Glossary of U.S. Political Institutions

Caucus (voice of Algonquian origin) – The term originates in Boston in the eighteenth century from the name of a political club in which local affairs were discussed, staff were chosen for public offices and elections were prepared. He then went on to indicate the meetings that the leaders of a party hold for the purpose of nominating candidates, establishing programs or setting the order of work for general assemblies. From 1796 to 1824 the caucus of the republican members of the Congress had enormous influence in appointing the president and vice-president of the Republic, a function that from 1882 was assumed by the system of conventions (see).

Constituency (electoral college) – In the American political system indicates the group of electors chosen within each state for the purpose of electing the president and vice president; each state has as many presidential voters as there are representatives in the two Houses of Congress. The double election mechanism was adopted by the constituents to ensure the widest possible representation of the president, in a period in which direct popular elections, due to the difficulty of communications and the absence of national party organizations, risked dispersing the vote between a myriad of regional candidates. This type of double-ranking election would ensure the appointment of the best men in each state, who in turn would choose the most suitable to perform the functions of president and vice president. The fact that a candidate should obtain a majority of the votes of the constituency was considered the best way to guarantee the president a consensus on a national scale. The president is still elected by the college of presidential voters (see), but the function of the latter has in the meantime changed considerably, as they are now in fact bound to the choices of the parties, despite the fact that the Constitution guarantees them discretion. Before the popular vote, the parties have already chosen their candidates for the two highest positions and the task of the presidential voters is therefore reduced to that of making effective a choice already made by the party to which they belong.

Congress – It is the organ of the legislative power and is composed of two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives is chosen by direct ballot by the electorate of each State; the number of representatives varies according to the population of the individual states and cannot exceed a total of four hundred and thirty-five. To become a representative, you must be at least 25 years of age, reside in the state from which you are elected, and have been a US citizen for at least seven years. The mandate of representative lasts for two years. Among the most important powers of the House of Representatives is the right to initiate the impeachment proceedings(v.). Senators are elected in number of two for each State regardless of the size of the population, with direct popular vote, starting from 1913 (XVII amendment; before then the election of the senators took place indirectly by the legislative assemblies of the individual states). To become a senator, you must be at least thirty years of age, reside in the state and have been a US citizen for at least nine years. The senatorial mandate lasts six years and the expiry of the mandates is ordered so that one third of the members are elected every two years. The Senate is called to judge the impeachment proceedings initiated by the House of Representatives: a two-thirds majority of the senators is required for the sentence.

Convention – In the early years of the American Revolution (1774-76) the substitutive bodies of the legislative assemblies of the colonies were referred to as constitutional conventions. Formed to elaborate the Constitutions, they had a permanent character even during the conflict with the mother country; they were often elected by the people and the Constitution they proposed was almost always submitted to the popular vote for approval. National convention each of the assemblies that political parties organize every four years to nominate candidates for presidency and vice-presidency is called today in the USA. In addition to choosing the party’s candidates, the convention also has the task of formulating the electoral platform, that is, the political program with which the party faces the election campaign. The delegates to the national convention are chosen through elections called primary (v.).

Constitution – The Federal Constitution of the United States of America, drawn up in 1787, passed in 1788, entered into force on March 4, 1789. Since then it has been revised with 27 amendments, most of which are aimed at making it more democratic ( popular election of senators, women’s suffrage, etc.); the first ten (of 15 December 1791) can be considered an integral part of the Constitution itself and form the so-called Bill of Rights ; amendments XIII, XV and XIX were introduced to abolish slavery and give full citizenship, with the right to vote, to former slaves; the last amendment introduced (from 1992) concerns the compensation of members of Congress. Proposed amendments to the Constitution must be advanced by two-thirds of the Congress or by a national convention, and must be ratified by three-quarters of the legislative assemblies of states or conventions of states.

Presidential electors (Presidential Electors) – They are the voters Large members of the electoral college (v.) which has the function of electing the president and vice president. Presidential voters are defined as ‘state officials’, but they do not have their legal status, nor their salary, since their only function, that of electing the president, is federal, conferred on them not by individual states but directly by the Constitution.. Until 1832, in the majority of states, presidential voters were elected by the legislative assemblies of the states themselves; only later did they begin to be directly elected by the people. Today they are elected by direct popular vote based on list voting, which assigns the totality of the votes assigned to the State to the list that obtains the majority. Each of the fifty states, and the district of the capital Washington, appoint a number of electors equal to the number of senators (two for each state) and of the representatives that it can send to Congress (in a number proportionate to the state’s population). The presidential voters of each state vote collectively for the presidential candidate who has obtained the highest number of direct popular votes in that state. This system means that the main objective of the parties becomes that of winning over the presidential voters of the large states, which have a greater number of electoral votes. It follows that a president can be elected with a majority of electoral votes higher than that of popular votes, or even so-called ‘minority presidents’ can be elected, or presidents who received the majority of the electoral votes but not that of the popular votes (this circumstance, which occurred with the election of RB Hayes in 1876 and with that of B. Harrison in 1888, was repeated in the 2000 elections, in which Al Gore won more popular votes than GW Bush). On the first Monday following the second Wednesday in December, in each state, the electors representing the electoral votes meet and vote separately for the president and vice president. By the end of the month, the results are forwarded to the Federal Registry, which submits them for review by Congress. The American Constitution thus expresses itself on Presidential electors: “Each State will nominate […] a number of Electors equal to the total number of senators and representatives that the State has the right to send to Congress; but neither senators, nor representatives, nor others who have fiduciary or paid positions employed by the United States, they may be appointed electors “(art. II, section I, c. 2).

Impeachment (from the French empêchement, “obstacle, impediment”) – It is the indictment, the impeachment of a public official or a member of the government. Originating in England as a tool to target the abuses and embezzlement of ministers and senior officials not punishable by the ordinary judiciary, the institution of impeachment is still in force in the United States. The Constitution establishes that the president, the vice president and any senior official must be dismissed if, following an accusation brought by the House of Representatives, they have been found guilty by the Senate of treason, corruption or other serious crimes or violations of their duties. The impeachment it does not determine penalties of a criminal nature but political and cannot have any other effect than removal from office or disqualification from public office; however, the affected official may be judged separately according to the ordinary law. A. Johnson, who succeeded in office following Lincoln’s killing, was the first president of the United States to be subjected to impeachment procedure: tried by Congress on May 16, 1868, was acquitted for lack of a single two-thirds majority vote provided for by the Constitution. Against R. Nixon, in 1974, the House of Representatives voted three articles of impeachment, but the president resigned before the end of the proceedings.

President – Elected for four years by an electoral college (v.) composed of representatives of each state, the president is the holder of executive power. He is not responsible to anyone, and can only be deposed upon accusation by the House of Representatives, and by resolution of the Senate by a two-thirds majority (see impeachment). The president appoints his cabinet with absolute freedom, among the trusted men of his party (there is no countersigning of the ministers or secretaries of state). He has the right to veto laws passed by Congress (v.), Within ten days of the vote, and his veto can only be invalidated if the law in question is passed again by a two-thirds majority. The president can convene the Congress in extraordinary sessions, adjourn it or extend it only in case of disagreement between the Chambers; has no right of initiative. He is the commander in chief of the Armed Forces, he can enter into treaties with foreign powers (subject, however, to the approval of the Senate, with a majority of two thirds of those present; and, if linked to financial transactions, also of the House of Representatives); appoints and dismisses federal officials, including those of the diplomatic and consular service. For senior officials, diplomats, especially legal ones, the approval of the Senate is required. In case of disturbances of the internal order, the president exercises a limited dictatorship. The president’s relations with the Congress are carried out through ‘messages’, in which he expresses his opinion on laws to be proposed and elaborated on the initiative of the Congress itself. The president is eligible for election from among US citizens, such by birth, aged thirty-five, resident in the United States for at least fourteen years. He can be re-elected only for a second term (XXII amendment to the Constitution, of 1951). If the president dies while in office, the vice president, who is elected at the same time, but by separate election (XII amendment, September 25, 1804), it succeeds him automatically. The vice-president is president of the Senate, but does not exercise any political function, as neither are the members of the cabinet, who are not part of the Congress and are mere advisers to the president and administrators of their respective departments, that is: Secretariat of State (Foreign), of the Treasury, War, Justice, Post Office, Navy, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor. In the event of deposition, death, resignation or incapacity of the president and vice-president, the presidential functions are assumed by the ministers, in the order indicated above. who are not part of the Congress and are simple advisers to the president and administrators of their respective departments, namely: Secretariat of State (Foreign), Treasury, War, Justice, Post Office, Navy, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor. In the event of deposition, death, resignation or incapacity of the president and vice-president, the presidential functions are assumed by the ministers, in the order indicated above. who are not part of the Congress and are simple advisers to the president and administrators of their respective departments, namely: Secretariat of State (Foreign), Treasury, War, Justice, Post Office, Navy, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor. In the event of deposition, death, resignation or incapacity of the president and vice-president, the presidential functions are assumed by the ministers, in the order indicated above.

Primary – These are elections, organized and governed by individual states, which are held for the purpose of nominating the candidates of a party in actual elections. The primaries in which only party members can vote are said to be closed ; open those in which all voters can vote without having to declare their membership of a party. Closed primaries can in turn be direct, when voters directly choose candidates; indirect, when voters vote the delegates who are tasked with choosing candidates for a convention. The presidential primaries are indirect primary in many states and are intended to send delegates to the party’s convention (see). Introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, the primary system was establishing itself as the system capable of providing wider democratic guarantees within the parties, considerably reducing the influence of notables, predominant in the traditional caucus system.(v.). Most of the delegates elected in the primaries are bound to vote in order to respect the choice of their constituents. The candidate who has on his side sufficient votes of delegates chosen in the primary does not encounter difficulties in obtaining the nomination by the convention: although the nomination of candidates is up to the work of the convention as a whole, the weight of the primary has become increasingly important. decisive at the expense of the party apparatuses.

Spoils system (“spoil system”) – It is the practice whereby the political party that wins an election rewards its supporters by entrusting them with posts in the public administration. This system implies on the one hand the commitment of public employees in support of their party, on the other the removal of the same in the event that the party to which they belong loses the elections. The system of spoils extends to the lower ranks of the public administration that change of political personnel which, in the higher spheres, occurs in any other system in the event of the rotation of the parties in government. In continuous expansion from the 1820s up to the period following the civil war, in the last decades of the 19th century this system of recruiting administrative personnel, due to the abuses it gave rise to, it was gradually replaced by a system based on merit. At the end of the 20th century, recruiting by merit almost totally supplanted the spoil system, at least as far as federal, state and large city governments are concerned.

Glossary of U.S. Political Institutions