The American Political System: A Brief Explanation
One of the reasons I started my American Politics Guide is that, during my last run for Congress, I found myself explaining the American system of government over and over again. So here's a quick primer on how it works:
The United States Constitution established three branches of government, the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial (the Judicial branch includes the Supreme Court). The Executive branch is headed by the President, who, along with the Vice President, is elected every year divisible by four. The Vice President's only official role outlined in the Constitution, other than to rest a heartbeat away from the Presidency, is to preside over the Senate and cast tie-breaking votes.
The Legislative branch consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate, in turn, consists of two Senators for each of the 50 States, for a total of 100 Senators. Senators are elected to six-year terms staggered into three classes so that one third of Senate seats are up for election every even-numbered year. (Legend has it that the first Senators drew straws to determine who would stand for re-election first.)
In contrast, each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives is elected every even-numbered year. Representatives in the House are apportioned by population, the number of Representatives was capped at 435 in 1911, and it has been Federal law since 1967 that a US Representative must be elected by and thus represent the voters of a specific Congressional District.
While the two houses of the United States Congress are more or less equal in power, their specific powers differ quite a bit. The Senate has the sole power to approve international treaties, and approve public officals or try in trial the same (versus impeach). The House has the sole power to initiate spending bills, impeach federal officials (versus actually try in trial), and break ties in the Electoral College in the event of a deadlocked Presidential election. Whatever the division of powers, all legislative bills must be approved by both houses of Congress before being signed into law or vetoed by the President, with legislative differences between houses reconciled by special ad hoc committees.
That's the US political system in a nutshell!