Part I: the ap united states government course examination

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Congress is criticized for many things, but these practices are particularly controversial:


By the 1870s members of Congress were using the term pork to refer to benefits for their districts, and bills that give those benefits to constituents in hope of gaining their votes were called pork barrel legislation. The term comes from the pre-Civil War days when it was the custom in the South to take salt pork from barrels and distribute it among the slaves, who would often rush on the barrels. Critics point out that such actions do not insure that federal money goes to the places where it is most needed, but to districts whose representatives are most aggressive or most in need of votes. A particularly controversial example was the mammoth 2005 Consolidated Appropriations Act, which funded about 11,000 projects, from building a Civil War Theme Park, renovating and building museums and health care facilities, constructing several different halls of fame, and funding community swimming pools and parking garages. The act was criticized largely because so much of the money went to constituencies well represented on the Appropriations Committees in Congress.

Logrolling occurs when a member of Congress supports another member's pet project in return for support for his or her own project. The term comes from pioneer days when neighbors would get together to roll logs from recently cleared property to make way for building houses. This "cooperation" occurs in Congress in the form of "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." As with pork barrel legislation, bills may be passed for frivolous reasons.


The Constitution imposes no limits on the number of terms members of Congress can serve. Just as an amendment was passed during the 1950s to limit the term numbers of presidents, many argue that terms of members of Congress should be limited as well.

With the growing prevalence of incumbency, supporters of term limits believe that popular control of Congress has weakened and that members may become dictatorial or unresponsive to their constituents. Others believe that the most experienced members would be forced to leave when their terms expire, leaving Congress without their expertise. The seniority system and methods of selected party leaders would be seriously altered with questionable results. The demand for term limits increased during the 1990s under House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s leadership, but Congress did not vote to impose them.


Particularly in this age where gridlock often slows the legislative process, many people criticize Congress for inefficiency. Some believe that the long process that bills must go through in order to become laws does not work well in modern America. However, the process affirms the Constitutional design put in place by the founders. Their vision was that only well-reasoned bills become law and that many voices should contribute to the process. From that viewpoint, then, the nature of democratic discourse does not insure a smoothly running, efficient Congress, but rather one that resolves differences through discussion, argument, and the eventual shaping of legislation






Christmas-tree bill

closed rules, open rules


Committee of the Whole

conference committees

Easley v. Cromartie

elastic clause


germane amendments



joint committees


majority leader of the House

majority leader of the Senate


marking up

minority leader of the House

minority leader of the Senate

minority/majority districting


party whips


pork barrel legislation

president pro tempore

resolutions: simple, concurrent, joint

revenue bills

select committees

seniority system

Speaker of the House

standing committees

term limits

votes: teller, voice, division, roll call, electronic




When the founders created the three branches of the government, they disagreed about the amount of power to be vested in the executive. Many feared more than anything a strong president whose powers could be compared to those of the king of England. Others believed, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, that "energy in the executive is a leading characteristic of good government." As the modern presidency has evolved, Hamilton's point of view seems to prevail today, as the president is the single most powerful individual in the American political system. Although the checks and balances set in motion in 1787 still operate, the presidency described in the Constitution is much different from the one that we have today.


Constitutional provisions limited the early presidency, although the personalities of the first three presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson shaped it into an influential position by the early 1800s. However, all through the 1800s up until the 1930s, Congress was the dominant branch of the national government. Then, in the past seventy years or so, the balance of power has shifted dramatically, so that the executive branch currently has at least equal power to the legislative branch. How did this shift happen? 


Article II of the Constitution defines the qualifications, powers, and duties of the president and carefully notes some important checks of the executive branch by the legislature.


  • The president must be a "natural-born citizen." Only individuals born as citizens may seek the presidency; all others are excluded from consideration. This provision has become controversial in recent years, with a movement backing California Governor Arnold Schwartznegger, a naturalized citizen, for president. Recent Secretaries of State Madeline Albright and Henry Kissinger were also unqualified for the presidency under this constitutional provision.

  • The president must have lived in the United States for at least 14 years before his election, although the years don't have to be consecutive.

  • The president must be at least 35 years old (in contrast to a minimum age of 30 for a senator and 25 for a representative). This provision has never been seriously challenged, since presidents tend to be considerably older than 35. The youngest presidents were Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, who both took office at the age of 43.

Powers and Duties

The Constitutional powers and duties of the president are very limited. Those specifically granted are as follows:

According to Article II, Section One, the president holds "the executive power" of the United States. The "executive" was meant to "execute", or administer the decisions made by the legislature. This phrase at least implies an executive check on the legislature, and in fact, has been the source of presidential power over the years.

        Military power - The president is commander in chief of the armed services. The intention of the founders was to keep control of the military in the hands of a civilian, avoiding a military tyranny. In Madison's words (Federalist No. 51), "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." As commander in chief, the president has probably exercised more authority than in any other role. Although Congress has the sole power to declare war, the president can send the armed forces into a country in situations that are the equivalent of war. Congress has not officially declared war since December 8, 1941 (one day after the attack on Pearl Harbor), yet the Country has fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East. Congress attempted to control such military activities when it passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973, requiring the president to consult with Congress when activating military troops. The president must report to Congress within forty-eight hours of deploying troops, and unless Congress approves the use of troops within sixty days or extends the sixty-day time limit, the forces must be withdrawn. Even so, the president’s powers as commander in chief are more extensive today than they have ever been before.

  • Diplomatic power -The president makes treaties with foreign nations, but only with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. Two-thirds of the Senate must approve a treaty; a president's signature is not enough to make it binding. This provision is a check of the executive by the legislature. However, presidents have gotten around this provision by using executive agreements made between the president and other heads of state. Such agreements do not require Senate approval, although Congress may withhold funding to implement them. Whereas treaties are binding on future presidents, executive agreements are not. The Constitution also gives the president the power of diplomatic recognition, or the power to recognize foreign governments. When twentieth century presidents have withheld this recognition, it has often served as a powerful comment on the legitimacy of governments. For example, the U.S. did not recognize the U.S.S.R. government created in 1917 until the 1930s, nor did the president recognize the People’s Republic of China (created in 1949) until the early 1970s.

  • Appointment power - The president appoints ambassadors, other public officers, and judges of the Supreme Court, but again, only with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. Two-thirds must confirm the appointments. The president may appoint many lower positions without Senate approval, but those positions are created and defined by Congress. The appointment power is generally limited to cabinet and subcabinet jobs, federal judgeships, agency heads, and about two thousand less jobs. Most government positions are filled by civil service employees, who compete for jobs through a merit system, so presidents have little say over them. Presidents generally have the power to remove executives from power, with a 1926 Supreme Court decision affirming the president’s ability to fire those executive-branch officials whom he appointed with Senate approval. Judges may be removed only through the impeachment process, so presidents have little power over them once they have been appointed.

  • Veto power - A president can veto a legislative bill by returning it, along with a veto message or explanation, within ten days to the house in which it originated. Congress in turn may override the veto by a two-thirds vote. The president may also exercise the pocket veto. If the president does not sign the bill within ten days and Congress has adjourned within that time, the bill will not become law. Of course, the pocket veto can only be used just before the term of a given Congress ends.

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