U.S. Government Structure

The Structure of the U.S. Government

Our interest is to try to understand the structure and workings of our federal government,  and see if we might detect modifications which could improve its efficiency.  We shall not forget that our states,  being very similar in structure to the federal government,  can often be test-beds for changes in that structure.  This has been true with respect to adapting term limits on elected representatives,  with apparently mixed results  (as was forcast).

The experience of the states with their Confederacy,  both during and following the Revolutionary War,  led to the adoption of a much improved federal government structure in 1788.  Additionally,  each state's experience with its own government helped in determining what was really needed in the new federal government,  and what was to be avoided.
a graphic of the government designed to replace the Confederacy
This is not to say that the representatives of the states were in agreement as to what the problems with the existing Confederacy were.  Rather,  many representatives were convinced that the successful efforts and sacrifices of the Revolutionary War were to be lost if the new form  (a powerful,  sovereign central government)  was to be adopted.  But the arguments presented over a 5 month period in Philadelphia succeeded in the creation of a new style of goverment,  based on a new constitution,  which was ratified by the 9th state  (New York)  in July of 1788.  The new government began functioning in the winter/spring of 1789.  There were still changes to be made.

U. S. Government,  1788
The Constitution for the new government defined:
    •  Separation of powers: legislative, exective, and judiciaL
    •  Balance (and/or sharing) of power between the 3 branches
    •  A 'bicameral' legislature (House and Senate)
    •  Separate authority for each house in the legislature
    •  A single person as head of the executive branch
    •  Sovereignty for the federal government
    •  Subordinate status for each state government
    •  Two persons, representing each state, in the Senate
    •  A representative from each district in each state, in the House
It is notable that eligible voters in the new federal government had to be male,  'free',  and land-owners.  Indentured servants were not allowed to vote,  nor were slaves.  Slavery was still permitted,  and slaves counted as 3/5ths of a person when calculating population of states.  The issue of slavery was so contentious at the time,  that the issue was largely avoided at the Constitutional Convention.  It was deemed more important to significantly modify the form of central government at this time,  and deal comprehensively with slavery in the future.

It is also notable that election of U.S. Government officials often had what James Madison called  'degrees of separation'.  Representatives to congress  (either house of the legislature)  were chosen by the Congress of each state;  not directly by the people.  The president of the new government was chosen by  'electors'  from each state;  hence our existing count of  'electoral votes'.  Members of the judiciary were  (and still are)  nominated by the president,  and approved by the Senate.  Madison noted the volatility  (of opinion/belief)  in the general public,  and believed  'degrees of separation'  (indirect election)  of senators was warranted  (see essay #39 by Madison in the Federalist Papers).

U.S. Government, 2013
Our federal government has evolved since its inception in 1787.  Most remains,  testimony to both the genius and the willingness to compromise of the founders.  But times change,  and the founders expected us to modify the Constitution as required;  and we have.
a graphic of the modern federal government
Amendments to the Constitution Since 1788
The first item of business in the new govenrment in 1788 was to consider a Bill of individual Rights as an addition to the new constitution.  Madison  (often called the 'Father of the Constitution)  had not thought them necessary,  as he felt they were implicit in the constitution.  But other founders insisted they were necessary  (an individual's  'bill of rights'  was in many of the state's constitutions),  and Madison agreed that their consideration would be among the first items on the agenda for the new central government.  A  'Bill of Rights'  was therefore written and considered,  passed,  then ratified by the necessary states in 1789.  They exist as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution,  and are generally condidered among the most important aspects of the U.S. Constituion.

An additional 17 amendments have been added to the Constitution;  the final one having been ratified in 1992.  Each amendment to the U.S. Constitution had to be ratified by 2/3 of the states,  after having been passed by both houses of Congress,  and signed by the President.  Other significant changes to the central government have come via the accumulation of precedent and rules  (written and unwritten)  in the 2 Houses of Congress.  Though the Constitution specifies how each branch is to be governed,  the specifications are quite general and ultimately rely on the judgement of the Supreme Court for constitutionality.

This is where,  as pointed out by Robert S. Ross [58 - 62],  the principle of  'Separation of Powers'  is much better stated as the  'Sharing of Powers',  and means a combination with the principle of  'Checks and Balances'.  Each of the branches is continually in competition with other specific entities for jurisdiction of its power.  Notable is the check of the Legislative Branch on the Executive  (EG approval of appointments and treaties),  the Executive on the Legislative  (EG the veto),  and the Supreme Court on both the Legislative and Executive Branches  (EG tests of Constitutionality).  Though powers are specified for each branch,  each is continually working to expand that power by testing the limits.

The U. S. Senate's Role
To identify likely causes of dysfunction and inefficiency in our existing federal government,  we have selected to analyze the Senate.  Toward that end,  we have created a discrete simulation of the legislative functions of the Senate,  which one can use to do mental experiments in understanding what might happen to a legislative bill.  This simulation can also help one understand the workings of the actual Senate in following media reports of current Senate activity.  This section is available on the navigation tab  Senate Simulation.  Clicking the previous link will open the simulation in a new instance of your browser,  so you can continue to reflect on structure while working through the simulation.

Also,  we have created a section summarizing the structure and some of the history of the U.S. Senate,  to assist in the analysis of this important part of our government.  This section is available on the navigation tab Senate Structure.