A newcomer’s guide to the American political system

As a newcomer to the United States, American politics heavily influence your access to work, public assistance, and other benefits. Understanding how the US government is structured, the branches of government, and how a bill becomes a law can give you some insight into US immigration policies. 

Immigration rules and regulations are primarily dependent upon the American political system, which can fluctuate depending on the views of the current elected officials. This article is intended to offer you a high-level overview of the fundamentals of the American political system. 

Three Branches of Government

The United States is a constitutional federal republic in which a division of powers exists between the federal government and state governments. The President, Congress, and the judiciary system share powers reserved for the national government. The federal government shares authority with state governments. Monetary policy, security, and defense matters are generally handled at the federal level, while infrastructure and education policies are usually directed at the state or local level. 

There is a minimal distinction between a federal and a national government. All levels of government fall under a national government, as their jurisdiction encompasses the whole nation. A federal government is the type of government a country can adopt and is characterized by a central government made up of many lower governments. To avoid a single concentration of power and provide a system of checks and balances, the US federal government is divided into three branches:

  • Legislative branch – Composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate, collectively known as Congress. Enacts laws, declares wars, and appropriates funds for government operations. 
  • Executive branch – Comprised of the President, their advisors, and various State departments. Responsible for implementing and administering public policy enacted and funded by the legislative branch. 
  • Judicial branch – Consists of the Supreme Court and the Federal Judicial Center. Responsible for interpreting the Constitution and laws.

The three branches of government are not entirely separate from one another. For example, the President has veto power over legislation passed by Congress. Congress can veto presidential appointments and any treaties the President negotiates with other nations. Federal courts can nullify laws passed by Congress and signed by the President, and judges on federal courts are chosen by the President and are confirmed by Congress.

The Bill of Rights and the US Constitution

The Constitution is the official framework of the United State’s government. Ratified in 1788, the document established the new government’s structure and defined its role. The Constitution also serves three main functions:

  • Creating a national government with three branches
  • Dividing power between the federal government and the states
  • Protecting various individual liberties of American citizens

The Constitution is an evolving document. Thousands of amendments have been proposed to date, but only 17 amendments have been passed, receiving the required votes of three-fourths of the states. 

The first ten amendments to the Constitution are referred to as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees certain fundamental rights to citizens, such as freedom of speech and religion, the right to keep and bear arms; the right to assemble peacefully; protection against unreasonable searches and seizures; and the right to an impartial trial. 

How laws are made

All federal laws in the United States start as a bill in Congress. A bill is a draft or an early version of a law. The bill has to be voted on by the House of Representatives and the Senate. If the bill receives enough votes to pass through Congress, the President of the United States must sign the bill to become law. If the President chooses not to sign, it is called a veto. The bill is then sent back to the House of Representatives with the President’s reasons for the veto. If Congress still believes the bill should become law, they can override the veto with another vote. If two-thirds approve the bill of the total vote, it becomes a law. 

Thousands of bills are proposed each year on the federal level, but few make it law. Party politics can affect the number of bills that become law. For example, if the House of Representative’s majority party is Democrat and the Senate is mainly Republican, the bill could be sent back and forth with many revisions, as both parties have different goals and agendas. 

Federal laws can be removed or repealed, and Congress must pass a new law containing repeal language. According to Wikipedia, “Congress and the President must follow the same rules and procedures for passing any law. When laws are repealed, their text is deleted from the Code and replaced by a note summarizing what used to be there. Once deleted, the repealed statute no longer has the force of law.”

On the state level, the Governor has the power to veto or sign into law a proposed state bill. Like the federal government, bills are written in the state’s House of Representatives, or in some states, the Assembly or House of Delegates, and voted on by the state’s Congress. 

Two-party system

The United States functions as a two-party system where most elected officials are either Democrats or Republicans. The Democratic Party generally supports an American liberalism platform among the two major parties, while the Republican Party typically positions itself as an American conservatism platform. While other parties do exist, they generally wield less influence. 

Under a two-party system, one party generally holds the majority in the legislature, referred to as the majority party, and the other as the minority party. There has always been a two-party system throughout American history, first as an opposition between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists and now between the Republicans and Democrats. While third-party movements have existed, voters have learned over time that their votes tend to be ineffective, as a “winner-takes-all” electoral system favors the two major parties. 

In the United States, a candidate wins an election by gaining more votes than any other candidate. Therefore, parties aim to be as large as possible to gain the most voting power, as there is no incentive for smaller parties that can consistently gain votes but cannot win an election. This leads to two political parties dominating plurality electoral systems at the expense of smaller third parties. The plurality system usually hinders third parties from winning votes, but no one or organization can prevent them from forming.

The authors of the Constitution often referred to as the “Founding Fathers,” never intended to create a two-party political system. George Washington, the first US president, was the only President of the United States who was not a member of a political party during his election or tenure as President. He remains to this day the only Independent to hold the office. Washington had hoped no political parties would form in fear of conflict and stagnation.

State and local levels of government

Under the US Constitution, the states are given all powers not delegated to the federal government, including those yet to be thought up. The United States comprises 50 states, each with its own state governments and two state-level governments in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. State governments are modeled similarly to the federal government system and include the three branches of government. 

Americans have a more significant amount of contact with their local and state governments than with the federal government. For example, most police departments, libraries, schools, as well as the issuance of driver’s licenses and parking tickets, fall under the jurisdiction of local and state governments. Each state has its own written constitution, and the State must grant a local government power. State governments give local governments the authority to deal with specific issues through state-made legislation. Local government is organized into four main layers:

  • County – A county’s function is to administer state laws within a particular geographic location. It has several responsibilities, including managing most public services such as parks, hospitals, fire services, libraries, schools, courts, roads, and law enforcement. Births, deaths, and marriages are also recorded at the county level.
  • Townships – These are traditionally rural geographic locations that are a subdivision of the county or just a different name for a town or city. Most townships have an elected board that includes supervisors who run local services such as trash collection and road maintenance and may include the fire and police services.
  • Municipalities – Like most townships, municipal governments often have elected mayors serving as the executive and elected councilors serving as legislators. They’re in charge of running most public services that an average person will encounter during their daily lives.
  • Special districts – These government subdivisions provide a specialist function within a particular geographic location. Functions include education, waste management, and transportation. They’re unique entities and even have tax-raising powers to provide the services they cover. School districts, for example, are run by school boards, which can be elected or appointed and are responsible for determining policy issues such as the textbooks the schools can purchase and the ratio of students per teacher.

How elections work

Federal elections occur every two years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Every member of the House of Representatives and about one-third of the Senate is up for reelection in any given election year. In addition, a presidential election is held every fourth year. Federal elections are administered by State, and local governments, and how elections are conducted differ between States. 

One of the most essential rights of an American citizen is the right to vote. To vote in the United States, you must:

  • Be a US citizen
  • Meet your state’s residency and eligibility requirements
  • Be 18 years old on or before Election Day
  • Be registered to vote by your state’s voter registration deadline

Non-citizens, including permanent legal residents, are not eligible to vote. According to National Geographic, “The United States Constitution, as originally written, did not define who could or could not vote, this decision was largely up to state governments to decide—but it did establish how the new country would vote. The Constitution determined that members of the Senate and House of Representatives would be elected directly by popular vote. The President, however, would be elected not by direct vote, but rather by the Electoral College.” 

The Electoral College is a process created as a compromise between granting the election of the President by Congress or by the popular vote of eligible American citizens. The process assigns several representative votes per state, typically based on the state’s population. In most states, the popular vote winner gets the state’s electoral votes. 

A much smaller group of voters typically decides local elections. When turnout is low, critical local issues are determined by a small group of voters, making one vote even more significant. Even if you are not eligible to vote, you can still participate in the election process. Read up on the political issues that matter to you and share your thoughts with others or volunteer on a political campaign. By sharing your perspective with others, you can help elect candidates that make decisions on immigration issues and other laws that affect your daily life as a resident of the United States.

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