What does a 200-year-old document have to do with the lawmaking process of today? The signing of the Constitution of the United States of America took place on Sept. 17, 1787, more than 200 years ago, but it affects our lives every day. That's because the Constitution is what outlines how our government is structured and how it should work.
The Birth of the Constitution
In the late 1700s, victory over England in the Revolutionary War provided freedom for the American colonists, and a new country was born. However, with no king to govern them any longer, the citizens of this brand-new country needed a new system of government. The people decided to design a government that would be fair to everyone. At first, they wrote a document called the Articles of Confederation, which created a weak federal government and left most of the power in the hands of the states. But after a few years, people realized that this system wasn't working, and they replaced it with the Constitution, which was ratified in 1789.
The Three Branches of Government
The U.S. Constitution provides for three branches of government. They are the Executive Branch (including the president and vice president), the Legislative Branch (Congress, which consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives), and the Judicial Branch (the Supreme Court).
How a Bill Becomes a Law
The Legislative Branch of the government is responsible for making the laws of the nation. The process starts with the creation of an idea. The idea in written form is called a bill, and once a bill is created, a long process begins.
Ideas for Laws
Ideas for laws come from different sources. The members of Congress, who are also known as lawmakers, are one source for an idea for a bill. They work at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., to represent their constituents, the people in their community who elected them to Congress. The constituents elect representatives they believe will present ideas for laws that represent the best interests of the people back home. Lawmakers can also get their ideas from lobbyists. These are people who work to convince lawmakers to agree with their position on one topic, like homelessness or education.
Regardless of the source of the proposed idea, once it's written into a bill, it can go through the process of becoming a law. This begins when someone introduces the bill in the House or the Senate. A bill can start in either of these chambers, but it must be approved by both.
In the Senate
- In the Senate, the bill goes to a committee. Here, this smaller group researches and refines it, then decides whether to bring it to the full Senate. If that happens, all of the senators vote on whether they want the bill to become a law.
- If the Senate votes "yes," the bill proceeds to its next destination. If the bill started in the Senate, that destination is the House of Representatives. If the bill was already approved in the House, it's sent to the Executive Branch.
In the House of Representatives
- The House of Representatives goes through the same process, examining the bill in a committee, then holding a vote in the full House.
- If the members of the House vote to approve the bill, it moves forward. If the bill started in the House, it's sent to the Senate. If the Senate has already approved it, it's sent to the Executive Branch.
- Once the bill is approved by the Legislative Branch, it goes to the president.
- If the president likes the bill, too, they will sign it, and the bill is now a law.
- If the president doesn't like it, they can use their veto power and reject the bill. If this happens, the bill is sent back to Congress. Congress can override a veto, but this requires two thirds of the people in both houses to approve it.
Checks and Balances
Being mindful of their history under a powerful king, the Founding Fathers designed a system of checks and balances. This system prevents any one branch of government from becoming too powerful. It also provides for accountability between the different branches. Each one has actions it can take to check the others to keep the power in balance.
Examples of Checks and Balances in Action
- The process of a bill becoming a law is an example of one way the system of checks and balances works. When the Legislative Branch passes a bill, the Executive Branch can veto it. But the Legislative Branch can check that power, too, by overriding the veto.
- The Judicial Branch can also check the power to make laws, by studying the Constitution and ruling on whether a law is constitutional.
- The Legislative Branch has the power to ask for an investigation to determine if a president has committed a crime. The House can charge the president with crimes, which is known as impeachment. The Senate then holds a trial and votes on whether or not to convict the president. If the president is convicted, they are removed from office and replaced by the vice president.
- The president can nominate judges to the Supreme Court if a position opens during their term of office.
- The Legislative Branch holds hearings to allow or disallow a nominee to the Supreme Court.
- As of February 2020, the number of women who are representatives in the Legislative Branch is 127. This is 23.7% of the total 535 seats available.
- The term lobbyist has questions surrounding its origin. Regardless of exactly when it became a coined phrase, it is safe to say it is describing a place, specifically, a lobby. Citizens would go to the lobby of the hotel of their government representatives to speak with them in person.
- The Supreme Court is known as the "highest court in the land," but there's at least one court that's higher. It's a basketball court! The basketball court is on the top floor, above the room where the judges assemble. That makes its position in the building higher than the Supreme Court.