19 Political Questions You’ve Been Too Embarrassed to Ask
“Caucus,” “Primary,” “Electoral college,” “Lame duck”—what do these terms even mean and how the heck did water fowl get involved in politics?
How is it decided how many members of Congress each state gets?
Every ten years (in years ending in 0) the United States conducts a census, which indicates our total population. Through a process known as apportionment (or sometimes, reapportionment), the population is divided by the number of seats in the House of Representatives (435), Dr. Callahan Harrison says. The Census determines the approximate size of a congressional district and states are then apportioned their number of House members based on their population. The average population of a congressional district is about 711,00 people, though because each state is guaranteed at least one House member, some states (including Wyoming and Vermont) have fewer.
Each state gets two members of the Senate, regardless of population. Don’t miss these 25 secrets your congressperson won’t tell you.
What is the Electoral College?
The United States does not have a one person, one vote system. Rather, each state is given a number of “electors” which together make up the Electoral College and they are the ones doing the actual voting, explains Kevin Pybas, PhD, associate professor of political science at Missouri State University and contributor to the Encyclopedia of American Civil Rights and Liberties. When you cast a vote for president, you’re actually voting for the elector who will represent that candidate. The number of electors in each state is determined by the number of members of the House of Representatives (which varies based on population) plus the two for the members of the senate. Added together, the 435 members of the house plus the 100 members of the senate plus 3 electors for Washington DC equals 538 total electoral college votes. A candidate must get at least 270 electoral votes to win. Find out why Election Day is always on a Tuesday in November.
What’s a superPAC and how is that different?
A “super PAC” is like a traditional PAC in that it acts as a bank account for political campaigns but the big difference is that unlike regular PACs, it can accept almost an unlimited amount of money, Dr. Nelson says. There is one rule, however: They can only spend it on issues and not individuals, so it can’t be used to endorse a specific candidate, he explains. For instance a superPAC may lobby for gun control but they couldn’t lobby for a particular candidate who endorses gun control. Don’t miss the 12 most artful campaign posters of all times.
What is a filibuster?
Ever wonder why sometimes you see senators reading books to an empty room for hours on C-SPAN? They are doing a legislative procedure which allows them to control the floor, called a filibuster. The trick is, that person can’t sit down or stop talking, though the topic doesn’t have to relate to the bill—Huey Long famously described recipes for fried oysters in his 1930 filibuster.
“It’s a tactic when used, or just threatened, can give more power to the minority party than it would normally have by allowing them to have unlimited time, Dr. Trish says. While the House of Representatives limits how long a congressperson can talk, the Senate doesn’t have any restrictions. Many people, including current presidential candidates, are trying to abolish them, saying they are a waste of time.
Does the Supreme Court do anything besides decide cases?
Not really, Dr. Nelson says. The whole job of the Supreme Court is to interpret the laws of the land and make sure they are abiding by the Constitution (or, rarely, if the Constitution needs to be amended), he says.
But that’s a big job! The Supreme Court is the “court of last resort” for cases that wend their way through the 50 state court systems, when a federal question is at stake, Dr. Callahan Harrison says. “It also serves as a court of appeal for the federal courts, and the courts of Military Appeals, International Trade, and Court of Claims,” she explains. “But in choosing which cases to decide, the Supreme Court in some instances both reflects and establishes the top issue concerns in our nation.” Don’t miss the 10 myths about the Constitution many still believe.
If a president is impeached does that mean they have to leave office?
Impeachment and removal from office are two separate things with two separate procedures, Dr. Nelson says. And thus far in our history, while two presidents have been impeached (Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson), neither was removed from office. “Impeachment is done in the House of Representatives and is essentially and indictment,” he explains. “Once a president is impeached then the Senate conducts a trial, if he or she is convicted by the senate then they are removed from office.” Surprised? There are so many things people get wrong about impeachment.
What if a president refuses to concede an election or leave office, if impeached?
Neither of these situations has ever happened but if a president refused to abide by Congress’ decision, then he or she would be in violation of the law and would need to be removed by law enforcement, Dr. Nelson says. “No action he took during this period would be legal and everything would shut down,” he adds. Read on for more White House trivia.
What is a lame duck?
Despite the weird name, it’s describing a fairly common occurrence, Dr. Nelson says. If a president is not re-elected (either due to a vote or term limit), then during the time between the election in November and the inauguration of the new president, he or she is considered a “lame duck,” he explains. Similarly, if one party loses their majority in an election, during the time between the election and the start of the new session of Congress on January 3rd, it’s considered a “lame duck session,” he adds. “This can be used to the person or party’s advantage since they don’t have to consider re-electibility when making decisions,” he says. “For instance, a lot of presidents have used their lame duck status to pardon federal felons when pardoning them previously would have made them politically unpopular.”
How do you end a filibuster?
The longest filibuster on record is Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-SC) effort to block passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1957. He spoke uninterrupted for 24 hours and 18 minutes. (That’s a long time with no bathroom breaks!) However, if the rest of Senate is getting sick of hearing their colleague blab, they can end the filibuster with a “cloture” vote, meaning two-thirds of senators agree to force the talker to get off the soapbox.
How much can a president do alone?
Presidential powers are spelled out in Article II of the Constitution. “Honestly, those enumerated powers are rather slim,” Dr. Callahan Harrison says. “He or she is the commander in chief, can enter into treaties, and make appointments (ambassadors, cabinet members, Supreme Court vacancies).” This has changed in recent times, however. “The reality is that the power of the president has grown enormously, and in fact, Congress has relinquished much of their Constitutional powers to presidents,” she explains. Read up on the 22 presidential firsts you didn’t learn in school.