Help this Brit understand Senate, Congress etc.,

Reply Tue 23 Jul, 2013 11:23 am
Would someone kindly explain to this puzzled Brit how the US system works in simple terms if possible.

In the U.K we vote in a general election for the person we want to represent us in parliament, if that person gets the most votes he/she gets the job. Simple.

I am puzzled by the US system, I read about "The house of representatives" "The Senate" and Congress.

Who does what and who is responsible to whom?

Reply Tue 23 Jul, 2013 12:17 pm
I'm not an American, but roughly speaking.

House of Representatives Houses of Parliament
Congress House of Commons
Senate House of Lords.

They're not exactly equivalent, the Senate has more power than the House of Lords, and the President is directly elected.
Reply Tue 23 Jul, 2013 12:30 pm
It's not that the Senate has more power per se than the House of Representatives, but individual Senators wield more power than individual Congresspersons.

The House of Representatives is based on population. States with higher populations get more Representatives.

The Senate is based on geography. Each state gets two Senators.

Bills must pass the House and the Senate in order to be passed to the President and signed into law. (There's a special process for when versions do not match.)

If the President doesn't like the bill, he can veto it.

The Congress can override the veto with a super majority. (2/3)
Reply Tue 23 Jul, 2013 12:31 pm
In the UK the House of Commons is elected but the House of Lords is not, so the Commons has more power and can override the Lords.
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Reply Tue 23 Jul, 2013 12:37 pm
The United States government is divided into three branches--the legislative, the executive and the judicial. The legislative branch is embodied in the Congress. The Congress consists of two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House is based on proportional representation, with each state being guaranteed one Representative. The larger a state's population, the more representatives they are entitled to elect. In 1911, rather than letting the House grow with the population, and rather than passing new reapportionment legislation with each census, a public law was passed fixing the membership of the House at 435 members.

The Senate is based on equal representation among the states. There are currently 50 states, so there are 100 Senators.

A local conference in 1787 lead to a decision to convene a constitutional convention. The Continental Congress was paralyzed by its composition and the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation, under with the government had acted during the revolution. One of the key problems was equal representation. Small states (small in population)--New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, North and South Carolina and Georgia--had the same vote as the large states: Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

When the constitutional convention sat, many of the small states delegates were prohibited by their legislatures from voting for proportional representation, and some delegates even had instructions to withdraw from the convention if proportional representation were mooted. The only state to arrive with a plan was Virginia. The Virginia plan was based on proportional representation, which is not surprising as Virginia had the largest population of any state. It also called for an executive committee rather than a single executive officer. The other big "evil" of the Articles of Confederation had been that there was no executive officer, and a President had been appointed by the Continental Congress. With equal representation, that meant that someone was chosen who offended no one, and that mean a member of the Congress who displayed little or no leadership, and who was therefore, easily manipulated.

No one wanted to adopt the Virginia plan, other than the Virginia delegation, and not even all of them approved of the idea of an executive committee. To avoid triggering the instructions of the delegates from the small states, the convention resolved itself into a committee of the whole, which allowed them to discuss representation without technically triggering the delegates instructions. This also gave those delegates time to communicate with their legislatures to have the instructions rescinded, or held in abeyance.

There were many compromises necessary to get a workable constitution. With regard to the Congress, there were two crucial agreements. One was the establishment of the House of Representatives which would have the sole right to initiate money bills (the Senate routinely writes a budget, but it's little more than a list of talking points--the House is free to ignore it). The members of the House are apportioned and elected on the basis of proportional representation and the Senate based on equal representation, as i've already said. To the Senate were given the powers of sovereignty: all executive branch officers are to be appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate; and all treaties must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. Presidents don't usually advise with the Senate about their officer appointments, but then the Senate doesn't just rubber stamp executive branch appointments, either. Sometimes it's routine; sometimes it's a real brawl.

The entire House stands for election every two years. The President and Vice President stand for election every four years. Senators serve for six years, but the framers dealt with this cleverly: one third of the first Senate served for two years, one third served for four years, and the last third served for six years. Therefore, in every national election cycle, every two years, one third of the Senate seats are up for election, while the entire House is up for election.

The final compromise which made the ratification of the constitution possible (saving the slavery issue) was the Electoral College. The small states once again feared being buried under the landslide of population, so under the electoral college system, each state has a number of electoral votes equal to their congressional delegation. Even if a state is so small that they only send a single Representative to the Congress, they still have three electoral votes, because all states send two Senators to the Congress. Even with that system in place, four of the first six Presidents were from Virginia, and the other two from Massachusetts (and they were father and son). However, no candidate could afford to ignore the small states because if they were sufficiently odious to the sensibilities of the small states, all of the small states in coalition could combine to elect someone else. There have been 13 or 14 minority Presidents, which here means that they got less than 50% of the popular vote, but put together the most electoral votes.

There are some popular myths. The Senate was not modeled on the House of Lords, it was a common sense compromise to reconcile the small states to the proportional representation of the House, and the large states were mollified because money bills originate in the House (and, or course, the large states provide most of the government's revenue, directly or indirectly). The electoral college was not created because the framers were contemptuous of the electorate. The people, of course, vote for candidates, and their votes are apportioned to the electors pledged to those candidates. The pernicious nature of modern American presidential elections arises from legislation by the states. All of the states except two have a "winner take all" system. Whichever candidate wins the popular vote in a state, all of the electoral college votes for that state got to him (or her, if that ever comes up). In two states (Maine and Colorado?) the electoral votes are apportioned by congressional district, and the remaining two electoral votes (representing the two Senators) go to whichever candidate who has polled the most votes. It would probably never have occurred to the framers to despise the electorate, given that there were property qualifications for the vote in most states at that time. Some states had gone to "universal manhood suffrage" (as long as you were white), but illiteracy generally took care of those whom the class from which the framers came might have despised.

There may be other myths i am forgetting, but i'll be happy to answer any questions.
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Reply Tue 23 Jul, 2013 12:41 pm
THe special process to which DD refers is called a conference committee, in which members of the House and Senate negotiate a final version which they think will pass and can be sent to the President. Members of the House entertain a low opinion of the Senate (Senators ignore Representatives with lofty indifference, as befits crypto-aristocrats). It is said in the House that when a Representative is elected to the Senate, the intelligence of both houses goes up (that about it for a moment).
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Reply Tue 23 Jul, 2013 01:08 pm
At this time in U.S. history almost 90% of government is owned by 10% of the rich who control the legislative and judicial parts of government.
Reply Tue 23 Jul, 2013 02:29 pm
Would that have any relevance, even if it made any sense at all?
mark noble
Reply Tue 23 Jul, 2013 05:54 pm
Way I see it.
Bunch of puppets kneeling to the pupeteers (Elite)
Pretending to be divided on pointless issues so the yank populace think there is someone who really represents their views (There isn't).

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Reply Tue 23 Jul, 2013 06:59 pm
Would that have any relevance

A great deal of relevance, Rog, considering all the talk about how the US style of government is a government of the people, by the people, for the people.



How lawmakers and lobbyists keep a lock on the private prison business

Private prison corporations say they don't lobby on custodial policy. They seem to find legislators with views aligned anyway

Early in August, the Associated Press reported that America's three largest private prison companies, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group, Inc and Management and Training Corp spent in the region of $45m over the past 10 years in lobbying state and federal governments. During the same period, these companies saw their profits soar as they scored more government contracts.

During the same period, various pieces of legislation got passed ensuring that immigrant detention, in particular, would remain a lucrative growth market. The companies get defensive, however, if anyone attempts to draw a connection between their lobbying efforts and their booming businesses. But whatever the purpose of the lobbying, the very fact that these companies, which perform a public service using taxpayer funds, are first and foremost profit-making entities highlights the flawed incentivisation of the private prison model and its growing presence in the American criminal justice system.

I'll get to the lobbying in a moment, but first let's have a look at that flawed incentive. Thanks to mandatory sentencing laws and the "war on drugs", the prison population has exploded over the past 30 years – to the point where it has become an untenable burden on state budgets. As a result, many state lawmakers have begun to look at ways to reduce their prison populations. This is good for society, as needlessly locking people up for excessive periods for nonviolent crimes has proven to be counter-productive and cost-prohibitive – not to mention inhumane.

This is terrible news for the private prison business, however, as they are reliant on state and federal governments to provide them with their customer base: that is, bodies to fill their cells.

The CCA highlighted its concerns over this potential downturn in demand for services in its Annual Report to shareholders in 2010:

"The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them."

As it turns out, the CCA is doing just fine. Its revenue in 2010 was a record $1.67bn, an increase of $46m from 2009. Half of that revenue came from contracts with states, and 43% of it came from federal contracts with the US Marshals, the Bureau of Prisons and ICE. Since 9/11, the number of immigrants held in detention has grown exponentially, and the number held in private prisons (not just the CCA's facilities) has increased during that period by 206%, according to a report (pdf) by the Sentencing Project.

The companies maintain that their lobbying efforts have nothing to do with this expansion and insist that it is their policy to "expressly prohibit their lobbyists from working to pass or oppose immigration legislation", such as the Arizona immigration bill SB1070, which provides for the mandatory detention of immigrants who cannot produce papers on request. In an email to me, the CCA's spokesperson, Steve Owen, stated his company's position as follows:

"Allow me to strongly reiterate that it is CCA's longstanding corporate policy not to take positions on any legislation at any level of government involving detainment, crime or sentencing policies."

Since it is not to influence custodial policy, where are the private prison firms spending those millions of lobbying dollars? On a state level, it's difficult to ascertain exactly where the funds are directed, as each state has different disclosure requirements for lobbyists. But a report compiled by the Justice Policy Institute issued in 2011 and using data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that between 2003 and 2010, the CCA contributed a total of $1,552,350 to state election campaigns, with its efforts concentrated in California, Florida and Georgia. (Of these contributions, approximately half was to candidates, more than a third was to party committees and around one tenth was spent on ballot measures.) Contracts with the state of California account for 13% of the CCA's total revenue, and Georgia is home to the CCA-run Stewart Detention Center, the largest immigrant detention center in the country.

At a federal level, it is much easier to find out exactly where lobbying efforts have been directed. For instance, on the federal government's official lobbying disclosure website, it is possible to do a search to see exactly how much each private prison company has spent in any given year on lobbying efforts, and to find the specific issues they lobbied on. So, in this CCA lobbying report from 2008 (see pdf), it clearly states in box 16 that the "specific lobbying issues" were the "HR1889 (Private Prison Information Act); all provisions and HR1890 (Public Safety Act); all provisions."

The purpose of the latter bill, HR1890, was to "ensure that the incarceration of inmates is not provided by private contractors or vendors and that persons charged with or convicted of an offense against the US shall be housed in facilities managed and maintained by federal, state or local governments".

The bill died in committee. So the CCA lobbied and came out on the winning side against a bill that would have ended privatization of prison services. Whether that fits with the CCA's stated policy of not taking positions on "any legislation at any level of government involving detainment" may be moot, for I'm sure its shareholders would feel that those were lobbying dollars well spent.

The private prison companies insist that their lobbying and campaign donations are above board and legally compliant. They are corporations in the business of making profit, and so you cannot really blame them for doing whatever it takes to achieve that end.

It is their political enablers, the lawmakers who accept millions of dollars from these corporations, who ought to be doing some serious soul-searching. Of all the public services to be outsourced, incarceration, where the state deprives a person of their liberty and assumes responsibility for his or her mental and physical well-being, is not one to be auctioned for campaign contributions.
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