How the US Political System Works: Legislatures and assemblies

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Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump could not be more different is so many ways there is not enough ink to describe them. But they do share one thing in common. Well, great hair, but besides that. Sanders and Trump, through their respective runs for President of the United States, each brought a group of people not formerly engaged much in politics into the process. Obviously, Sanders brought in people who supported him and Trump bought in people who supported him, but subsequently, Trump just kept on going, bringing in even more people who are so alarmed at his presidency that they have shown up and want to know what to do about it.

Since early days in the process leading up to the 2016 election, it was apparent that our process suffered by the simple fact that a lot of people who were engaged – in on line conversations, volunteering for candidates, etc. — were poorly informed about the process itself. An example of that, which took many specific forms, was the conflation between an election to constitutional office and a primary (or caucus) in a given state pursuant to nominating a candidate for constitutional office. A lot of people thought that the primary and caucus process was legally the same thing as a general election. This is an easy mistake to make. In a certain version of this universe, not very different from the one we actually have, political parties could cough up the name of their preferred candidate using pretty much any process. The governed and closely regulated election is the one that happens on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The primary and caucus process is not that. It is a state level process, but even there, there is no necessary connection to the state government. But the conflation and confusion is understandable. Elected officials are generally politicians and members of a particular party, and over time, in each state, they saw fit to pass various laws and create various governmental (state level) functions to mange and even fund various aspects of the primary and caucus process. So, there is a lot of government doings and don’tings along the way. But those acts, while creating laws, are emergent and not required. A state could decide to drop the whole thing tomorrow, throw out all its primary and caucus support and laws governing the process, and simply ask each political party to handle all this on their own, with their own resources, their own time, and their own procedure, as long as it is not otherwise illegal. More or less. The point here is, when we speak of democracy and how it works, and focus on the election, we have to remember that the process that a party uses to put a candidate forward is that party’s process. If you want to change election law, go see a your two US Senators and your one US Representative. If you want to change how the party does it, become an active member of a party and fuss around with that for a few years.

So let’s talk about State legislative bodies for a moment. As you know, the US government has a Congress. The Congress has two houses, an upper house called the United States Senate, and a lower house called the United States House of Representatives. We shorten this to say Senate and House. A member of the House is often referred to as a “Congressman” or “Congresswoman,” to the exclusion of Senators, but really, they are all members of Congress. We use the term “Congressperson” to refer to just members of the House sometimes, and to refer to any member of Congress other times. Both are probably correct. However, to call the House “Congress” (to the exclusion of the Senate) is totally wrong, don’t do that. Even though people do sometimes. Simple, right?

But what about the states? I now live in a state that has a “House” and a “Senate” and that actually causes some degree of confusion. A lot of people get this confused and are often unsure of who someone or some thing is. I grew up, however, in a state that did not have a House. Rather, it had an Assembly, or more accurately, a “State Assembly.” (And a Senate.) I attribute my early understanding of the difference, even as a child, to this terminology. Otherwise I’d probably still be confused.

The very name of the state legislative body varies across state, and not one of them is called The Congress. Nineteen states call their state legislature a “General Assembly.” Two use the term “General Court.” Two have a “Legislative Assembly.” Twenty have a “Legislature,” and seven have a “State Legislature.”

Nebraska does not have a lower and upper chamber, just one house, which they call the “Legislature.” Three have a lower house called a “State Assembly,” one has an “Assembly” and one has a “General Assembly.” There are three that have a “House of Delegates”. All the rest use the term “House of Representatives” to name the lower house.

The upper chamber, outside of Nebraska, is called either the “Senate” or the “State Senate” in all states, though even in states where “Senate” is the technical term, it is wise to refer to that as the “state Senate” just to avoid confusion with the United States Senate.

Those were the states. The other US territories and districts vary. DC has a council (and a mayor), because it is, essentially, a city (though it wasn’t always). Guam and the Virgin Islands have a unicameral “Legislature” while American Samoa, Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico have a House of Representatives and a Senate.

I’m not sure if you regard these distinctions as important, but I think they are. This is basic vocabulary, part of the vocabulary of civics. And civics is life or death, for civilization. So at the very least, knowing what to call the nuts and bolts of government is as important as knowing what to call the nuts and bolts of a car, if you are an auto mechanic.

So, which member of your state’s legislature, or the US legislature, did you call or email to day to tell them to do the right thing, or avoid doing the wrong thing? To support the transition to clean energy, or to turn down NRA money?

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3 thoughts on “How the US Political System Works: Legislatures and assemblies

  1. > to turn down NRA money?

    What should people do in the special election in Pennsylvania?
    Conor Lamb is pro-NRA, and Rick Saccone is endorsed by the NRA.

    What if you have a Democrat endorsed by the NRA running against a Republican who isn’t supporting the NRA?

    1. Good questions. In the former case, I would vote for the Democrat then I’d be all over that candidate like ugly on an ape every minute until they changed their minds, and I’d be looking for an alternative to primary them next time around. In the case of the later … well, show me examples and I’ll respond on a case by case basis. I doubt you’ll find any current examples.

    2. Hasn’t happened yet, but I expect Heidi Heitkamp in ND will be endorsed by NRA. Joe Manchin as well.
      In both of those cases the opponent will be proNRA as well though.

      Would you support primaries against these two?

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