Another extremely important document to understand if you’re going to understand American government and politics is the Constitution. Yes, even now, almost 225 years after its ratification, it is still the cornerstone and chief document of the United States government. As much as many might wish the government to ignore certain portions or provisions, for a government official to do so is itself a violation of the Constitution and possibly grounds for being forced out of office, impeached, or even tried for treason (depending on the violation and its severity, of course). This is rare, though, because, until recent years, knowledge of the Constitution was a requirement for graduating high school and was a source of pride for anyone who wanted to run for office.
If you were to write the Constitution by hand (and don’t have super-giant handwriting), the whole thing will fit on four pages of parchment or six pages of standard-sized college-rule notebook paper. So, don’t whine at me that it’s too long or too dense to understand. It’s really not. The average English-reading adult should be able to read through the Constitution of the United States in about fifteen minutes and should be able to understand the language it’s written in. The simple fact that far too many people don’t bother is extremely sad and extremely frustrating.
Quick note: I have not included the Bill of Rights in this post. They need their own post which will be next in this “important documents” series.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
SECTION. 1. All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
SECTION. 2. The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.
No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons. The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to choose three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.
When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.
The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
SECTION. 3. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.
Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the second Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the fourth Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the sixth Year, so that one third may be chosen every second Year; and if Vacancies happen by Resignation, or otherwise, during the Recess of the Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary Appointments until the next Meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such Vacancies.
No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.
The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.
The Senate shall chose their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.
SECTION. 4. The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.
The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.
SECTION. 5. Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller Number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.
Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.
Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy; and the Yeas and Nays of the Members of either House on any question shall, at the Desire of one fifth of those Present, be entered on the Journal.
Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.
SECTION. 6. The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.
No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been increased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.
SECTION. 7. All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law. But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by Yeas and Nays, and the Names of the Persons voting for and against the Bill shall be entered on the Journal of each House respectively. If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.
Every Order, Resolution, or Vote to which the Concurrence of the Senate and House of Representatives may be necessary (except on a question of Adjournment) shall be presented to the President of the United States; and before the Same shall take Effect, shall be approved by him, or being disapproved by him, shall be re-passed by two thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, according to the Rules and Limitations prescribed in the Case of a Bill.
SECTION. 8. The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;
To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;
To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy; To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards and other needful Buildings;-And
To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
SECTION. 9. The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.
No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.
No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.
No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State.
No Preference shall be given by any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another: nor shall Vessels bound to, or from, one State, be obliged to enter, clear, or pay Duties in another.
No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.
No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.
SECTION. 10. No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.
No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection Laws: and the net Produce of all Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States; and all such Laws shall be subject to the Revision and Control of the Congress.
No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.
SECTION. 1. The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows:
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.
The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List 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 shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner choose 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. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall choose from them by Ballot the Vice President.
The Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.
No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.
The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.
Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
SECTION. 2. The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
SECTION. 3. He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.
SECTION. 4. The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
SECTION. 1. The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
SECTION. 2. The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States; between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment; shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
SECTION. 3. Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.
SECTION. 1. Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.
SECTION. 2. The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.
A Person charged in any State with Treason, Felony, or other Crime, who shall flee from Justice, and be found in another State, shall on Demand of the executive Authority of the State from which he fled, be delivered up, to be removed to the State having Jurisdiction of the Crime.
No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.
SECTION. 3. New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.
The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.
SECTION. 4. The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.
All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.
“General Welfare” gets misunderstood a lot these days as meaning that the federal government should provide monetary welfare for the needy. The way it’s used in the Preamble refers only to things that could benefit all citizens of the United States — roads, the Armed Forces, public hospitals, and the like.
Article I establishes the legislative branch of the US government — the House of Representatives and the Senate. Since this branch and its two houses are established independently by the Constitution, they can’t be dismissed or ignored by the other branches of the government. Unlike in a more parliamentary system such as is used in the UK or France, the President cannot send Congress home and cannot force new elections. Congressional elections, authority, and existence is independent of the executive who has no real legislative authority.
The US Congress is bicameral — consisting of two houses. This was actually a huge debate during the Constitutional Convention. Smaller states (those with less people) wanted a single house where every state got one vote (the New Jersey plan). Larger, more populous states, wanted a single house where representation depended on how many people lived in the state (the Virginia plan). The Convention settled upon a compromise (the Connecticut Compromise) — two houses. Seats in the House of Representatives is based on the number of people in a given state but the Senate is always two Senators from a given state. Both houses have to agree on legislation before it goes to the President for signing or for veto which puts small and large states on an equal footing in the government.
Representatives of a state and Senators from a state must be residents of that state. This was to combat the “absentee landlord/representative” problem that was prevalent in Britain at the time where a member of Parliament might hold a seat over a part of the country he’d never visited. If you want to be a Congressperson for a state, you need to go and live in that state and establish residency (each state has different requirements) within that state first.
Ah, the good ol’ Three Fifths Compromise. This meant one slave counted as three-fifths of a person for representation. It was pretty much repealed and subverted with the ending of slavery after the Civil War. However, it was necessary to get the Constitution ratified since the slave states would have refused to ratify the Constitution without it but the free states objected to the proposal to count slaves entirely towards population (which would have inflated the representation from the slave states by a fair margin).
If a Representative dies, falls too ill to carry out their duties, or is removed from office, the governor of that state must call for a special election within their state immediately. Unlike with a Senator, the governor cannot appoint a temporary replacement to fill out the term of office — the Representative has to be elected by the people of that state because that’s the whole purpose of the House of Representatives — to represent the people of the different states. The states themselves are represented in the Senate.
Fun fact: you don’t have to be elected to the House of Representatives to be the Speaker of the House. The majority party could elect any US citizen who is qualified to hold office as their Speaker. Generally, though, the Speaker does come from the House of Representatives.
If someone is in need of being impeached in the federal government, the House of Representatives will have to decide that. Now, impeaching someone does not mean they’ll be removed from office. Impeachment is more like an indictment than a conviction. Thus far, Congress has used the power of impeachment only 19 times. Only two presidents have ever been impeached — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Neither was removed from office. Nixon wasn’t impeached — he resigned before the House could meet to vote on it.
The Senate is where the states themselves are supposed to be represented. The Senate’s job is not to represent the interest of the people of a state but rather to represent the interest of the state itself — the people are already represented in the House. This is why the Senate is the place where treaties are ratified and executive appointments are decided — because the Senators are looking after the long-term interest of their state.
Senators were originally appointed or elected only by the legislature of the states they were residents of. Direct election of the Senate is a very recent thing and it has definitely upset the balance of power within the federal government and weakened and diluted the power of the Senate itself a great deal.
This class thing has nothing to do with rank or importance. It’s strictly about deciding when the Senators from a given state have to be re-elected. Since Senators serve six year terms and the Senate is necessary for a lot of important functions (treaties and the like), it’s not a good idea to have the whole house out for election every sixth year. So, every two years 1/3 of the seats in the Senate are elected within their state.
Senators can be appointed by the governor or the legislature of their state (depending on the laws within that state) if the seat is vacant because a Senator died, was removed from office, or is no longer able to function as a Senator.
If the House passes the Articles of Impeachment against a federal official, the Senate is the one who votes on whether or not to remove that person from office.
To be removed from office, 2/3s of the Senate has to vote for it.
This forbids secret meetings or “special government councils” from getting together to make and pass laws in a bid to get around dealing with the rest of the legislative branch.
Just because you’re in Congress doesn’t exempt you from being prosecuted for a crime. However, you can’t be arrested if you’re on your way to Congress or if Congress is in session and you are there as an elected official. Now, once Congress is out of session, you’re fair game.
If the government needs to raise revenue, only the House of Representatives can start the process to do so. All bills regarding taxation have to originate in the House. This goes back to the whole “no taxation without representation” thing that was what sparked the American revolution. The Senate can’t create a revenue bill because the Senate represents the states — not the people! And yes, this is a Big Fucking Deal and it is part of why the ACA is so controversial.
Article I, Section 8 is also called the “enumerated powers” part of the Constitution. This is where all of the things that Congress is allowed to do are spelled out. Anything not in this list is reserved either to another branch of the government or, if it’s not in the Constitution at all, to the state governments or to the people of the states.
Welcome to the horribly abused “Commerce Clause.” Congress was originally given the power to regulate interstate trade — things like making certain that one state didn’t impose special taxes on goods from another state or settling commercial disagreements between states or to regulate (uniformly) all trade or industry within the United States. These days, it’s been abused to regulate things that could hardly be called trade (such as fining a farmer for growing wheat on his own land when he never intended to sell it but instead to use it to feed his livestock) or things that could hardly be called “interstate” (such as marijuana growers in Colorado still being subject to federal raids and seizures even when their product never crosses into or out of another state).
Habeas corpus is what forces the government to get a court order to continue to detain a person awaiting trial. It’s what keeps the government from just locking someone up and never checking to see if the government has a case against that person or even has the right person locked up. This was put in to keep things like “being held for the Monarch’s pleasure” from happening. Habeas corpus can only be suspended in very narrow circumstances and has happened only twice at the federal level.
A bill of attainder was where a legislature (such as Parliament) could vote to declare a person guilty of a crime without that person having a trial. These kind of things are expressly forbidden in the United States. Ex post facto laws are also forbidden — if something wasn’t illegal when the person did it and then it later became illegal (such as selling alcohol), the person couldn’t be arrested and tried for performing acts that were once legal (or, at the very least, not illegal). This also prevents punishments from being increased if the severity of the punishment is later changed by law.
States cannot impose taxes on goods coming from other states and Congress can’t impose those taxes for them. Goods moving from one state to another are free and clear.
Congress does have to keep a good accounting of their expenditures and keep a budget. This is a big deal and it’s part of why people are upset with the current Congress where the Senate has refused to pass a budget bill in six years. Continuing resolutions are not considered adequate enough to fulfill this obligation.
Once you’re an American (whether it’s at birth or later), you can’t become a noble somewhere else unless Congress passes a special act to allow it. Also, if you’re a noble from another country, your title means squat here.
This section keeps the states from doing things that are reserved only for Congress.
Article II deals with the executive branch of the government. Again, the executive draws power and existence from the Constitution itself and cannot be easily removed or ignored by the other branches.
Right, so, two big points to work with here. First, the Electoral College. Remember back in footnote #3 I mentioned something called the Connecticut Compromise and how it was necessary to get the Constitution ratified? Well, the Electoral College is part of that. The small states did not want the executive to only concern himself with the larger states (which is exactly what would happen with direct popular election) and the larger states did not want the executive to ignore them in order to court a bunch of smaller states (which is what would happen if each state had only one vote). So, the executive is elected by the Electoral College where each state gets the same number of votes in it as they would have in the combined House and Senate. This balances the power between the large and small states and forces the executive branch to care about the concerns of all the states, not just a handful.
The other fun thing is that this is one of the first things that got changed about the way the executive is elected. Originally, there was no vice president chosen to run with a president. Instead, the vice president was whoever came in second in the presidential election. This worked well with the first president — George Washington. However, when John Adams was elected, Thomas Jefferson (a member of an opposing party) came in second. Realizing the problems inherent in this particular system, future presidents selected their own vice presidents and the Electors voted for both together.
This section has cropped up a bit since John McCain was nominated. Only someone who is a native and/or natural born citizen of the United States can become president or vice president. If you immigrated here after birth — even if you were only a day old — you can’t become president or vice president. However, if you were born aboard to at least one American parent (such as if your father was serving in the Armed Forces overseas or your mother was a diplomat assigned to a foreign nation) and you had American citizenship from birth, then you need to have lived inside the United States for fourteen years and then you can run for the presidency. But, if you have never lived in the United States, you cannot run for these offices even if both of your parents are American and you have American citizenship.
This one’s caused problems lately. The Senate must be consulted on almost all executive appointments. However, if the Senate is not in session, the president can make a recess appointment (this is supposed to only be used in an emergency). This isn’t supposed to be used as an end run around getting the Senate’s confirmation and it can only be used when the Senate is completely out of session — not when they’ve called for a temporary adjournment of proceedings so they can go home and go to sleep for the night and resume things the next morning.
This one is another one that people are beating their heads against lately. The president can’t pick and choose what laws to enforce or upon whom to enforce them. The president can’t decide not to enforce parts of laws he doesn’t like or that are inconvenient to him or to his interests. He has to enforce the laws as they were written and passed by Congress. Failure to do so is a violation of his oath of office and is unconstitutional. He also can’t refuse to enforce the law against his friends or people he likes.
If you want to know how to get kicked out of office, here you go.
Article III establishes the judiciary. Again, since this branch exists independently of the others, it can’t be ignored.
Additionally, since Article III establishes the US Supreme Court as the highest court in the United States, this is why the US government cannot recognize the International Criminal Court. We’d have to amend the Constitution to allow for it and the chances of that happening are slim to none because amending the Constitution is hard.
The federal government really isn’t supposed to have any power over crimes within a state or over multiple states. This clause also spells out how jurisdiction is decided in criminal cases.
Article IV is concerned with the states and not the federal government.
This is the “full faith and credit” clause that gets bandied about a lot. This means that each state has to recognize the rights and privileges of other states — even if those same rights and privileges don’t exist within that state. This is what lets someone from New York drive a car in Oregon without having to get an Oregon driver’s license. This is why a couple married in Texas can move to Florida and not have to get married again. The two current areas of controversy here are gay marriage and gun permits. Gay marriage will probably wind up falling alongside the same lines as cousin marriage (in some states, you can’t marry your first cousin. However, if you married your first cousin in a state that allowed it and then moved to a state that forbade it, the marriage is still valid) and gun permits really should fall in line with driver’s licenses. Seeing Article IV challenges on these will definitely be interesting.
Republican here refers strictly to the form of government (representative as opposed to a democracy where everyone meets to vote on everything), not the current Republican party.
If you don’t like part of the Constitution and want to change it, Article V lays out the two processes for amending it. Only the Congressional route has ever been done. There are talks about getting an Article V governors’ convention together, though, to deal with some of the abuses coming out of Congress itself.
Article VI is a continuation of government section. It basically reassured places we were in debt to that a new government wasn’t going to decide not to pay the old government’s debts.
This part establishes the hierarchy of laws at the federal level. However, even though treaties are the “law of the land,” they cannot violate the Constitution and be ratified. The Constitution will always win. This section isn’t a way to do an end run around the amendment process and is another reason there are some treaties we can’t ratify. And yes, it is a big fucking deal. Don’t like it? See Article V.
There can be no religious or anti-religious test required to hold office in the US. For a long time, in Britain, only Anglicans could hold office. The US had no desire to follow down that path and exclude people of different (or no) faiths from holding office. However, the current crap over Supreme Court justices and abortion has come dangerously close to being a religious test and could get the entire Senate in trouble for violating this if they don’t start watching it.