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USA - Government

The Constitution of the United States is the central instrument of American government and the supreme law of the land. For more than two centuries it has guided the evolution of governmental institutions and has provided the basis for political stability, individual freedom, economic growth, and social progress. The US Constitution is the world’s oldest written constitution still in force, one that has served as the model for a number of other constitutions around the world.

The Constitution owes its staying power to its simplicity and flexibility. Originally designed in the late 18th century to provide a framework for governing 4 million people in 13 very different states along North America’s Atlantic coast, its basic provisions were so soundly conceived that, with only 27 amendments, it now serves the needs of more than 300 million Americans in 50 even more diverse states that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

The Constitution and the federal government stand at the peak of a governmental pyramid that includes local and state jurisdictions. In the U.S. system each level of government has a large degree of autonomy with certain powers reserved particularly to itself. Disputes between different jurisdictions are resolved by the courts. However, there are questions involving the national interest that require the cooperation of all levels of government simultaneously, and the Constitution makes provision for this as well. American public schools, for example, are largely administered by local jurisdictions, adhering to statewide standards. But the federal government also aids the schools, since literacy and educational attainment are matters of vital national interest, and it enforces uniform standards designed to further equal educational opportunity. In other areas, such as housing, health, and welfare, there is a similar partnership between the various levels of government.

The U.S. Constitution calls itself the “supreme law of the land.” Courts have interpreted this clause to mean that when state constitutions or laws passed by state legislatures or by the national Congress are found to conflict with the federal Constitution, these laws have no force. Decisions handed down by the Supreme Court over the course of two centuries have confirmed and strengthened this doctrine of constitutional supremacy.

The three main branches of government—executive, legislative, judicial—are separate and distinct from one another. The powers given to each are delicately balanced by the powers of the other two. Each branch serves as a check on potential excesses of the others.

The Constitution, together with laws passed according to its provisions and treaties entered into by the president and approved by the Senate, stands above all other laws, executive acts, and regulations.

All persons are equal before the law and are equally entitled to its protection. All states are equal, and none can receive special treatment from the federal government. Within the limits of the Constitution, each state must recognize and respect the laws of the others. State governments, like the federal government, must be democratic in form, with final authority resting with the people.

The Congress, by a two-thirds vote in each house, may initiate an amendment. Alternatively, the legislatures of two-thirds of the states may ask Congress to call a national convention to discuss and draft amendments. In either case, amendments must have the approval of three-fourths of the states before they enter into force.

Aside from the direct process of changing the Constitution, the effect of its provisions may be changed by judicial interpretation. Early in the history of the republic, in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of judicial review, which is the power of the Court to interpret acts of Congress and decide their constitutionality. The doctrine also embraces the power of the Court to explain the meaning of various sections of the Constitution as they apply to changing legal, political, economic, and social conditions.

The seat of government is Washington, D.C. (the District of Columbia), a federal enclave located between the states of Maryland and Virginia on the eastern seaboard. The White House, both residence and office of the president, is located there.

Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of federal government employees has grown at an average annual rate of only 0.4 percent since 1955, from 2.3 million employees to 2.8 million. Local government, on the other hand, has grown at a rate of 2.4 percent per year, from 3.5 million employees in 1955 to 14.1 million in August 2012. State government growth averaged 2.6 percent per year, from 1.1 million to 5 million.



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