With Congressional elections two weeks away, EA US Politics correspondent Lee Haddigan launches a series of articles to place them within the complexities of the American political system:
The United States is a representative democracy. This means that the "people" (the demos) elect representatives to reflect the interests of voters. Those elected form a government which, in theory, a servant of the voters and not the other way round.
America has a bicameral legislature. The body that votes for the country’s laws is composed of two Houses independent of each other. The approval of both is needed for a proposed bill to become law. The lower body of Congress, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members, representing in theory an equal number of US citizens. The upper House, the Senate, has 100 members: two each from every state.
Elections for all 435 seats of the House of Representatives take place every two years. Senators are elected for a term of six years, so every two years a third of the upper House's seats are contested.
These mechanics are based on the constitutional theory that for a government to avoid descending into tyranny, there must be checks and balances.
That theory has solid historical foundations. The independence of the US was declared in 1776 against a British Parliament which had supposedly become tyrannical, and as America ratified its constitution 16 years later, France was about to witness a Reign of Terror that validated fears of what could happen in the name of a democratic majority.
Hence, the American respect for checks and balances, and, most importantly, the idea that government is conducted best as an exercise in considered compromise. A slim majority in Congress, or the President, can only secure the passage of legislation by persuading some of the minority to support them. The bipartisan tone in American politics occurs when one political persuasion sees their attempts at change stymied by their opponents using the constitutional limits on the extent of a majority’s authority.
A majority in the American Congress for either political party is a completely different proposition than a party holding a majority in a parliamentary system like Britain or Australia. British Prime Minister David Cameron and his cabinet decide on a policy, and his supporters in Parliament usually enact it. President Obama decides on a policy, and his supporters in Congress try to make it law. Their success is not guaranteed.
The electoral process of the US underpins this system. Representatives are changed every two years (in Britain at the time, MPs were selected every seven years) to ensure that the people can restrain a bad administration by offering their frequent verdict. The Senate six-year term reflects the fears of the Founding Fathers that the people can become a "tyranny of the majority". The future US President James Madison in particular warned that laws passed by a simple majority of voters, swayed by the irrational passions of the moment, can be as tyrannical as those enacted by the mandate of a King. Thus, at each election, two-thirds of the Senate do not face re-election and are a countervailing balance against the opinions of the incoming Senators.
The checks and balances idea also underlies the way that American government is split into three branches: the executive (President), the legislature (Congress), and the judiciary (the Courts). If one part of the government attempts to rule in America independently of the others, then the Constitution affords the other branches of government the means to check the arbitrary seizure of power.
Let us take a hypothetical example to illustrate how this system of government is supposed to work in practice. Assume that the President decided that all new cars should be painted red before they could be sold. In a totally logical world, that could make sense. The roads would be safer, and cars would be cheaper as manufacturers saved money by buying red paint in bulk. In a Soviet- or North Korean-style command economy, the decision of the President would be final; however, in the American system, checks and balances make it highly unlikely that a sudden judgement of the executive would become law.
Assume that the President persuades a majority of the voters that all cars should be red. As a result, 435 Representatives and more than 30 Senators are elected who try to make it law. The bill passes the lower House unanimously and goes to the Senate, but two-thirds of the members reject it because they took office under the presumption that cars can be painted any colour. The temporary passion of the executive and the majority has been checked by the considered judgement of the Senate.
Even if the new majority who want red cars was able to convince enough sitting Senators to support the law, it would face a challenge in the Courts to see if it was constitutional. I hate the colour red. And even if 99.9% of the people want red cars, the Supreme Court would decide --- I hope --- that my right not to drive a red car outweighs the opinions of fellow Americans.
(Of course, no President has proposed a red car policy. But, in essence, the issue of the individual mandate in the new healthcare legislation is currently being disputed in the courts for the reasons in our hypothetical case.)
The American system also has checks and balances to ensure that the executive and the judiciary can prevent the legislature from becoming too powerful. And the legislature and the executive have procedures that allow them to check the Courts assuming too much authority for themselves.
This brings us to the current mid-term (they occur in the middle of a four-year Presidential term) Congressional elections. They are important for the future of the United States in the next two years, but not as crucial as elections held in other countries such as Britain where the ruling faction in the new legislature becomes the executive power.
As part of the checks on executive power, the President does not necessarily command a majority in Congress. The voters are given the chance halfway through his or her administration to either support or repudiate the direction it has taken to that point. And In a vast country, local issues can become much more important in US elections than in those of smaller nations, even if in recent years state races become more and more a referendum on the administration in Washington. Some of the politics that concern voters in the state of Arizona, for instance, differ from the issues that matter to the electorate in Michigan.
The Democrat Party of President Obama presently holds a sizable majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This allowed him to pass historic legislation like health care reform. If the Republicans overturn that majority in two weeks time, Obama will remain President, but he will not be able to enact policies with which his opponents disagree. Conversely, Republicans can try and pass legislation that reflects their agenda, but it will have little chance of success as long as the Senate retains its ability to filibuster any bill it does not support. Even if a Republican majority manages to pass a bill, it still faces the prospect of veto by the Democratic executive.
Over the next two weeks, we will build on this guide by considering some of the key contests in these Congressional elections. Tomorrow we’ll start with the Senate race in Wisconsin, a state that is the spiritual home of progressive ideology and democratic innovations like the recall and the referendum, the means by which the wishes of a simple majority can overcome the constitutional protections of checks and balances.