Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Checks and Balances, AKA Nothing is going to change on January 21st

At least not right away....

Over the weekend, I had the "pleasure" of seeing for myself, the lack of education of some of my fellow adult Americans.

I had heard about this phenomena over the last couple days. Like for instance, one of the students in my class heard his brother talking about how President Elect Obama was going to end the war in February, and she told him that it would take more than that. Or the family that went into a local store and when they went to pay for their purchases tried to not pay sales tax, because we have a new President. But I had not seen it personally, in action, until this weekend.

Saturday morning (early, early, like on the way home from the football game, so maybe late late, take your pick), the kids and I stopped at a gas station to fill up on gas, and to get some munchies for the ride home.

I overheard the following conversation, and I had to restrain myself from speaking up.

Cashier 1: (grumble, grumble) I am so glad that we have a new President, I am tired of paying all of these taxes for everything!

Cashier 2: I know it! I just bought the kids new shoes today and the tax was almost more than the shoes! It just needs to be January already so that President Obama can get rid of those taxes.

I know I had to be standing there with my mouth hanging wide open, because I could not believe what I was hearing. (Of course I should be impressed that they at least knew nothing will be done until January!)

For one thing, sales tax is for the most part a city, county and state tax. The National Government gets a piece of the pie, sure, but not the biggest piece.

According to Wikipedia: Sales taxes in the United States are a tax added onto the price of goods or services that are purchased in the United States. A sales tax is a tax on consumption, which is displayed as a percentage of the sale price. Sales taxes are assessed by every state except Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon. Hawaii has a similar tax although it is charged to businesses instead of consumers. In some cases, sales taxes are also assessed at the county or municipal level.
The sales tax is the responsibility of the merchant to collect and remand to the state, and stated separately (or implicitly added at the time of sale) to consumers. Usually only consumers are charged the tax; resellers are exempt if they do not make use of the goods. In some jurisdictions, a reseller's certificate is required to make use of this privilege. This is in contrast to a
Value Added Tax (VAT), where resellers are also taxed (resellers may then claim the VAT paid on their purchases from the applicable authority). States which have exemptions for specific types of organizations (such as schools), may also require a certificate. A sales tax audit is the examination of a company’s financial documents by the state’s tax agency to verify if they have collected the correct amount of sales tax from their customers.
Constitution of the United States limits the power of the states to subjects within their jurisdiction. Jurisdiction over interstate commerce is reserved to the federal government. Nevertheless, a resident of a state with a sales tax who purchases goods from a place with no sales tax (or at a lower rate) might be subject to pay a "use tax" (often at the same rate as the state sales tax) for non-exempt purchases (see also tax-free shopping). While there is no national sales tax in the United States, the Fair Tax Act, which would replace federal income taxes with a sales tax and monthly rebate, has attracted interest in the United States Congress and the 2008 presidential campaign.

For another thing, I don't remember President Elect Obama campaigning to get rid of the sales tax. (He could have, taxes wasn't a big button in the campaign for me personally, so I may have missed it.)

Lastly, even if he had it would not happen on January 21st!

There is a thing, called checks and balances. I found the following information out there on the Internet (because I am to lazy to put it into my own words. You can click on the sentences to go to the sites I got the information:
The system of checks and balances is a part of our Constitution. It guarantees that no part of the government becomes too powerful. For example, the legislative branch is in charge of making laws. The executive branch can veto the law, thus making it harder for the legislative branch to pass the law. The judicial branch may also say that the law is unconstitutional and thus make sure it is not a law.
The legislative branch can also remove a president or judge that is not doing his/her job properly. The executive branch appoints judges and the legislative branch approves the choice of the executive branch. Again, the branches check and balance each other so that no one branch has too much power.

There are three branches in the United States government as established by the Constitution. First, the Legislative branch makes the law. Second, the Executive branch executes the law. Last, the Judicial branch interprets the law. Each branch has an effect on the other.
Legislative Branch
Checks on the Executive
Impeachment power (House)
Trial of impeachments (Senate)
Selection of the President (House) and Vice President (Senate) in the case of no majority of electoral votes
May override Presidential vetoes
Senate approves departmental appointments
Senate approves treaties and ambassadors
Approval of replacement Vice President
Power to declare war
Power to enact taxes and allocate funds
President must, from time-to-time, deliver a State of the Union address
Checks on the Judiciary
Senate approves federal judges
Impeachment power (House)
Trial of impeachments (Senate)
Power to initiate constitutional amendments
Power to set courts inferior to the Supreme Court
Power to set jurisdiction of courts
Power to alter the size of the Supreme Court
Checks on the Legislature - because it is bicameral, the Legislative branch has a degree of self-checking.
Bills must be passed by both houses of Congress
House must originate revenue bills
Neither house may adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other house
All journals are to be published
Executive Branch
Checks on the Legislature

Veto power
Vice President is President of the Senate
Commander in chief of the military
Recess appointments
Emergency calling into session of one or both houses of Congress
May force adjournment when both houses cannot agree on adjournment
Compensation cannot be diminished
Checks on the Judiciary
Power to appoint judges
Pardon power
Checks on the Executive
Vice President and Cabinet can vote that the President is unable to discharge his duties
Judicial Branch
Checks on the Legislature
Judicial review
Seats are held on good behavior
Compensation cannot be diminished
Checks on the Executive
Judicial review
Chief Justice sits as President of the Senate during presidential impeachment

As my students and I have discussed on numerous occasions, President Elect Obama can write a bill, and get one of the Democratic Party members to sponsor it in the House and the Senate. However it is going to take longer than a day to go into effect.
For those of you that have forgotten the process:
First, a bill must pass both houses of Congress by a majority vote. After it has passed out of Congress, it is sent along to the President. If the President signs the bill, it becomes law.
The President might not sign the bill, however. If he specifically rejects the bill, called a veto, the bill returns to Congress. There it is voted on again, and if both houses of Congress pass the bill again, but this time by a two-thirds majority, then the bill becomes law without the President's signature. This is called "overriding a veto," and is difficult to do because of the two-thirds majority requirement.
Alternately, the President can sit on the bill, taking no action on it at all. If the President takes no action at all, and ten days passes (not including Sundays), the bill becomes law without the President's signature. However, if the Congress has adjourned before the ten days passes and without a Presidential signature, the bill fails. This is known as a pocket veto.

Submitting a Bill
Bills originate from several different sources, but primarily from individual members of Congress. In addition, bills might be brought to a member by a constituent or by a group of constituents; a bill can be submitted to a member of Congress by one or more state legislatures; or the President or his administration might suggest a bill.
However it is brought to the attention of a member, it must be submitted for consideration by the member. In the House, Representatives need merely drop a copy of a bill into a bin specifically placed to receive new bills. In the Senate, the bill is given to a clerk at the President's desk.
Bills can be introduced in either house, though as noted above, a bill must eventually pass both houses to become law. The exception to this is that bills for raising revenue must originate in the House, and never in the Senate.
Both houses of Congress, the House and the Senate, are divided into large groups called Committees, with most committees divided yet again into Subcommittees. Each Committee tends to a general topic in the nation's business, like Finance or the Military. Subcommittees are even more specialized, with one on, for example, Military Nuclear Weapons, and another on Military Pay.
Bills typically concern a specific topic, like raising the pay of soldiers. Most will, then, fall into a specific sub-committee's area of responsibility. There is a Subcommittee on Pay, Promotion, and Retirement that would consider the pay bill. Once a bill is introduced, it is assigned to a committee. A bill is scheduled to have hearings, at which time witnesses may be called to testify as to why a bill is needed, and sub-committee members ask questions of the witnesses to determine the need or validity of the bill. Once the hearings are held, the members of the subcommittee will then vote on the bill to see if it should proceed further, on to the full committee. If the vote fails, then the bill dies.
Some bills are broad enough to warrant direct consideration by the full committee itself. These types of bills, and bills that are referred to the full committee by a subcommittee, are debated in the committee, which might call witnesses, too. Finally, a vote on the bill is taken at the committee level. If the bill is defeated in the committee vote, it dies. If it passes, a committee report is attached to the bill and it is sent to the full house.
House Procedure
In the House, a bill approved by a committee is referred to the whole House. Most are then referred to the so-called Committee of the Whole, which consists of all members of the House, but with a much lower quorum requirement. Once in the Committee of the Whole, it is read and debated upon. During this general debate, time is allotted for debate, with equal amounts of that time given to the two main parties in the House. When the time for debate is up, a second reading is done. After the second reading, amendments to the bill may be offered, debated upon, and voted upon. Once the Committee of the Whole is done with the bill, it is referred back to the full House. Note that a bill cannot be killed in the Committee of the Whole, although amendments may be placed on the bill that make it undesirable. This is often known as a "poison pill.".
Once in the hands of the full House, the amendments placed on the bill by the Committee of the Whole are voted upon - they can be voted upon en masse or one at a time. After that, one of two votes can happen - either a vote to recommit (which can send the bill back to committee if approved), or a vote on the bill, as amended. If a recommit vote fails, a full vote is taken.
If a bill passes, it is organized and published. The House uses blue paper for approved bills.
Senate Procedure
After a Senate committee refers a bill to the full Senate, it can take one of two main roads. In some cases, with emergency or other non-controversial bills, a simple voice vote is taken of the Senate, and the bill either passes or fails. Amendment is possible even when the simple voice vote can be used. If consent for a voice vote is not available, the bill is placed on the calendar for review by the entire Senate at a later date.
When the bill's time comes up, objection can be noted. If no objection is noted, each Senator has five minutes to speak on the bill. During this time, amendments may be offered. If objection was offered, then each Senator has the opportunity to speak on the bill for as long as he or she wishes. From time to time, a Senator may "filibuster" by speaking about a bill for an extended period of time, never yielding the floor to another Senator. This is usually, at most, a delaying tactic, since a single member cannot speak for an indefinite amount of time. By combining forces with other Senators, however, it can be an effective tool for stopping action on an item, or for forcing compromise on an item.
After all amendments are offered and voted upon, and all Senators who wish to talk have had a chance to, the bill is put forth for a vote.
Once a bill leaves the House and the Senate, it must be checked. If anything in the two versions of the bill differ, in any way (even in something as minor as punctuation), the bill must be reconciled. The house in which the bill originated is given a copy of the bill with its differences. For example, if the House originated a bill, then sent it along to the Senate for consideration, and the Senate made changes, the bill is sent back to the House. If the changes are minor, they might be accepted by the originating house with no debate. If changes are of a more substantial nature, however, a conference is called for.
In a conference, a number of Representative and a number of Senators meet to work out the differences in the two versions of the bill. The people in the conference committee are known as managers. The number of managers from each house of Congress is of little concern, because the managers from each house vote separately. So, for example, a conference committee might have ten Representatives and seven Senators. Managers are not allowed to substantially change the bill. They may add an amendment from one bill into the other, or take out an amendment added but not in the other. But they cannot add new amendments to both versions of the bill. When there is disagreement, new text, which might be a compromise between two versions, can be proposed. But the changes must be consistent with the bill itself.
Following negotiations, the managers make reports back to their houses, that they were able to agree on the bill, able to agree only on some parts of the bill, or were unable to agree at all on the bill. If the first case, the bill is revoted upon in both houses. If the latter two cases, the bill may go back to a new conference committee, referred back to the committees in the two houses, or it may just die because the differences are too vast to bridge.
On to the President
Regardless of how it leaves the Congress, once it does, it goes to the President for his signature. Note that the legislative process does not operate in a vacuum, and the President, or his staff, has been tracking bills that pass the Congress. A bill showing up on the President's desk, then, is never a surprise. In all likelihood, the President has commented on the bill, indicating his likelihood of signing it, perhaps indicating that he will veto it unless certain provisions are in the bill, and so on. By the time the President officially sees the bill, it is either in accordance with his wishes, or in defiance of them.
Officially, all bills that pass both houses are signed by the Speaker of the House and the President (or President Pro Tem) of the Senate before being presented to the President. This process does not usually include any politicized delays, but it could delay a bill a day or two. Then, the bill is delivered to the President and the 10-day clock starts to tick.
The President may sign the bill at any time after its deliverance. If it sits unsigned for more than the 10-day period, it becomes law regardless of his signature or not. The exception to this 10-day period is commonly called a pocket veto. In a pocket veto, the President can kill a bill if it goes unsigned and Congress adjourns prior to the 10-day time limit. The term "pocket veto" comes from the fact that if the President knows an adjournment is coming, he can place the bill in his pocket and forget about it. Note that the general interpretation of the adjournment needed for a pocket veto does not include short-term adjournments; only when the Congress adjourns "sine die," or, basically, for good. This might be when a Congress ends before the next begins, or during an extended adjournment during a seasonal break.
If the President vetoes the bill, a veto message is sent back to Congress. The message contains the President's objections to the bill. The two houses of Congress may decide to revote on the issue right away. Normally, it is known if enough members will vote to override the bill (two-thirds is needed). If such a majority exists, the revote is almost guaranteed. If no immediate revote is taken, the bill can be tabled for later vote or sent back to the committee to have further work done. If a vote is taken to override, and the vote fails, the bill dies.

I find it really sad that my third grade students can grasp this concept, and in a couple of cases explain it to their parents to get their parents to understand it, and grown adults do not have a clue.
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