Study Guide

Executive Branch & Presidents - FAQ

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Where in the Constitution are the powers of the President defined?

Article II of the Constitution defines the office of the presidency.

What are the requirements for becoming president?

A presidential candidate must be 35 years of age, a native-born citizen of the United States (naturalized citizens are ineligible), and have resided in the United States for the past fourteen years.

How is the president elected?

The president is elected by the Electors of the Electoral College. A number of Electors from each state, equal to that state's combined representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate, cast their votes for the president and vice president on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December in presidential election years.

These electors are chosen by the voters of each state. When voters cast their ballots on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in election years, they are actually electing a slate of Electors committed to a particular candidate that will represent their state in the Electoral College. In all but two states (Maine and Nebraska), the entire slate of Electors representing the candidate that wins the popular vote represents that state in the Electoral College. In Maine and Nebraska, the state's Electors to the Electoral College are allocated proportional to the popular vote. Even though, at the time of their election, Electors are committed to a particular candidate, they are free to vote for whomever they want. Only on rare occasions has an "unfaithful" Elector voted for a candidate other than the one to whom he or she was committed on Election Day.

To be elected to the presidency, a candidate must receive a majority of the Electoral College votes cast. In 2008, this meant that the winning candidate had to receive at least 270 out of a possible 538 Electoral College votes. If no candidate receives a majority in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives selects the president from among the top three vote-getters in the Electoral College. Each state has one vote in this selection process, regardless of size, and to be elected, a candidate must receive the vote of more than half of the states (currently at least 26 of 50).

Has the president selected by the Electoral College always won the popular vote as well?

No. In four elections, the eventual president did not win the popular vote. In three of these elections (1876, 1888, and 2000), the candidate finishing second in the popular vote (Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W. Bush) triumphed in the Electoral College. In the 1824 election, Andrew Jackson decisively won the popular vote, but neither he nor second-place finisher John Quincy Adams won a majority in the Electoral College. Therefore, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which elected John Quincy Adams.

Has the electoral process changed since the Constitution was adopted in 1788?

Yes. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, required that the Electoral College select the president and the vice president on separate ballots. Originally, under Article II of the Constitution, Electors cast two votes on the same ballot, with the candidate receiving the most votes serving as president and the candidate receiving the second most votes serving as vice president. But the election of 1800, in which the Republican running mates tied for first place, revealed the need to change the process. Since the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, Electors cast their votes in two separate ballots: one for the president and one for the vice president.

Is the electoral process likely to change in the future?

Possibly. Many believe that the Electoral College should be either revised or abandoned.

For example, one group of reformers has proposed a "proportional plan" that would replace the winner-take-all system employed in almost all of the states. Instead, each state's Presidential Electors would be distributed proportionate to the state's popular vote.

Another group of reformers has proposed a "district plan" that would change the way that Presidential Electors are selected and vote. Two of the electors from each state would be elected by the entire state, while the others would be elected in each of the state's congressional districts. The two representing the entire state would cast their Electoral College votes according to the statewide presidential popular vote. The Electors elected at the district level would cast their Electoral College votes in accordance with the popular vote in their district.

A third group of reformers has proposed a "national bonus plan" that would award the candidate winning the popular vote an additional 102 Electors. Otherwise, the Electoral College would continue to operate as it has in the past. But the "bonus" Electors would all but guarantee that the popular vote winner would also win in the Electoral College.

A final group has recommended the elimination of the Electoral College altogether. Instead, the president would be selected through a direct popular election.

How long does the president serve?

A presidential term is four years. Originally, the Constitution did not limit how many terms a president could sit. America's first president, George Washington, set a long-respected precedent by sitting for only two terms. But Franklin Roosevelt, president during the Great Depression and World War II, was elected to four terms. Most Americans liked Roosevelt but didn't like the precedent he set. In 1951, six years after Roosevelt's death, the 22nd Amendment was ratified, limiting a president to two terms in office.

How many presidents have not completed their term of office?

Nine presidents did not serve out their full term of office. Four died in office of natural causes (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding, and Franklin Roosevelt). Four were assassinated (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy). One, Richard Nixon, resigned facing the threat of impeachment.

Can a president be removed from office before the end of his term?

The president can only be removed from office, or impeached, for committing "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." In an impeachment proceeding, the House of Representatives acts as the prosecutor; it draws up articles of impeachment identifying the specific allegations against the president and presents the case for his removal to the Senate, which acts as the jury in the impeachment trial. Removal of the president requires a two-thirds vote among the Senators present.

What if the president is too sick to do his job?

The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, introduced procedures that would enable the vice president to assume the president's duties should the president become ill or incapacitated. According to this amendment, the vice president becomes "Acting President" when either the president, or the vice president and a majority of the cabinet officers, state in writing that the president is unable to perform the duties of his office. This statement must be submitted to the President pro tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Should the president recover, he may resume his duties by submitting a statement declaring his fitness for office to the same Congressional leaders. But if the vice president and a majority of the cabinet officers believe that the president is still physically or mentally unfit for office, they have four days to submit a letter to Congressional leaders stating these conclusions. If both the Senate and the House of Representatives, by a two-thirds vote, agree with these officials that the president is still unable to perform the duties of his office, the vice president continues as Acting President.

What is the president's role in the legislative process?

Once a bill has passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate, it is given to the president, who has ten days to either sign the bill into law or veto the bill. Congress can "override" this veto with a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. If the president does not take any action on the bill within ten days, it becomes law without his signature. If the president receives the bill within the last ten days of the Congressional session, and the president neither signs nor vetoes the bill, it does not become law. This is referred to as a pocket veto.

In addition, the Constitution requires that the president report to Congress on the "state of the Union and recommend to their consideration such measures that he shall judge necessary and expedient." Over the past century, this responsibility has served as the basis for the president's increasing role in defining a legislative agenda for Congress.

What is the president's role in the budget process?

Prior to 1921, government agencies worked directly with Congress in negotiating their budgetary needs. Since then, the president has played a crucial role in the formation of the federal budget. Working with the Office of Management and Budget, the president is now responsible for the preparation and delivery of a federal budget to Congress by the first Monday in February. For the most part, Congress dominates the next stage in the process. It is responsible for crafting the appropriations bills that must be signed by the president in time for the start of each new fiscal year on 1 October. But the president plays an important role in this stage of the process as well, working with Congress and mobilizing political support for the budgetary decisions most important to him.

What are the president's judicial responsibilities?

The Constitution grants the president the authority to grant pardons and reprieves. The president also nominates judges to the federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court. These appointments must be confirmed by the Senate.

What are the president's responsibilities as commander-in-chief?

As commander-in-chief, the president exercises ultimate authority over the nation's armed forces during times of peace and war. The president is also responsible for maintaining America's military preparedness. Only Congress can declare war, but as commander-in-chief, the president can deploy troops at home and abroad as he deems necessary. Determining exactly when the president must obtain an authorization from Congress for the use of troops is controversial. In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act in an attempt to clarify the line between executive and legislative war powers.

What is the War Powers Act?

This act, passed in 1973, defines when a president must obtain Congressional authorization for the use of military troops. According to this law, the president must inform Congress when deploying troops into hostile areas. The president may use these troops as deployed for 60 days without Congressional authorization; they may remain longer only if Congress declares war or expressly authorizes a longer deployment. The troops may remain an additional thirty days if their safe removal requires this additional time. They must be removed immediately (even within the first 60 days) if the House of Representatives and the Senate pass a joint resolution demanding immediate withdrawal.

What is the cabinet?

The cabinet consists of the heads of the executive departments. Currently (2009), there are fifteen executive departments: Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Justice, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs). Their heads are labeled Secretaries, except for the head of the Justice department, who is labeled the Attorney General. While each department head has a specific area of responsibility, the cabinet has traditionally served as the president's principal advisory group.

How much is the president paid?

Currently (2008), the president earns $400,000 per year and is given a $50,000 annual expense account. The vice president earns $221,000 annually.

What are the responsibilities of the vice president?

The vice president has only one official function—to preside over the Senate. Within this role, he is not allowed to speak or engage in Senate business, but he is authorized to vote in the case of a tie. Most commonly, vice presidents do not preside over the Senate on a daily basis. In their absence, the President pro tem of the Senate (usually the senior member of the Senate's majority party) presides.

The other responsibility of the vice president is to be prepared to assume presidential office should the president die, be killed, or be judged unfit to exercise the duties of his office.

What is the "imperial presidency?"

The term was coined in the 1970s to describe the increasing power of the presidency, especially in the area of foreign policy.

Is the "imperial presidency" the same thing as the unitary executive?

Sort of. They both refer to an understanding of the presidency which emphases its powers to act without interference from the other branches. But the unitary executive refers more to a specific theory of executive power, while the imperial president was coined to describe the historical evolution of the office toward greater unchecked power.

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