the powers of the office have expanded over time, especially since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the President is certainly not all powerful.
In this unit, you will examine the qualifications and roles of the President. You will focus very closely on presidential powers, both in the Constitution and in practice, and how those powers have expanded over time. You will also look at the organization of the executive branch of government and specifically the job of the Vice President. You will end with an examination of the line of succession and discover why, during every State of the Union address, one cabinet member is taken to a secret location.
The federal bureaucracy is a difficult thing to effectively describe. It's extremely large and has agencies that deal with almost every facet of our lives. From the roads we travel to the foods we eat, from the parks we visit and the air we breathe, federal regulations and oversight abound. In fact, the bureaucracy is so large and complex that it could take a lifetime to understand all of its inner workings, and I doubt we would want to know everything.
In this unit, you will look at the broad (and I mean really broad) structure of the federal bureaucracy and generally what functions it fulfills in our democracy. You will take a closer look at two specific instances of bureaucratic involvement, one of action and one of inaction. You will also examine the recent trend against outsourcing, or contracting out, many of the functions that fall under the purview of the executive branch and the arguments for and against this trend.
The Courts (Judicial Branch)
As you are well aware, our government is divided into three separate and equal branches, each of which has the ability to check the power of the other branches. In this unit, we will investigate the final branch of government in this course: the federal court system.
Courts are designed to interpret laws and resolve disputes. They must determine what the wording of the law means and how it applies to very specific, real-life situations. This can be difficult, because life has a way of not falling into nice, easy to define categories. So the courts are in place to be the final word on what the wording of laws mean and whether or not they violate the Constitution.
The most visible component of the system is the Supreme Court. It sits at the top of the court system and has the final say in Constitutional matters. We will spend most of our time looking at the way the Supreme Court hears cases and how the judicial appointment process works. We will also look at the question of whether justices should follow the original intent of the framers of the Constitution (as best as they can figure it out) or whether they should interpret the Constitution taking into account the situation of 21st-century America.
How important is the judicial branch in the policymaking process? Well, judge for yourself.