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April 6, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Uncle Sam and The Immaculate Sausage Factory

4:27pm Tuesday 3rd March

I sat in my room and watched Rahm Emanuel on the internet. As I looked out over the top of Rahm’s talking head through the window and onto the concrete mess of sea and people, who do I see walking down the hill but our fair maiden, Jackson Wood—editor at large! After a round of short banter he proposes that I write a piece outlining the American Political System. After a tentative handshake and a promise to submit my piece at the last minute I set to work. But trouble strikes, and it’s barely four thirty: a bad case of writer’s block—or worse—a brain hemorrhage. Hemorrhaging brain or not, I was singularly fixated on that Simpson’s song about that lonely amendment sitting on the steps of Capitol Hill. Nothing else seems to get in or out. I had a simple solution to break my impasse—pop in my DVD on Prussian sausage making and throw on my record of ragtime music.

7:32pm Tuesday 31st March

It is three weeks later and I’ve spent that whole time thinking of nothing but Scott Joplin and sausages—admittedly not a great use of my days. But I take solace in the fact that I am not the first to be so afflicted. Joplin and sausage-related distractions were a common problem amongst many European/German jazz musicians of the late 1920s. Some say it is this great silence that fell upon the Rhineland that gave rise to a circus of Hitler Youth banging out-of-time to the tune of some old war song.

Finally with the image of a Nazi Youth eating a sausage and dancing badly out of my head I picked up my copy of the US Constitution. This document had attained some mythical God-like quality in the minds of her school children. I began to read. The basic principles of the US political system are neatly contained in this 10-page document. It struck me suddenly with the force of a brain hemorrhage: the US system was like some hideous 535 legged reptile taking on the form of the Giant Amazonian Centipede. Slowly screeching toward the city upon the hill, the Promised Refuge for all her chosen peoples (excluding Indians not taxed).

The Founding Fathers, borrowing from the legacy of European struggle, gave birth to this creature in an immaculate conception. We can think of this giant centipede as having three distinct parts; the legislative legs and body, the executive head, and the judicial antlers. The body is comprised of two components: one set with a pair of legs for each of the 50 states, and the second set of legs equally apportioned among the states. Together these legs make up a bicameral Congress—a House of Representatives and the Senate. The back set of legs, all 435 of them, are members of the House of Representatives. Every state is entitled to an equal share of these seats according to population (currently around 700,000 persons per representative). Every state is also entitled to be represented by two Senators in the Senate. The Founding Fathers did something intentionally conservative: they set the inner rhythm of these two groups of legs at a different tempo. While the back legs scuttle away furiously trying to enact popular legislation with little regard for the surface below, the top legs cautiously tread along, deliberating every feature of the ground they legislate upon. There is an old tale scuttling around the corridors of power of a conversation between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, which goes something like this:

Scene: Starbucks, Daytime

Jefferson: Sorry to have kept you waiting, I just got back from France—crazy place, you know those naturalists? They demanded I strip naked before I delivered my lecture on The Possibilities of Human Freedom.

Washington: Catholic Swine!

Jefferson: I haven’t been gone long. You never wrote, never called, and now all of a sudden we have two legislative houses—what gives?

Washington: Tell me Thomas, why do you pour your Triple Shot Soy Fraccupacino into that saucer of yours?Jefferson: Why, to cool it of course, these imbecilic peasants always make my coffee too hot.Washington: Even so, we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.

From the above historical record we can see the Founding Fathers were rather fond of two things in life: burning witches at the stake and seeking a utopian system of checks and balances. These desires aside, the two-tier legislative system was actually the product of the Great Compromise reached between smaller and larger states at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. The smaller populated states worried that with only one House of Congress their interests would be swamped by the larger states. This second chamber— a smaller, more mature and deliberative one—would provide a good balance to the passions of the larger, younger and faster moving House of Representatives.

In the early days of the republic, Senators were granted unrestricted freedom to debate. Senators debated the proposed bill at great length, until they unanimously decided to end discussion and proceed with a vote on the measure. This right to waffle was exclusively given to the Senate so that minority members would not be silenced and to encourage an inclusive and deliberative debate. By 1917, the Senate moved to pass Rule 22, which allowed the cessation of debate given a two-thirds supermajority vote (later reduced to a three-fifths vote). This privilege gives Senators a Queen of Spades up their sleeve—when a Senator comes across a bill they oppose, they can filibuster the procedure. A filibuster takes advantage of the Senates’ tradition of lengthy debate by drawing out the process and interrupting the regular flow of work. The hope is that the bill will die of apathy and be withdrawn, laid to rest in the senatorial graveyard. Filibusters can take either one of two forms: a traditional filibuster or a procedural filibuster. A procedural filibuster is a method used by a protesting minority, quite simply they extend debate ad nauseum until a three-fifths majority decides to cease debate and force a vote on the motion. A traditional filibuster is much the same except it requires all Senators to be present on the floor, and when Senators are speaking they must stand in the same spot and continuously speak.

The award for longest filibuster goes to Strom Thurmond for his efforts in 1957. Thurmond prepared by spending two hours in the boiler-room dehydrating himself so he would be able to clinch his thirst during his mammoth speech without the need to urinate. Thurmond rambled non-stop for an impressive 24 hours and 18 minutes about everything under the sun—from his opposition to the Civil Rights Act to a history lesson on Anglo-Saxon juries to his Grandmother’s biscuit recipe. Unfortunately for Thurmond, the Civil Rights Act eventually passed and all he got was a throat lozenge and a footnote in history.

Now let us return to the Centipede, step inside its giant body and inspect the inner workings of her sausage factory. Only one type of person can feed the sausage meat into the legislative machinery, Members of Congress. Although, in practice if a President wishes a particular piece of legislation introduced an eager congressmen hoping for a photo-op will be more than happy to help. Once a bill is introduced it is sent to one of the House Committees—of which there are around 20, with many more subcommittees—where members of that committee will debate and propose amendments. If the bill survives the committee it will be sent back to the floor for a full debate and vote. In the House of Representatives, strict time limits are placed upon the committee hearings and the length of debate on the floor. After debate a full vote is taken and if a simple majority is achieved then the bill will be sent to the Senate for another round of committee scrutiny, debate and vote. Once a bill has passed both Houses of Congress it is sent to the President to be signed into law.

From all this it may appear that the President is as useful as the Queen Mother on a bad hair day, or at best a mid-level Wal-Mart manager. There is, however, considerable scoop with which a President can to interpret the broad, and often vague, legislation enacted by Congress. It is the President’s job as head of all executive agencies (Treasury, State, Labor, Transport et al.) to execute this legislation. The President can appoint, with a simple majority confirmation by the Senate, heads of the executive agencies. These candidates will serve at the pleasure of the President, meaning he has effective control over the bread and butter departments and agencies which have a real impact over people’s lives. Foreign Affairs are exclusively within the domain of the Presidency—the President conducts the diplomatic affairs of the republic and can enter into treaties with other nations. While the Constitution originally demanded the Senate to provide advice and consent during the ratification of a treaty, modern day Presidents typically bypass this rule by decreeing an ‘Executive Agreement’.

The President also appoints members of the judicial branch with Senatorial advice and consent. The President is also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. While the President is in sole command of the military, only Congress can declare war—although this hasn’t stopped the 125 other unauthorized military adventures. The President has two powerful tools to promote their agenda: a veto and an executive order. If legislation arrives on the President’s doorstep he dislikes, he is able to veto a bill. Either the bill will die, or if both Houses of Congress can muster up a two-thirds supermajority in support of the bill then it will become law.

An Executive Order is a decree by the President. These were originally intended to be used as a tool of governing. Any Executive Order is still bound by the legal parameters set by Congress and the Constitution. Executive Orders can range from the mundane to the important—from Truman’s Executive Order 9981 desegregating the Armed Forces, to George W. Bush’s Executive Order 13233 restricting the public’s access to Presidential papers. Executive Orders are able to override previous Executive Orders, for example, Obama recently overrode Executive Order 13233.

While the President is tightly bound by the Constitution and Congressional laws he remains a powerful part of the US system as top politician and head executive. If he is able to use this clout, maintain a working relationship with Congress and effectively lead his party he can go great distances shaping the political landscape and direction of the country.

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