The Constitution is the rule book of American politics. The great decisions and compromises of the founding were really about the allocation of power among the branches of the government, between the national and state governments, and between government and citizens.
Congress is given broad lawmaking responsibilities in the Constitution. It is composed of two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate, each with different qualifications, terms of office, and constituencies. Having two houses of the legislature that are constitutionally separated from the president means that more interests are involved in policymaking and that it takes longer to get things done in the United States than under a parliamentary system.
The president is elected indirectly by the Electoral College. Compared to the chief executive of parliamentary systems, the U.S. president has less power.
The Supreme Court today has much greater powers than those named in the Constitution. This expansion derives from the adoption of the principle of judicial review, which gives the Court much more power than its counterparts in most other democracies and also acts as a check on the powers of the president, Congress, and the states.
The scheme of checks and balances prevents any branch from overextending its own power. It grew out of the founders’ fears of placing too much trust in any single source. The system provides a great deal of protection from abuses of power, but it also makes it difficult to get things done.
The Constitution is ambiguous in defining federalism, giving “reserved powers” to the states but providing a “necessary and proper clause” that has allowed tremendous growth of national powers.
Our understanding of federalism in the United States has evolved from a belief in dual federalism, with distinct policy responsibilities for the national and state governments, to the more realistic cooperative federalism, in which the different levels share responsibility in most domestic policy areas.
Alternatives to our federal arrangement are unitary systems, which give all effective power to the central government, and confederal systems, in which the individual states (or other subunits) have primary power. The balance of power adopted between central and subnational governments directly affects the national government’s ability to act on large policy problems and the subnational units’ flexibility in responding to local preferences.
Federalism creates competition among the states, connects citizens with government, and offers flexibility in governing at the local level.
The growth of national power can be traced to the early decisions of Chief Justice John Marshall, the constitutional consequences of the Civil War, the establishment of national supremacy in economics with the New Deal, and new national responsibilities in protecting citizens’ rights that are associated with the civil rights movement.
Devolution has required new, and sometimes difficult, agreements between state governments and their citizens. For the most part, state institutions (legislature, courts, governor) have become stronger and more efficient in the process.
Amending the Constitution—that is, changing the basic rules of politics—is a two-step process of proposal by either Congress or a constitutional convention followed by ratification by the states. Of the thousands of amendments that have been suggested, only twenty-seven have been adopted. The Constitution can also be changed unofficially through the less formal and more controversial process of judicial interpretation.