Government 101

Have you ever wondered how many US senators there are, how a bill becomes a law or why we have the Electoral College? Do you think of mudslinging as something you and your little brother used to do in the backyard on rainy afternoons? Is your knowledge of American government, well, a bit rusty?

If you answered "yes" to any of the questions above, Vote Smart's Government 101 is designed especially for you. This tutorial is informative, practical and easy and is intended to help refresh your knowledge of American politics by providing useful information about Congress, political parties, campaign finance, the Constitution, elections, state government and much more.

We hope that if you take a little time to read through Government 101, you'll be able to see past the spin and get the facts next time you vote. At the very least, you'll be a heck of a lot more competitive the next time you play Trivial Pursuit.

The U.S. Constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, outlines the structure of America’s federal government. It also guarantees the states and people certain rights. The text of the Constitution is contained within seven Articles and twenty­seven Amendments. For more background information on the Constitution, click here.

I. The Constitution (1789)

  • A) Articles 1­-3: Branches, Checks, and Balances

The first three articles of the Constitution establish three branches of government with specific powers: Executive (headed by the President), Legislative (Congress) and Judicial (Supreme Court). Power is separated and shared. Each branch can check other branches’ actions or balance the actions of other branches with their own actions. There are two forms of powers: express and implied. Express powers are granted in the Constitution. Implied powers are derived from those express powers or the branch’s role.

The table below outlines several powers of the federal government, who exercise them, and who exercises them.

Legislative (Article 1)Executive (Article 2)Judicial (Article 3)
Create LawsThe president may sign or veto a law (subject to a 2/3rds vote in congress).The courts may find laws unconstitutional.
Execute LawsCongress oversees the executive bureaucracy.The courts may find executive actions unauthorized.
Interpret LawsThe senate confirms judicial appointments.The president nominates federal judges.
Nominate OfficialsThe senate reviews many appointments.
Impeach Officials
Create TreatiesThe senate must ratify treaties.
BudgetThe president must sign a budget, like other laws.

  • B) Articles 4,6, and 7: Relationships Between the State and Federal Government
Article IV
  • Full Faith and Credit: each state must recognize certain privileges of other states’ citizens (like drivers licenses)
  • Extradition
  • Formation of new states
Article VI The “supremacy” clause: the Constitution and federal laws take priority over state laws
Article VII How the states ratify the Constitution

II. How to Change the Constitution

Under Article V, there are two ways to propose amendments to the Constitution and two ways to ratify them.

  1. To propose an amendment
    • a. Two­-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to propose an amendment, or
    • b. Two­-thirds of the state legislatures ask Congress to call a national convention to propose amendments.
  2. To ratify (vote for and adopt) an amendment
    • a. Three­-fourths of the state legislatures approve it, or
    • b. Ratifying conventions in three­fourths of the states approve it.
    • Other Information
      • Only the first method of proposing an amendment has been used.
      • The second method of ratification has been used only once, to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment (repealing Prohibition).
      • Congress may limit the time within which a proposed amendment must be ratified. The usual limitation has been seven years.
      • Thousands of proposals have been made, but only thirty­three have obtained the necessary two­thirds vote in Congress.
      • Twenty seven amendments have been ratified.

III) Important Changes to the Constitution

Amendments 1­-10 are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. They were ratified on December 15, 1791, as additional rights protections


Amendment 1Freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly; the right to petition the government.
Amendment 2Right to bear arms
Amendment 3Troops may not be quartered in homes in peacetime
Amendment 4No unreasonable searches or seizures.
Amendment 5 Procedures for criminal prosecutions:
  • Grand Jury indictment required for felony charges in federal court
  • Double jeopardy clause prevents a person from being tried twice for the same crime
  • A defendant cannot be forced to testify. “Plead the fifth”
Amendment 6Right to speedy, public, impartial trial by jury with defense counsel and right to cross­-examine witnesses.
Amendment 7Civil jury trials in federal cases
Amendment 8No excessive bail or fines, no cruel and unusual punishment
Amendment 9Unlisted rights are not necessarily denied
Amendment 10Powers not delegated to the United States or denied to the states are reserved to the states

See additional amendments information at The Amendments to the Constitution (from Project Vote Smart).

Constitutional Vocabulary
Bill of Attainder

- A legislative act that declares the guilt of an individual and doles out punishment without a judicial trial. The state legislatures and Congress are forbidden by Article 1, sections 9 and 10 of the Constitution to pass such acts. This is an important ingredient of the separation of powers.

Executive Privilege

- The claimed right of executive officials to refuse to appear before, or to withhold information from, the legislature or courts on the grounds that the information is confidential and would damage the national interest. For example, President Nixon refused, unsuccessfully, to surrender his subpoenaed White House tapes by claiming executive privilege.

Executive Order

This critical instrument of active presidential power is nowhere defined in the Constitution but generally is construed as a presidential directive that becomes law without prior congressional approval. The power for the executive order is implied in Article II of the Constitution when it allots "executive power" to the president:

"The executive power shall be vested in a president of the United States of America." - Article II, section 1

"[The President] shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed..." - Article II, section 3

Double Jeopardy

- The guarantee in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that one may not be tried twice for the same crime. For example, an individual declared not guilty of murdering a neighbor cannot be tried again for that murder. The person is not, however, exempt from being tried for the murder of another individual.

Habeus Corpus

- A court order directing a police officer, sheriff, or warden who has a person in custody to bring the prisoner before a judge and show sufficient cause for his or her detention. Designed to prevent illegal arrests and unlawful imprisonment. A Latin term meaning "you shall have the body".


- A formal accusation against a public official by the lower house of a legislative body. Impeachment is merely an accusation and not a conviction. Two presidents have been impeached, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Neither was convicted. In the case of Johnson, the Senate failed by one vote to obtain the necessary two-thirds vote required for conviction. In the case of Clinton, fifty senators voted for conviction, again missing the two-thirds requirement.

Ex Post Facto Law

- A law that makes criminal an act that was legal when it was committed, or that increases the penalty for a crime after it has been committed, or that changes the rules of evidence to make conviction easier; a retroactive criminal law. A Latin term meaning "after the fact." The state legislatures and Congress are forbidden to pass such laws by Article I, section 9 and 10 of the Constitution.

Other Sources of Information:

The Constitution of the United States Site contains the actual text of the Constitution as well as links to information on the Founding Fathers, the 39 Delegates who signed the Constitution, an in-depth look at the Constitutional Convention and the ratification process, and questions and answers pertaining to the Constitution. Online from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

About the Constitution History and background on the Constitution, as well as the Articles of Confederation. Online from the Library of Congress.

The Ten Original Amendments: The Bill of Rights. Passed by Congress September 25, 1789. Ratified December 15, 1791.

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III

No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Amendment VII

In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Amendment XI

Passed by Congress March 4, 1794. Ratified February 7, 1795. The judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by citizens of another State, or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.

Amendment XII

Passed by Congress December 9, 1803. Ratified July 27, 1804. The Electors shall meet in their respective States and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same State with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate; the President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted; - The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by States, the representation from each State having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the States, and a majority of all the States shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, [before the fourth day of March next following,] then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President. The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such numbers be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

Amendment XIII

Passed by Congress January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XIV

Passed by Congress June 13, 1866. Ratified July 9, 1868

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of Electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or Elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State Legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Amendment XV

Passed by Congress February 26, 1869. Ratified February 3, 1870.

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XVI

Passed by Congress July 2, 1909. Ratified February 3, 1913.

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever sources derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

Amendment XVII

Passed by Congress May 13, 1912. Ratified April 8, 1913.

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislatures. When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the Legislature of any State may empower the Executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the Legislature may direct. This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

Amendment XVIII

Passed by Congress December 18, 1917. Ratified January 16, 1919.<Altered by Amendment 21>

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the Legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Amendment XIX

Passed by Congress June 4, 1919. Ratified August 18, 1920.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XX

Section 1. The terms of the President and the Vice-President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

Section 2. The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3rd day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

Section 3. If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice-President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice-President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice-President shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice-President shall have qualified.

Section 4. The Congress may by law provide for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the House of representatives may choose a President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a Vice-President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them.

Section 5. Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article (October 1933).

Section 6. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the Legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.

Amendment XXI

Passed by Congress February 20, 1933. Ratified December 5, 1933.

Section 1. The Eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or Possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Amendment XXII

Passed by Congress March 21, 1947. Ratified February 27, 1951.

No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected. President shall be elected to the office of President more than once.

But this Article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this Article was proposed by Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term the term within which this Article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

Section 2 This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the Legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission to the States by the Congress.

Amendment XXIII

Passed by Congress June 16, 1960. Ratified March 29, 1961.

Section 1. The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as Congress may direct:

A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XXIV

Passed by Congress August 27, 1962. Ratified January 23, 1964.

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or any other tax.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XXV

Passed by Congress July 6, 1965. Ratified February 10, 1967.

Section 1. In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.

Section 2. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take the office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both houses of Congress.

Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President Pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmits within four days to the President Pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

Amendment XXVI

Passed by Congress March 23, 1971. Ratified June 30, 1971.

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XXVII

Ratified May 7, 1992

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.

Congress is the legislative arm of our government and its job is to make laws. Congress is made up of two houses: the Senate (upper) and the House of Representatives (lower). Each state has two senators in the Senate. The number of representatives a state has is determined by its population. While the house and senate are similar, there are some differences.

Major Differences Between the Two Houses of Congress:


  • 435 members serving two-year terms
  • Speaker's referral of bills to committee is hard to challenge.
  • Rules Committee powerful; controls time of debate, admissibility of amendments.
  • Committees almost always consider legislation first.
  • Debate usually limited to one hour.
  • Non-germane amendments may not be introduced from floor.


  • 100 members serving rotating six-year terms
  • Referral decisions easy to challenge.
  • Rules Committee weak; few limits on debate or amendments.
  • Committee consideration easily bypassed.
  • Unlimited debate unless shortened by unanimous consent or by invoking cloture.
  • Non-germane amendments may be introduced (riders).

Government 101: Congress - Senate Classes

The legislative branch of the federal government.

Article I of the US Constitution mandates that the Senate be elected in cycles, such that one third of the Senators are elected every two years. A Senator's class refers to the cycle in which he/she was elected.

Senate Class None - Next Elect

Tammy Baldwin (D - WI)
John Barrasso (R - WY)
Michael Bennet (D - CO)
Marsha Blackburn (R - TN)
Richard Blumenthal (D - CT)
Cory Booker (D - NJ)
John Boozman (R - AR)
Katie Boyd Britt (R - AL)
Mike Braun (R - IN)
Sherrod Brown (D - OH)
Ted Budd (R - NC)
Laphonza Butler (D - CA)
Maria Cantwell (D - WA)
Shelley Capito (R - WV)
Ben Cardin (D - MD)
Tom Carper (D - DE)
Bob Casey, Jr. (D - PA)
Bill Cassidy (R - LA)
Susan Collins (R - ME)
Chris Coons (D - DE)
John Cornyn (R - TX)
Catherine Cortez Masto (D - NV)
Tom Cotton (R - AR)
Kevin Cramer (R - ND)
Mike Crapo (R - ID)
Ted Cruz (R - TX)
Steve Daines (R - MT)
Tammy Duckworth (D - IL)
Dick Durbin (D - IL)
Joni Ernst (R - IA)
John Fetterman (D - PA)
Deb Fischer (R - NE)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D - NY)
Lindsey Graham (R - SC)
Chuck Grassley (R - IA)
Bill Hagerty (R - TN)
Maggie Hassan (D - NH)
Joshua Hawley (R - MO)
Martin Heinrich (D - NM)
John Hickenlooper (D - CO)
Mazie Hirono (D - HI)
John Hoeven (R - ND)
Cindy Hyde-Smith (R - MS)
Ron Johnson (R - WI)
Tim Kaine (D - VA)
Mark Kelly (D - AZ)
John Kennedy (R - LA)
Angus King, Jr. (I - ME)
Amy Klobuchar (D - MN)
James Lankford (R - OK)
Mike Lee (R - UT)
Ben Luján, Jr. (D - NM)
Cynthia Lummis (R - WY)
Joe Manchin III (D - WV)
Ed Markey (D - MA)
Roger Marshall (R - KS)
Mitch McConnell, Jr. (R - KY)
Bob Menendez (D - NJ)
Jeff Merkley (D - OR)
Jerry Moran (R - KS)
Markwayne Mullin (R - OK)
Lisa Murkowski (R - AK)
Chris Murphy (D - CT)
Patty Murray (D - WA)
Jon Ossoff (D - GA)
Alex Padilla (D - CA)
Rand Paul (R - KY)
Gary Peters (D - MI)
Jack Reed (D - RI)
Pete Ricketts (R - NE)
James Risch (R - ID)
Mitt Romney (R - UT)
Jacky Rosen (D - NV)
Mike Rounds (R - SD)
Marco Rubio (R - FL)
Bernie Sanders (I - VT)
Brian Schatz (D - HI)
Eric Schmitt (R - MO)
Chuck Schumer (D - NY)
Rick Scott (R - FL)
Tim Scott (R - SC)
Jeanne Shaheen (D - NH)
Kyrsten Sinema (I - AZ)
Tina Smith (D - MN)
Debbie Stabenow (D - MI)
Dan Sullivan (R - AK)
Jon Tester (D - MT)
John Thune (R - SD)
Thom Tillis (R - NC)
Tommy Tuberville (R - AL)
Chris Van Hollen, Jr. (D - MD)
J.D. Vance (R - OH)
Mark Warner (D - VA)
Raphael Warnock (D - GA)
Elizabeth Warren (D - MA)
Peter Welch (D - VT)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D - RI)
Roger Wicker (R - MS)
Ron Wyden (D - OR)
Todd Young (R - IN)

Qualifications for Entering Congress:


  • Must be 25 years of age (when seated, not when elected).
  • Must have been a citizen of the United States for 7 years.
  • Must be an inhabitant of the state from which elected.
    (NOTE: custom, but not the Constitution, requires that a representative live in the district that he or she represents.)


  • Must be 30 years of age (when seated, not when elected).
  • Must have been a citizen of the United States for 9 years.
  • Must be an inhabitant of the state from which elected.

If you want more information on the House or Senate, check out: —­ Contains information on current legislation, the Congressional Record, congressional committees and current members of Congress. ­— Contains information on current members and legislation in the Senate. ­— Contains information on current members and legislation in the House.

Congressional Leadership

I. Senate

PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE Selected by majority party. Usually most senior member of the Senate majority party.
Majority Leader Leads the party.
Majority Whip Assists the leader, rounds up votes, heads group of deputy whips.
Chairman of the Conference Presides over meetings of all members of the Senate majority party.
Policy Committee Schedules legislation.
Legislative Review Committee Reviews legislative proposals and makes recommendations to senators of the majority party.
Steering Committee Assigns Senators of the majority party to committees.
Republican/Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Assigns Senators of the majority party to committees.
Minority Leader Leads the party.
Assistant Minority Leader Assists the leader, rounds up votes.
Chairman of the Conference Presides over meetings of all senators of the minority party.
Policy Committee Makes recommendations on party policy.
Committee on Committees Assigns Senators of the minority party to committees.

II. House

SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE Selected by the majority party.
Majority Leader Leads the party.
Majority Whip Assists the leader, rounds up votes, heads group of deputy whips.
Chairman of the Caucus Presides over meetings of all members of the majority party.
Steering and Policy Committee Schedules legislation, assigns members of the majority party to committees.
Republican/Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Provides funds, advice to Republican/Democratic candidates for the House.
Minority Leader Leads the party.
Minority Whip Assists the leader, rounds up votes, heads large forum of deputy and assistant whips.
Chairman of the Conference Presides over meetings of all members of the minority party.
Committee on Committees Assigns members of the minority party to committees.
Policy Committee Advises on party policy.
Research Committee On request, provides information about issues.

The Powers of Congress

The powers of Congress are found in Article 1, section 8, of the Constitution.

The following is a brief summary:

  • To levy and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises.
  • To borrow money.
  • To regulate commerce with foreign nations, among the states, and with Indian tribes.
  • To establish rules for naturalization (that is, becoming a citizen) and bankruptcy.
  • To coin money, set its value, and punish counterfeiting.
  • To fix the standard of weights and measures.
  • To establish a post office and post roads.
  • To issue patents and copyrights to inventors and authors.
  • To create courts inferior to (that is, below) the Supreme Court.
  • To define and punish piracies, felonies on the high seas, and crimes against the law of nations.
  • To declare war.
  • To raise and support an army and navy and make rules for their governance.
  • To provide for a militia (reserving to the states the right to appoint militia officers and to train the militia under congressional rule).
  • To exercise exclusive legislative powers over the seat of government (that is, the District of Columbia) and over places purchased to be federal facilities (forts, arsenals, dockyards, and "other needful buildings.")
  • To "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for the carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States."
  • Must be a natural-born citizen of the United States (can be born abroad of parents who are American citizens).
  • Must be at least 35 years of age.
  • Must be a resident of the United States for at least 14 years
The Powers of the President

According to Article II of the Constitution the President has the following powers:

  • Serve as commander in chief of the armed forces
  • Commission officers of the armed forces
  • Grant reprieves and pardons for federal offenses (except impeachment)
  • Convene Congress in special sessions
  • Receive ambassadors
  • Take care that the laws be faithfully executed
  • Wield the "executive power"
  • Appoint Cabinet officials, White House staff and Supreme Court justices

Powers of the President That Are Shared with the Senate

  • Make treaties
  • Appoint ambassadors, Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices
Powers of the President That are Shared with Congress as a Whole
  • Approve legislation
Other sources of information:

How Does the Presidential Primary Process Work?

The Convention

Prior to a general election, there is a selection process to determine which candidate will appear on the ballot for a given political party in the nationwide general election. Political parties generally hold national conventions at which a group of delegates collectively decide upon which candidate they will run for the presidency. The process of choosing delegates to the national convention is undertaken at the state level, which means that there are significant differences from state to state and sometimes year to year. The two methods for choosing delegates to the national convention are the caucus and the primary.

The Caucus

Caucuses were the original method for selecting candidates but have decreased in number since the primary was introduced in the early 1900's. In states that hold caucuses a political party announces the date, time, and location of the meeting. Generally any voter registered with the party may attend. At the caucus, delegates are chosen to represent the state's interests at the national party convention. Prospective delegates are identified as favorable to a specific candidate or uncommitted. After discussion and debate an informal vote is taken to determine which delegates should be chosen.

The Primary

In the early twentieth century there was a movement to give more power to citizens in the selection of candidates for the party's nomination. The primary election developed from this reform movement. In a primary election, registered voters may participate in choosing the candidate for the party's nomination by voting through secret ballot, as in a general election.

There are two main types of primaries, closed or open, that determine who is eligible to vote in the primary. In a closed primary a registered voter may vote only in the election for the party with which that voter is affiliated. For example a voter registered as Democratic can vote only in the Democratic primary and a Republican can vote only in the Republican primary. In an open primary, on the other hand, a registered voter can vote in either primary regardless of party membership. The voter cannot, however, participate in more than one primary. A third less common type of primary, the blanket primary, allows registered voters to participate in all primaries.

In addition to differences in which voters are eligible to vote in the primary, there are differences in whether the ballot lists candidate or delegate names. The presidential preference primary is a direct vote for a specific candidate. The voter chooses the candidate by name. The second method is more indirect, giving the voter a choice among delegate names rather than candidate names. As in the caucus, delegates voice support for a particular candidate or remain uncommitted.

In some states a combination of the primary and caucus systems are used. The primary serves as a measure of public opinion but is not necessarily binding in choosing delegates. Sometimes the Party does not recognize open primaries because members of other parties are permitted to vote.

Awarding the Delegates

The Democratic Party always uses a proportional method for awarding delegates. The percentage of delegates each candidate is awarded (or the number of undecided delegates) is representative of the mood of the caucus-goers or the number of primary votes for the candidate. For example imagine a state with ten delegates and three candidates. If 60% of the people supported candidate X, 20% supported candidate Y, and 20% supported candidate Z, candidate X would receive six delegates and candidates Y and Z would each receive two delegates.

The Republican Party, unlike the Democratic Party, allows each state to decide whether to use the winner-take-all method or the proportional method. In the winner-take-all method the candidate whom the majority of caucus participants or voters support receives all the delegates for the state. It is essential to remember that this is a general guide and that the primary system differs significantly from state to state. The best way to find information about your state is to contact your state Board of Elections.

The League of Women Voters, Choosing the President, The Lyons Press: New York, 1999. Michael Nelson, Ed., CQ's Encyclopedia of American Government: The Presidency A to Z, Congressional Quarterly: Washington, D.C., 1994.

A. Legislation is Introduced

- Any member can introduce a piece of legislation


- Legislation is handed to the clerk of the House or placed in the hopper.


- Members must gain recognition of the presiding officer to announce the introduction of a bill during the morning hour. If any senator objects, the introduction of the bill is postponed until the next day.

B. Committee Action

- The bill is referred to the appropriate committee by the Speaker of the House or the presiding officer in the Senate. Most often, the actual referral decision is made by the House or Senate parliamentarian. Bills may be referred to more than one committee and it may be split so that parts are sent to different committees. The Speaker of the House may set time limits on committees. Bills are placed on the calendar of the committee to which they have been assigned. Failure to act on a bill is equivalent to killing it. Bills in the House can only be released from committee without a proper committee vote by a discharge petition signed by a majority of the House membership (218 members).

Steps in Committee:

  1. Comments about the bill's merit are requested by government agencies.
  2. Bill can be assigned to subcommittee by Chairman.
  3. Hearings may be held.
  4. Subcommittees report their findings to the full committee.
  5. Finally there is a vote by the full committee - the bill is "ordered to be reported."
  6. A committee will hold a "mark-up" session during which it will make revisions and additions. If substantial amendments are made, the committee can order the introduction of a "clean bill" which will include the proposed amendments. This new bill will have a new number and will be sent to the floor while the old bill is discarded. The chamber must approve, change or reject all committee amendments before conducting a final passage vote.
  7. In the House, most bills go to the Rules committee before reaching the floor. The committee adopts rules that will govern the procedures under which the bill will be considered by the House. A "closed rule" sets strict time limits on debate and forbids the introduction of amendments. These rules can have a major impact on whether the bill passes. The rules committee can be bypassed in three ways:
    1. Members can move rules to be suspended (requires 2/3 vote)
    2. A discharge petition can be filed
    3. The House can use a Calendar Wednesday procedure.

C. Floor Action

  1. Legislation is placed on the Calendar

    House: Bills are placed on one of four House Calendars. The Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader decide what will reach the floor and when. (Legislation can also be brought to the floor by a discharge petition.)

    Senate: Legislation is placed on the Legislative Calendar. There is also an Executive calendar to deal with treaties and nominations. Scheduling of legislation is the job of the Majority Leader. Bills can be brought to the floor whenever a majority of the Senate chooses.

  2. Debate

    House: Debate is limited by the rules formulated in the Rules Committee. The Committee of the Whole debates and amends the bill but cannot technically pass it. Debate is guided by the Sponsoring Committee and time is divided equally between proponents and opponents. The Committee decides how much time to allot to each person. Amendments must be germane to the subject of a bill - no riders are allowed. The bill is reported back to the House (to itself) and is voted on. A quorum call is a vote to make sure that there are enough members present (218) to have a final vote. If there is not a quorum, the House will adjourn or will send the Sergeant at Arms out to round up missing members.

    Senate: debate is unlimited unless cloture is invoked. Members can speak as long as they want and amendments need not be germane - riders are often offered. Entire bills can therefore be offered as amendments to other bills. Unless cloture is invoked, Senators can use a filibuster to defeat a measure by "talking it to death."

  3. Vote - the bill is voted on. If passed, it is then sent to the other chamber unless that chamber already has a similar measure under consideration. If either chamber does not pass the bill then it dies. If the House and Senate pass the same bill then it is sent to the President. If the House and Senate pass different bills they are sent to Conference Committee. Most major legislation goes to a Conference Committee.

D. Conference Committee

  1. Members from each house form a conference committee and meet to work out the differences. The committee is usually made up of senior members who are appointed by the presiding officers of the committee that originally dealt with the bill. The representatives from each house work to maintain their version of the bill.
  2. If the Conference Committee reaches a compromise, it prepares a written conference report, which is submitted to each chamber.
  3. The conference report must be approved by both the House and the Senate.

E. The President

The bill is sent to the President for review.

  1. A bill becomes law if signed by the President or if not signed within 10 days and Congress is in session.
  2. If Congress adjourns before the 10 days and the President has not signed the bill then it does not become law ("Pocket Veto.")
  3. If the President vetoes the bill it is sent back to Congress with a note listing his/her reasons. The chamber that originated the legislation can attempt to override the veto by a vote of two-thirds of those present. If the veto of the bill is overridden in both chambers then it becomes law.

F. The Bill Becomes A Law

Once a bill is signed by the President or his veto is overridden by both houses it becomes a law and is assigned an official number.


House Legislative Calendars

The Union Calendar

- A list of all bills that address money and may be considered by the House of Representatives. Generally, bills contained in the Union Calendar can be categorized as appropriations bills or bills raising revenue.

The House Calendar

- A list of all the public bills that do not address money and maybe considered by the House of Representatives.

The Corrections Calendar

- A list of bills selected by the Speaker of the House in consultation with the Minority leader that will be considered in the House and debated for one hour. Generally, bills are selected because they focus on changing laws, rules and regulations that are judged to be outdated or unnecessary. A 3/5 majority of those present and voting is required to pass bills on the Corrections Calendar.

The Private Calendar

- A list of all the private bills that are to be considered by the House. It is called on the first and third Tuesday of every month.

Types of Legislation


- A legislative proposal that if passed by both the House and the Senate and approved by the President becomes law. Each bill is assigned a bill number. HR denotes bills that originate in the House and S denotes bills that originate in the Senate.

Private Bill

- A bill that is introduced on behalf of a specific individual that if it is enacted into law only affects the specific person or organization the bill concerns. Often, private bills address immigration or naturalization issues.

Public Bill

- A bill that affects the general public if enacted into law.

Simple Resolution

- A type of legislation designated by H Res or S Res that is used primarily to express the sense of the chamber where it is introduced or passed. It only has the force of the chamber passing the resolution. A simple resolution is not signed by the President and cannot become Public Law.

Concurrent Resolutions

- A type of legislation designated by H Con Res or S Con Res that is often used to express the sense of both chambers, to set annual budget or to fix adjournment dates. Concurrent resolutions are not signed by the President and therefore do not hold the weight of law.

Joint Resolutions

- A type of legislation designated by H J Res or S J Res that is treated the same as a bill unless it proposes an amendment to the Constitution. In this case, 2/3 majority of those present and voting in both the House and the Senate and 3/4 ratification of the states are required for the Constitutional amendment to be adopted.

Other Terms

Calendar Wednesday

- A procedure in the House of Representatives during which each standing committees may bring up for consideration any bill that has been reported on the floor on or before the previous day. The procedure also limits debate for each subject matter to two hours.


- A motion generally used in the Senate to end a filibuster. Invoking cloture requires a vote by 3/5 of the full Senate. If cloture is invoked further debate is limited to 30 hours, it is not a vote on the passage of the piece of legislation.

Committee of The Whole

- A committee including all members of the House. It allows bills and resolutions to be considered without adhering to all the formal rules of a House session, such as needing a quorum of 218. All measures on the Union Calendar must be considered first by the Committee of the Whole.


- A member or members that add his or her name formally in support of another members bill. In the House a member can become a co-sponsor of a bill at any point up to the time the last authorized committee considers it. In the Senate a member can become a co-sponsor of a bill anytime before the vote takes place on the bill. However, a co-sponsor is not required and therefore, not every bill has a co-sponsor or co-sponsors.

Discharge Petition

- A petition that if signed by a majority of the House, 218 members, requires a bill to come out of a committee and be moved to the floor of the House.


- An informal term for extended debate or other procedures used to prevent a vote on a bill in the Senate.


- Relevant to the bill or business either chamber is addressing. The House requires an amendment to meet a standard of relevance, being germane, unless a special rule has been passed.


- Box on House Clerk's desk where members deposit bills and resolutions to introduce them.

Morning Hour

- A 90 minute period on Mondays and Tuesdays in the House of Representatives set aside for five minute speeches by members who have reserved a spot in advance on any topic.

Motion to Recommit

- A motion that requests a bill be sent back to committee for further consideration. Normally, the motion is accompanied by instructions concerning what the committee should change in the legislation or general instructions such as that the committee should hold further hearings.

Motion to Table

- A motion that is not debatable and that can be made by any Senator or Representative on any pending question. Agreement to the motion is equivalent to defeating the question tabled.


- The number of Representatives or Senators that must be present before business can begin. In the House 218 members must be present for a quorum. In the Senate 51 members must be present however, Senate can conduct daily business without a quorum unless it is challenged by a point of order.


- An informal term for an amendment or provision that is not relevant to the legislation where it is attached.


- The original member who introduces a bill.

Substitute Amendment

- An amendment that would replace existing language of a bill or another amendment with its own.

Suspension of the Rules

- A procedure in the House that limits debate on a bill to 40 minutes, bars amendments to the legislation and requires a 2/3 majority of those present and voting for the measure to be passed.


- A power that allows the President, a Governor or a Mayor to refuse approval of a piece of legislation. Federally, a President returns a vetoed bill to the Congress, generally with a message. Congress can accept the veto or attempt to override the veto by a 2/3 majority of those present and voting in both the House and the Senate.

Kinds of Elections:

  1. General Elections - an election to fill public offices.
  2. Primary Elections - an election prior to the general election in which voters select the candidates who will run on each party's ticket. Primaries are also used to choose convention delegates and party leaders, and may be open or closed.
    • a. Open Primary - an election that permits voters to choose on Election Day the party primary in which they wish to vote. They may vote for candidates of only one party. (A blanket or "free love" primary is a type of open primary. In the voting booth you mark a ballot that lists the candidates for nomination of all the parties, and thus you can help select the Democratic candidate for one office and the Republican candidate for another.)
    • b. Closed Primary - the selection of a party's candidates in an election limited to registered party members. Prevents members of other parties from "crossing over" to influence the nomination of an opposing party's candidate.
    • c. Runoff Primary - if no candidate gets a majority of the votes, a runoff is held to decide who should win.
    • d. Presidential Primary - a primary used to pick delegates to the presidential nominating conventions of the major parties.

Election Vocabulary

Electoral College - A group of persons called "electors," selected by the voters in each state, that officially elects the president and vice president. The number of electors in each states is equal to its number of representatives in both houses of Congress.

Initiative - An electoral procedure whereby citizens can propose legislation or constitutional amendments and refer the decision to a popular vote by obtaining the required number of signatures on a petition.

Machine - A hierarchically organized, centrally led state or local party organization that rewards members with material benefits (patronage).

Office-Block Ballot - A ballot listing all candidates for a given office under the name of that office; also called a "Massachusetts" ballot.

Party-Column Ballot - A ballot listing all candidates of a given party together under the name of that party; also called an "Indiana" ballot.

Split-Ticket Voting - Voting for candidates of different parties for various offices in the same election. For example, voting for a Republican for senator and a Democrat for president.

Straight-Ticket Voting - Voting candidates who are all of the same party. For example, voting for Republican candidates for senator, representative, and president.

Other Sources of Information:

Library of Congress Teaching materials for educating students on the electoral process.

United States Election Assistance Commission Resources for voters

Voting and Elections’s page on election processes

What is the Electoral College?


Americans elect the President and Vice President through a method of indirect popular election. On the first Tuesday in November, voters cast their ballots for a presidential candidate. These votes actually count towards a group of electors who pledge to vote for a specific candidate in the Electoral College. The "Electoral College" is the group of citizens selected by the people to cast votes for President and Vice President.

The presidential/vice presidential pair who wins the popular vote in any given state receives all of the state's Electoral College votes 1. In the end, the winner of the race is the candidate who receives a majority (270 or more) of the 538 Electoral College votes. The results of the election aren't official until the President of the Senate counts the votes out loud at a special joint session of Congress held in early January.

In More Detail:

The 12th Amendment outlines the process for electing the President. While some state laws regarding this process differ, the general method for electing the president is explained below.

Before the November election, political parties in each state create lists of potential electors (generally active members of the party) who pledge to vote for the party's candidate in the Electoral College.

A state's number of electoral votes equals the number of the state's Congressional delegation (2 Senators + the number of Representatives). The District of Columbia receives three electoral votes, according to the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution.

On the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, voters cast their ballots. These votes go towards a block of electors who, in turn, will vote for a certain presidential candidate. The winner of the popular vote in a state receives the state's entire number of Electoral College votes (except in Maine and Nebraska)

For example, if a Democratic presidential candidate receives the most votes in Texas, the 38 Democratic electors become the voting block representing the Lone Star State to the Electoral College. The Democratic presidential candidate receives 38 of the 538 total votes in the Electoral College from Texas. A candidate needs to collect at least 270 votes to win.

Each state's block of electors (members of the winning candidate's party) assembles in their respective state capitol on December 17, 2012. At this meeting, the electors sign the "Certificate of Vote," which is sealed and delivered to the Office of the President of the United States Senate.

A special joint session of the U.S. Congress convenes on January 6th. At this meeting, the President of the Senate reads the Certificates of Vote and declares the official winner.

Why do we have the Electoral College?

Electors were viewed as a compromise between a true popular election and an election by more qualified citizens. Some of the founders wondered if it would be wise to permit average citizens to vote but wanted to stay true to their republican principles. The Electoral College was their answer.

Because the system is written into the Constitution, an amendment would be required to alter the process.

Like the Senate, the Electoral College helps to distribute power away from the most populated areas of the US. California gets 55 votes compared to Wyoming’s 3, but this divide would be much greater in a purely popular vote.

Who are “Faithless Electors”?

A faithless elector is one who casts an electoral vote for someone other than the candidate they have pledged to elect. On 157 occasions, electors have cast their votes for president or vice president in a different manner than that prescribed by the legislature of the state they represent. Of those, 71 votes were changed because the original candidate died before the elector was able to cast a vote. Two votes were not cast at all when electors chose to abstain from casting their electoral vote for any candidate. The remaining 85 were changed by the elector's personal interest or perhaps by accident. Usually, the faithless electors act alone.

There are laws to punish faithless electors in 24 states. While no faithless elector has ever been punished, the constitutionality of state pledge laws was brought before the Supreme Court in 1952 (Ray v. Blair, 343 U.S. 214). The court upheld those laws that require electors to pledge to vote for the winning candidate, as well as remove electors who refuse to pledge. As stated in the ruling, electors are acting as a function of the state, not the federal government, and states have the right to govern their officers. The constitutionality of punishing an elector for actual faithlessness, however, has never been decided by the Supreme Court. In any event, a state may only punish a faithless elector after the fact; it has no power to change their vote.

1. The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where a proportional method for allocating votes is used.

Sources to learn more

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration


U.S. Electoral College - List Of States And Votes

Below is the number of electoral votes each state receives (as of 2016).

Total: 538; Majority Needed to Elect: 270

States: 1-5 VotesElectoral VotesStates 6-9 VotesElectoral VotesStates 10-15 VotesElectoral VotesStates: 15 or More VotesElectoral Votes
District Of Columbia3Colorado9Maryland10Georgia16
Maine4Kansas6Missouri10New York29
Montana3Kentucky8New Jersey14Ohio18
Nebraska5Louisiana8North Carolina15Pennsylvania20
New Hampshire4Mississippi6Tennessee11Texas38
New Mexico5Nevada6Virginia13
North Dakota3Oklahoma7Washington12
Rhode Island4Oregon7Wisconsin10
South Dakota3South Carolina9
West Virginia5


There are three main ways in which private entities can influence the political system through the means of spending money.

Campaign contributions - donations directly to a candidate’s campaign fund.

Outside spending/Independent expenditures - money spent to influence elections that has no technical affiliation with candidates. Groups in this category range from conventional party committees to the more controversial super PACs and 501(c) "dark money" organizations. Outside spending groups can legally sums of money to influence the outcome of elections.

Lobbying­ - the act of an individual or group attempting to influence politicians. The term “lobbyist” is most frequently associated with legal firms whose goal is to influence politicians on behalf of their clients, who are often times private corporations and unions. Although corporations and unions are banned from directly donating to political campaigns, their workers and CEOs can give money to a lobbyist, who then donates to a campaign. Lobbyists are also notorious for offering politicians high­paying careers with their firm once politicians leave office.

Campaign Contributions

Prohibited Contributions

While most individuals are free to make political contributions, three categories of individuals are prohibited by law from making contributions: foreign nationals, federal government contractors and, in some instances, minors. These and other prohibitions on contributions are explained below.

Foreign Nationals

Foreign nationals may not make contributions in connection with any election­­ Federal, State or local. This prohibition does not apply to foreign citizens who are lawfully residing in the United States (those who have "green cards").

Federal Government Contractors

Federal government contractors may not make contributions to influence federal elections. For example, if you are a consultant under contract to a federal agency, you may not contribute to federal candidates or political committees. Or, if you are the sole proprietor of a business with a federal government contract, you may not make contributions from personal or business funds. But, if you are merely employed by a company (or partnership) with federal government contracts, you are permitted to make contributions from your personal funds.

Corporations and Unions

The law also prohibits contributions from corporations and labor unions. This prohibition applies to any incorporated organization, profit or nonprofit. For example, the owner of an incorporated "mom and pop" grocery store is not permitted to use a business account to make contributions. Instead, the owner would have to use a personal account. A corporate employee may make contributions through a non­repayable corporate drawing account, which allows the individual to draw personal funds against salary, profits or other compensation.

Contributions in the Name of Another

Contributions made in the name of another are prohibited. For example, an individual who has already contributed up to the limit for a candidate's election may not give money to another person to make a contribution to the same candidate. Similarly, a corporation is prohibited from using bonuses or other methods of reimbursing employees for their contributions.

Limits on Campaign Contributions

Outside Spending/Independent Expenditures

Outside spending refers to money spent to influence elections that has no technical affiliation with candidates. Groups in this category range from conventional party committees to the more controversial super PACs and 501(c) "dark money" organizations. Outside spending groups can legally raise and spend unlimited sums of money to influence the outcome of elections.

The outside spending landscape is in constant flux. In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act ­­ commonly referred to as McCain­Feingold ­­ which set limits on "soft money" contributions and banned special interest groups from making issue ads. But in the years that followed, federal court decisions, including Citizens United v. FEC and v. FEC have dismantled or eroded parts of the law, giving rise to super PACs and "dark money" organizations ­­ politically active nonprofits that do not have to disclose their donors. These organizations alone spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent elections and almost never revealed where their money was coming from.

Notable Supreme Court Cases

Citizens United v. FEC

Resulted in unions, corporations, and associations being able to spend unlimited sums of money directly from their treasuries on “electioneering communications”. Electioneering communications are defined by the FEC as “ broadcast ads (television, radio, cable, satellite), made by people or groups who do not file regular reports with the FEC, that refer to a federal candidate, are targeted to voters and appear within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.”

SpeechNow v. FEC

Resulted in 527 groups ,which are defined as “a party, committee or association that is organized and operated primarily for the purpose of influencing the selection, nomination or appointment of any individual to any federal, state or local public office, or office in a political organization,” being able to raise unlimited sums of money.

Together, SpeechNow v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC allowed for the creation of organizations commonly known as super PACS. Technically known as independent expenditure­only committees, super PACs may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, then spend unlimited sums to overtly advocate for or against political candidates.


There are several ways in which lobbying relates to campaign finance, the most notable of them being “bundled contributions” and “the revolving door.”

Bundled Contributions

Although it is illegal for corporations and unions to donate directly to political campaigns, it is completely legal for them to hire legal professionals known as lobbyists to represent their interests to politicians holding or running for public office. Lobbyists may also receive contributions from several of their clients, bundle them together, and then donate to a political campaign ­ this process is known as “bundling contributions.”

The Revolving Door

Receiving campaign donations is not the only way that politicians benefit from working with lobbyists. They also have the potential to walk through what is known as the “revolving door.” It is extremely common for politicians and federal workers to find careers with lobbying firms once they leave government positions, and visa versa. The firms who hire politicians are often the same firms who lobbied them while in office, and almost exclusively offer much higher salaries than the government does.


What is the federal budget?

The federal budget is a compilation of numbers about the revenues, spending, and borrowing and debt of the government. Revenues come largely from taxes, but stem from other sources as well (such as duties, fines, licenses, and gifts). The fiscal year for each budget starts at the beginning of October and goes until the end of September the following year.

Key Facts:

* In general. the Government spends most of your money on a few major programs:

  • Social Security
  • Defense
  • Medicare
  • Medicaid
  • Interest on National Debt

* The Government collects most of its revenues from a few main sources:

  • Income Taxes
  • Social Security Receipts

* Because all of the revenues do not cover the costs of all spending, the Government borrows money to finance this deficit. The total it has borrowed over the years, but not repaid, is the national debt.

Types of Spending:

Discretionary - 35% of all Federal Spending

This is the money the President and Congress must decide to spend each year. It includes money for such programs as the FBI, the Coast Guard, housing, education, space exploration, highway construction, defense, and foreign aid.

Mandatory - 65% of all Federal Spending

This is the money that the Federal Government appends automatically - unless the President and Congress change the laws that govern it. It includes entitlements - such as Social Security, Medicare, and Food Stamps - through which individuals receive benefits because they meet some criteria of eligibility (e.g. age, income). It also includes interest on the national debt, which the Government pays to individuals and institutions that buy saving bonds and other US securities. Despite its name, however, mandatory spending is not fixed in stone. The President and Congress can change the laws that govern entitlements or taxes, but they must take explicit action to do so.

The Budget Process:

The President's Budget is sent to Congress in early February. This proposal is his/her plan for the next fiscal year, beginning October 1. This plan, however, only becomes official after Congress passes, and the President signs spending bills and legislation creating new taxes and entitlements.

After receiving the President's budget, Congress examines it in detail. Scores of committees and subcommittees hold hearings on proposals under their jurisdiction. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees, for instance, would hold hearings on the President's defense plan. If the President's plan contains proposals that affect Federal revenues, the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees would hold hearings. The President, the Budget Director, the Cabinet, and others work with Congress as it accepts some proposals, rejects others, and changes still others.

Each year Congress must pass and the President must sign, 13 appropriation bills that include all of the discretionary spending. The President and Congress do not have to enact new laws governing entitlements or taxes. If they do not, the Government will pay the benefits for Social Security and other programs and collect the taxes required by laws in place.

Budget Calendar

1st Monday in FebruaryPresident submits budget request, compiled by the Office of Budget and Management, to Congress.
February 15CBO submits report on economic and budget outlook to budget committees. Congressional committees hold hearings on the President’s budget and the Budget committees report a concurrent resolution on the budget.
April 15thAction to be completed on congressional budget resolution.
MayHouse consideration of annual appropriations bills may begin.
June 10thHouse Appropriations Committee reports last regular appropriations bill.
June 30thAction on appropriations to be completed by House.
July 15thPresident transmits Mid-Session Review of the budget.
October 1stFiscal year begins.

Budget Vocabulary

Appropriation - A legislative grant of money to finance a government program.

Congressional Budget Office - Provides expert technical and computer services to Congress; analyzes the budget proposal of the office of management and budget; determines the economic consequences of legislation.

Entitlements - A law that requires the paying of monetary benefits to some person or persons who meet the eligibility requirements established by the law; a binding obligation of the government (i.e. Social Security).

General Accounting Office (GAO) - Checks to see that government spending is proper and reasonable; headed by the Comptroller General who is appointed by the President, with the Senate's approval, for a 15 year term.

Office of Budget and Management - An advisory body that prepares the national budget and reviews agency requests for congressional appropriations. The OMB prepares the national budget, supervises and controls the administration of the budget, and helps the President propose legislation dealing with the budget. In addition, the OMB assists in the preparation of proposed executive orders and keeps the President informed of all overall activities of the government. The Director of the OMB is appointed by the President with Senate approval.

Reconciliation - A concurrent resolution, passed by both houses of Congress, that reconciles the specific amounts to be spend in the coming fiscal year with the overall budget ceiling.

Current and past budget information

Source: Office of Management and Budget

The following is a general background on how state government works. Please note that each state operates according to its own constitution.

Powers of the Federal Government

Powers of the States

State Constitutions

The Legislature




State Government Vocabulary


Powers Reserved for the Federal Government

The U.S. government is federal in form. The states and national government share powers, which are wholly derived from the Constitution.

From the Constitution, the national government derives

Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution of the United States puts limits on the powers of the states. States cannot form alliances with foreign governments, declare war, coin money, or impose duties on imports or exports.

Powers Reserved to the States

The Tenth Amendment declares, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." In other words, states have all powers not granted to the federal government by the Constitution.

These powers have taken many different forms. States must take responsibility for areas such as:

  • ownership of property
  • education of inhabitants
  • implementation of welfare and other benefits programs and distribution of aid
  • protecting people from local threats
  • maintaining a justice system
  • setting up local governments such as counties and municipalities
  • maintaining state highways and setting up the means of administrating local roads
  • regulation of industry
  • raising funds to support their activities

In many areas, states have a large role but also share administrative responsibility with local and federal governments. Highways, for example, are divided amongst the three different levels. Most states classify roads into primary, secondary, and local levels. This system determines whether the state, county, or local governments, respectively, must pay for and maintain roads. Many states have departments of transportation, which oversee and administer intrastate transportation. U.S. highways and the interstate system are administered by the national government through the U.S. Department of Transportation.


States must also administer mandates set by the federal government. Generally these mandates contain rules which the states wouldn't normally carry out. For example, the federal government may require states to reduce air pollution, provide services for the handicapped, or require that public transportation must meet certain safety standards. The federal government is prohibited by law from setting unfunded mandates. In other words, the federal government must provide funding for programs it mandates.


Grants are an important tool used by the federal government to provide program funding to state and local governments. According to the Office of Management and Budget, federal outlays for grants to state and local governments increased from $91 billion in fiscal year 1980 (about $224 billion in 2013 constant dollars) to about $546 billion in fiscal year 2013. (See figure). Block grants give the states access to large sums of money with few specific limitations. The state must only meet the federal goals and standards. The national government can give the states either formula grants or project grants (most commonly issued).

Mandates can also pass from the state to local levels. For example, the state can set certain education standards that the local school districts must abide by. Or, states could set rules calling for specific administration of local landfills.

State Constitutions

The Basics

Each state has its own constitution which it uses as the basis for laws. All state governments are modeled after the federal government and consist of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The U.S. Constitution mandates that all states uphold a "republican form" of government, although the three­-branch structure is not required.

Therefore, in basic structure state constitutions much resemble the U.S.Constitution. They contain a preamble, a bill of rights, articles that describe separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and a framework for setting up local governments.

Length and Specificity

State constitutions also tend to be significantly more lengthy than the U.S. Constitution. State constitutions can contain as many as 174,000 words (Alabama), and have as many as 513 amendments attached (also Alabama). Much of this length is devoted to issues or areas of interest that are outdated. Oklahoma's constitution, for example, contains provisions that describe the correct temperature to test kerosene and oil. California has sections that describe everything that may be deemed tax-exempt, including specific organizations and fruit and nut trees under four years of age.


All state constitutions provide for a means of amendment. The process is usually initiated when the legislature proposes the amendment by a majority or supermajority vote, after which the people approve the amendment through a majority vote. Amendments can also be proposed by a constitutional convention or, in some states, through an initiative petition.

The Legislature

All states have a bicameral, or two-house legislature, except Nebraska, which has a unicameral, or single, house. Legislative salaries range from nothing (Kentucky and Montana) to $57,500 (New York) per year. In states where there is no official salary, legislators are often paid on a per diem basis (i.e. Rhode Island Legislators earn $5 per day).

The Upper House

  • called the Senate.
  • membership can range from 21 (Delaware) to 67 (Minnesota).
  • terms usually last four years.

The Lower House

  • called the House of Representatives, General Assembly, or House of Delegates (Virginia),
  • membership can range from 40 (Alaska and Nevada) to 400 (New Hampshire).
  • terms usually last two years.


Like the national legislature, each house in a state legislature has a presiding officer. The Lieutenant Governor presides over the Senate, but the majority leader assumes most of the leadership roles. The house elects a Speaker who serves as its leader. Leaders of each house are responsible for recognizing speakers in debate, referring bills to committee, and presiding over deliberations.

States grant legislatures a variety of functions:

  • Enact laws
  • Represent the needs of their constituents
  • Share budget-making responsibilities with Governor
  • Confirm nominations of state officials
  • House begins impeachment proceedings, Senate conducts the trial if there is an impeachment.
  • Casework
  • Oversight - review of the executive branch. (e.g., sunset legislation)

Citizen Legislation

Legislators don't wield the only legislative power in state government. In many states, the people can perform legislative functions directly. The ways by which these methods can be implemented vary, but they usually require a certain number of signatures on a petition. After that, the issue is put on the ballot for a general vote.

  • Initiative - A way citizens can bypass the legislature and pass laws or amend the state constitution through a direct vote.
  • Referendum - A way citizens can approve of statutes or constitutional changes proposed by the legislature through a direct vote.
  • Recall - A way citizens can remove elected officials from office. It is allowed in 14 states and is hardly ever used.


The Governor is a state's chief executive. A governor can serve either a two or four year term. Thirty-seven states have term limits on the governor.


  • Appointments
    The Governor is chiefly responsible for making appointments to state agencies and offices. These powers include:
    • The ability to appoint for specific posts in the executive branch.
    • The ability to appoint to fill a vacancy caused by the death or resignation of an elected official
  • Chief of State
    • Chief Executive - draws up budget, also has clemency and military powers
  • Veto Power
    • Like the U.S. President, a governor has the right to veto bills passed by the legislature.
    • Vetoes can be overridden by a two-thirds or three-fourths majority in the legislature.
    • In many states, the governor has the power of a line-item veto.
    • In some states, the governor has the power of an amendatory or conditional veto.
General Governor Information

Other Elected Positions Within the Executive Branch

The president and vice-president are the only elected executive positions within the federal government. State governments, however, often have other positions executive elected separately from the governor. Some examples include:

  • Lieutenant Governor: Succeeds the governor in office and presides over the senate.
  • Secretary of State - Takes care of public records and documents, also may have many other responsibilities.
  • Attorney General - Responsible for representing the state in all court cases.
  • Auditor - Makes sure that public money has been spent legally.
  • Treasurer - Invests and pays out state funds.
  • Superintendent of Public Instruction - Heads state department of education.


A government’s revenue system is the entire means by which a government acquires funding. States rely on a broad range of revenue sources to fund government. On average, states generate more than one­-third of their revenues from personal income taxes and another one­-third from general sales taxes. The remaining revenues are split between excise taxes (on gasoline, cigarettes and alcohol); corporate income and franchise taxes; and taxes on business licenses, utilities, insurance premiums, severance, property and several other sources.That being said, the general character of a state or state and local revenue system is more important than the nature of any single one of its components.

The relative importance of the major revenue sources for state and local governments changed since 1971. Property taxes declined in importance, and their share was picked up mostly by state individual income taxes, charges and miscellaneous revenues. Since state revenue systems have developed gradually and tax policy is used to address multiple objectives, state revenue systems are likely to include inconsistencies.

  • Insurance Trust Revenue relates to the money that the state takes in for administering programs such as retirement, unemployment compensation, and other social insurance systems.
  • Services and Fees include items such as tolls, liquor sales, lottery ticket sales, income from college tuition, hospital charges and utility fees.
  • State Taxes come in many different forms:

    Most states have a sales tax. The sales tax is assessed on most consumer goods in the state and ranges from 4% to 7%. Most states also have a state income tax, similar to the one used by the federal government. People can pay up to 16% of taxable income in state income taxes. Most states have a progressive sales tax. About 37% of state tax revenue is obtained through the personal income tax. Corporate income tax is also assessed on corporate income, a sum that accounts for 7% of state tax revenue. States levy taxes on motor fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and gasohol. Most of the funds go towards financing roads and transportation within the state. Sin taxes apply to alcoholic beverages and tobacco products. These taxes are named as such because they were originally intended to decrease consumption of these "undesirable" goods.Most states also have inheritance taxes, where a person pays a percentage of what he or she inherits from a deceased person.

  • Lotteries

    In 2011, 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have adopted some sort of gambling, most in the form of instant­-winner or "drawing" lotteries. About 1 percent of state revenue comes from gambling. Lotteries can be very profitable for the state. Profits from lotteries have been used towards funding education, economic development, and environmental programs. Net income from state lotteries was over $17.75 billion in 2010.

  • Debt

    Like the Federal government, state governments also have debts. In 2012, total state government debt had reached $757 billion. Debts range from about $114 million in Wyoming to over $120 billion in California.


One of the largest issue areas left to the discretion of the states is education. The United States' public education system is administered mostly on the state and local levels. Elementary and Secondary schools receive funding from all the different levels of government: about 8% from the Federal Government, 50% from the State government, and 42% from local governments. State and local governments put more money toward education than any other cost. There are approximately 15,000 school districts around the country, each governed by its own school board. The people of the district vote the members of the school board into office. Generally about 15-30% of the local electorate participate in a typical school board election. Some roles of a school board:

  • Administer general district policy
  • Make sure the district is in tune with local interests
  • Hire or fire the superintendent

The Superintendent is the head administrator within a district. His or her responsibilities include:

  • Drafting the budget
  • Overseeing the principals of schools within the district
  • General administration within the district
  • Communication with the chief state school official (CSSO).

The chief state school official is appointed by the governor and, along with other state education positions, has many responsibilities:

  • distribute state funds
  • establish teacher certification requirements
  • define length of the school day
  • defines nutritional content of school lunches
  • mandate certain curricula for schools and set the school calendar

State Government Vocabulary

amendatory or conditional veto - the power to send a bill back to the legislature with suggested changes.

casework - taking care of constituents' problems; "errand-running" for particular individuals.

express powers - powers which are directly specified in the Constitution.

federal - a system in which the states and national government share responsibilities. When people talk about the federal government, they generally mean the national government, although the term often refers to the division of powers between the state and national governments.

formula grants - grants given to anyone who meets certain guidelines (grants such as those for school lunches, airports or highways).

implied powers - powers which are not explicitly stated in the constitution, but which are implied through the "necessary and proper" clause in Article I, Section 8.

inherent powers - powers which the national government naturally has to represent the country in relations with other countries.

line-item veto - the power of a governor to veto particular lines (items) in budget appropriations bills.

mandate - a requirement set by the national government to force states to perform a particular action.

presiding officer - one person who oversees the activities of a legislative house. A presiding officer can have either a major or minor leadership role in his or her house.

project grants - grants given to those who make special requests for aid.

progressive tax - a tax where people with higher incomes pay a higher percentage of taxable income in state taxes.

sunset legislation - legislation that has a specific expiration or renewal date. Sunset legislation can be used in several situations.

  • It can be used to persuade legislators who do not strongly support a particular measure. When the legislation lasts only a set length of time, the "on the fence" legislators are more likely to vote for it because of its "temporary" nature.
  • Some issues change rapidly (e.g., technology-related issues), and therefore legislation pertaining to these issues must be updated periodically.

supermajority - a vote which takes a quantity greater than the majority, usually 2/3 or 3/4, to pass.

term limit - a limit on the number of consecutive terms an elected official can serve.

unfunded mandate - when the federal government sets regulations for the states to follow and does not provide the states with funds to carry them out.


Important Historical Documents

United States Constitution: A document, created in 1787 and ratified in 1788, that establishes the federal government and the basic rights granted to U.S. citizens. To read the Constitution click here

Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the Constitution. Check out the Bill of Rights here.

Declaration of Independence: A statement agreed upon at the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 in which the thirteen colonies declared their independence from the British Empire. To read the complete Declaration of Independence, click here.

The Federalist Papers: A collection of 85 essays written between October of 1787 and May of 1788 in order to influence voters to vote to ratify the proposed US Constitution. These essays, authored by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, were primarily published in the New York Packet and The Independent Journal but were reprinted in other newspapers in other cities and states. To read the Federalist Papers click here.