Study Guide

Executive Branch & Presidents - Terms

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Appointment Power

The Constitution grants to the president the authority to appoint, with the approval of the Senate, "Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and other Officers of the United States."

Article II

The second article of the Constitution defines the executive branch. It outlines the qualifications of the presidency, the duties of the presidential office, and the process of electing the president and vice president.

Bully Pulpit

President Theodore Roosevelt described the presidency as a "bully pulpit," meaning that it provided the president with great public visibility and, consequently, the ability to inform and influence the public.

Bush v. Gore

In this 2000 United States Supreme Court case, the Court ordered that the recounting of votes in the 2000 presidential election in Florida be ended. At the urging of Democratic candidate Al Gore, the Florida Supreme Court had ordered the recount of roughly 60,000 "under-votes" (ballots for which the voting machines did not register a vote). But at the urging of Republican candidate George W. Bush, the United States Supreme Court ruled that applying different standards in evaluating ballots in different counties violated the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law.


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 Department of Justice, 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.

Central Intelligence Agency

Created under the National Security Act of 1947, the CIA is authorized to gather intelligence in order to assist the president in the design and coordination of American foreign policy. The Agency is also authorized to conduct all covert activities ordered by the president. For many years, the CIA was shielded from Congressional oversight. The Hughes Ryan Act of 1974 requires that the CIA report all of its activities to Congressional oversight committees.

Chief Citizen

One of the president's many responsibilities is to serve as chief citizen. This means that the president is supposed to set an example of good citizenship to other American; in other words, he is expected to demonstrate a commitment to the public welfare.

Chief Diplomat

One of the president's many responsibilities is to serve as chief diplomat. This means that the president is responsible for directing American foreign policy and representing the nation in diplomatic affairs.

Chief Executive

One of the president's many responsibilities is to serve as chief executive. This means that it is the president's job to execute, or implement, all of the nation's laws and treaties. This also means that the president runs our large federal government.

Chief of Party

One of the president's many responsibilities is to serve as chief of party. This means that the president is the head of his political party.

Chief of State

One of the president's many responsibilities is to serve as chief of state. This means that the president is the ceremonial head of the government.

Civil Service

This refers to the process of filling government positions by examination rather than appointment. Introduced at the federal level in 1883 with the passage of the Pendleton Act, the civil service system sought to eliminate the distribution of government positions as a form of patronage and instead fill government positions on the basis of merit.

Clinton v. New York City

In this 1998 case, United States Supreme Court ruled that the recently legislated line-item veto was unconstitutional. In 1996, Congress had passed a law granting to the president a line-item veto—the authority to veto specific parts of a spending bill rather than the bill in its entirety. The Court ruled that Congress had no authority to do this; until the Constitution is amended, presidents must accept or reject a bill in its entirety.

Commander in Chief

One of the president's many responsibilities is to serve as commander in chief. This means that the president is head of America's armed forces.

Congressional Caucus

These gatherings of the Congressmen from each party were the method of selecting party nominees for the presidency in the early nineteenth century.

Electoral College

The Electoral College is the body that elects the president. It consists of 538 presidential Electors, with each state represented by a number of Electors equal to that state's combined representation in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Electors meet in their states' capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December in presidential election years to cast their votes for the president and vice president.

To be elected to the presidency, a candidate must receive a majority of the Electoral College votes cast. 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).

Electoral College Reform: Direct Popular Election

Under this plan for reforming the presidential selection process, the Electoral College would be eliminated and the president would be chosen in a direct popular election.

Electoral College Reform: District Plan

Under this plan for reforming the presidential selection process, Presidential Electors would be allocated using the traditional formula, but they would be selected and vote differently. Two of the electors 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 based on the popular vote in their district.

Electoral College Reform: National Bonus Plan

Under this plan for reforming the presidential selection process, the Electoral College would continue to operate as it has for 200 years. But the candidate winning the popular vote would receive 102 "bonus" Electors, thus all but ensuring that the popular vote winner would also win in the Electoral College.

Electoral College Reform: Proportional Plan

Under this plan for reforming the presidential selection process, the winner-take-all system would be eliminated and each state's Presidential Electors would be distributed proportionate to the state's popular vote.

Executive Agreements

These are international agreements between the president and a foreign leader that do not require Senate approval. Generally, executive agreements are negotiated to address minor diplomatic issues or the details of a formal treaty that does not have Senate approval.

Executive Privilege

Many presidents have argued that, in order to preserve the separation of powers between the branches, the president cannot be compelled to turn over documents or communication generated by the executive branch. Most famously, President Richard Nixon claimed executive privilege when he was issued a subpoena for tape recorded conversations between him and his advisors during the Watergate Crisis. In United States v. Nixon, the Supreme Court ruled that while the basic doctrine of executive privilege was legitimate, the claim was not unqualified and it did not apply to the current criminal investigation.

Executive Orders

These are rules or regulations issued by the executive branch that have the effect of law. They are used by presidents to flesh out the details of Congressional legislation and guide the executive agencies. The "ordinance power" gives the president the authority to issue executive orders.

Hughes-Ryan Act

Passed by Congress in 1974, this act required that the president report the covert activities of the Central Intelligence Agency to Congressional oversight committees. Under its original charter as part of the National Security Act of 1947, the CIA reported only to the president. But Congressional objections to CIA activities in Southeast Asia and Latin America prompted Congress to increase its oversight of the president's use of the CIA.


The power of Congress to remove from office any federal civil official—up to and including the president—deemed guilty of "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." In such cases, the House has the sole power to impeach—that is, to bring charges against the offending official. If the House votes to impeach, the Senate then serves as judge and jury in impeachment cases. So far in American history, only two presidents have ever been impeached—Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Neither was convicted by the Senate, and thus both remained in office. A third president, Richard Nixon, resigned from the presidency in 1974 in order to avoid an impeachment trial he was almost certain to lose over the Watergate scandal.

Imperial Presidency

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


This is a controversial practice through which presidents once refused to spend monies appropriated by Congress. Every president from John Adams to Richard Nixon impounded congressionally appropriated funds, offering a variety of reasons, i.e., the need no longer existed or that financial crises required cutbacks. But President Richard Nixon's unprecedented use of impoundment (4% of total Congressional appropriations in 1973-1974) contributed to the charges that he was abusing his office and creating an "imperial presidency." Federal Courts have since ruled that the president must spend all money appropriated.

Independent Executive Agency

These are executive branch agencies, created by Congressional legislation, that do not fall under the jurisdiction or control of the primary executive departments (such as the Department of Agriculture or Department of Defense). Their responsibilities are defined by the Congressional legislation that created them. As a result, some of these agencies are more independent in their operations than other executive agencies. Some of these independent executive agencies serve regulatory purposes, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Communications Commission. Others advance specific objectives deemed worthy of government support, such as the National Science Foundation.

Judicial Powers

The Constitution grants to the president certain judicial powers; that is, the power to grant pardons and reprieves. A pardon excuses or forgives a criminal act and restores all civil rights to the person pardoned. A presidential reprieve, on the other hand, only delays (perhaps indefinitely) a convicted person's punishment.

Line-Item Veto

Presidents have repeatedly requested a line-item veto: the authority to veto specific parts of a spending bill rather than the bill in its entirety. In 1996, Congress did legislate a line-item veto, but in 1998, in Clinton v. New York City, the United States Supreme Court ruled that this Congressional revision of the veto power was unconstitutional; until the Constitution is amended, presidents must accept or reject a bill in its entirety.

Myers v. United States

This 1926 United States Supreme Court decision held that even though the president must obtain Senate approval when making an appointment, the president could remove officials without Senate approval. Without the authority to dismiss public officials, the president would be unable to "discharge his own constitutional duty of seeing that the laws be faithfully executed." blank" rel="nofollow">ruled that blanket primaries undermined the integrity of the parties' nominating processes and violated their Constitutionally protected right to freedom of association.

Presidential Succession—This refers to the plan for replacing the president should he die, be impeached, or be ruled unable to perform the duties of his office. In such an event, the vice president becomes the president. Should the vice president be unable to assume office, the presidency passes to these officers in the following order: Speaker of the House, President pro tem of the Senate, Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Labor, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Secretary of Transportation, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Education, and Secretary of Veteran Affairs.

Pocket Veto

A procedure by which the president can effectively veto legislation passed by Congress without officially vetoing it. If Congress adjourns from its session within ten days of submitting a bill to the president for his signature, and the president then does nothing—neither signing nor vetoing the bill—then the measure dies and the president is said to have executed a pocket veto, metaphorically killing the bill by sticking it in his pocket and forgetting about it.

Removal Power

The president has the power to remove appointed officials without the consent of Senate. This power has been frequently contested; many have argued that, since the president must obtain Senate approval when making an appointment, he must obtain Senate approval when dismissing one of these appointees. But for the most part, the president's authority to remove officials without Senate approval has been defended. In 1926, the Supreme Court asserted this principle in Myers v. United States.

Signing Statement

Since the 1970s, presidents have commonly attached these statements when they sign a bill into law, explaining how they would interpret or apply certain sections of the bill. President George W. Bush used signing statements to identify portions of the bill that he believed violated his prerogatives as president and therefore would not be enforced.

Twelfth Amendment

The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, reformed the presidential and vice presidential election process. Originally, under Article II of the Constitution, Electors cast two votes during a single ballot; the candidate receiving the most votes served as president and the candidate receiving the second most votes served as vice president. But the election of 1800, in which Republican running mates tied for first place, revealed the need to change the process. After the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment, Electors cast their votes in two separate ballots, one for the president and one for the vice president.

Twenty-second Amendment

Ratified in 1951, the Twenty-second Amendment limits the president to two terms in office.

Twenty-fifth Amendment

The Twenty-fifth 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.

Unitary Executive

This is a theory about executive branch power that argues that the president's constitutionally allocated responsibilities may not be abridged by Congressional or Judicial action. For example, according to this theory, Congressional attempts, such as the War Powers Act, to limit the president's options as commander-in-chief are unconstitutional. The theory also argues that the president's authority as chief executive to implement federal laws cannot be restricted by the other branches. Consequently, Congressional creations like the Environmental Protection Agency, an "independent executive agency," are viewed as inappropriate efforts on the part of Congress to create an executive agency that is not fully controlled by the executive branch. Congress's legislation of "independent prosecutors" similarly encroaches upon the executive department's plenary authority over the justice department.

While the theory has received much attention in recent years as members of President George W. Bush's administration used it to defend their decisions, it is not a new theory. The question is really only whether the framers intended for ours to be a "strongly unitary" or "weakly unitary" executive. In other words, whether the president was to be absolutely shielded from all congressional encroachments on his duties or whether Congress had the legitimate right, within its legislative functions, to impose some case-specific limitations on executive prerogative.


The president's power to reject a bill passed by Congress, preventing it from becoming law. Congress can override a president's veto by two-thirds vote. The veto is one of the executive branch's most important checks on the power of the legislative branch of government.

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 join resolution demanding immediate withdrawal.

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