Even though most people in the United States at some point took a government class where the basics of the constitution and the U.S. form of government were taught, I am aware that often things learned in high school or college are easily forgotten. I often find myself in conversations with individuals, even those who may speak emphatically about defending the constitution, who speak in ways that show they do not understand the U.S. Constitution and the form of government it establishes. This has not been helped by the proliferation of opinions put out across multiple media seem either unaware or who willfully deceive those following them on how the U.S. system of government and legal system works.
I am not a constitutional scholar but I am a person who does have a profound respect for the work of the original crafters of the constitution as well as the long process of amending the constitution. This is both a refresher for me as I re-examine these foundational documents of our republic and an attempt to make the constitution itself easier to understand for those who read it. Also for those who want to effect change within our society it is essential to understand how at a basic level how our government and legal system is structured. If you would like to look at the text of the constitution it can be found at http://constitutioncenter.org/media/files/constitution.pdf.
Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution in summary
Section 1: The first branch of the U.S. government laid out in the constitution is the legislative branch, which is responsible for the establishing of laws to govern the country. The formation of the bicameral (two house) legislative branch was a compromise to address the concerns of both the smaller states who feared that they would not be fairly heard if population was the only means of representation and larger states who wanted greater representation based upon their larger populations.
Section 2: The House of Representatives, the larger of the two parts of the legislative branch where the representation is based upon the population.
Qualifications to be eligible to be elected to the House of Representatives: 25 years of age, citizen of the United States for seven years and an inhabitant of the state where they have been chosen. The Representatives serve two year terms, elected on even number years, and do not have a limit on the number of times they can be re-elected.
The number of members in the House of Representatives is fixed at 435. This number was fixed in the Apportionment Act of 1911 and then tied to the U.S. census in the Reapportionment Act of 1929. Originally within the constitution Native Americans were not counted and African Americans (primarily slaves when the constitution was written) were counted as 3/5 of a person. The constitution was not a perfect document and so individual pieces, like this, had to be amended later. (In this case Ammendment 14 in 1866 readjusted the method for counting for representation, several ammendments to the constitution are specifically working to expand the right to vote and participate in the legal system due to discriminatory practices).
The House of Representatives has the sole Power of Impeachment, the ability to bring charges against a civil officer or government and can do this by a majority vote of the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives does not try the Impeachment, that is outlined in section 3 with respect to the Senate. The division of power within the legislative branch for impeachment proceedings is one of the checks and balances built into the system of government we have inherited.
Section 3: The Senate, the smaller of the two parts of the legislative branch where each state is entitled to two representatives.
Qualifications to be eligible to be elected as a Senator: 30 years of age, a citizen of the United States for nine years and an inhabitant of the state where they are elected. Senators serve for a six year term (1/3 of the senate is up for re-election at each even number year and do not have a limit on the number of times they can be re-elected).
Since there are two senators for each state the senate has 100 members. The Vice President of the United States serves as the President of the Senate but has no vote except in the case of a tie.
If articles of impeachment are brought from the House of Representative the Senate will try the impeachment proceedings. If the President is tried then the Chief Justice of the United States will preside and it takes 2/3 of the Senate to vote in favor of conviction for the impeached individual to be convicted. Andrew Jackson and Bill Clinton were both impeached but were acquitted in the Senate and therefore had no action taken against them. Richard Nixon technically was never impeached because he resigned before the House could vote on impeachment. The maximum penalty that impeachment proceedings can lead to is removal from office and disqualification for hold any high office in the United States. Impeachment does not remove the possibility of civil or legal proceedings after impeachment, but except in rare cases legal proceedings can’t be brought against a person in and Office of Honor (Representative, Senator, Judge, President, etc. see for example Section 6 below).
Section 4: Refers to the election of Senators and Representatives which is primarily left to the states to determine the time, place and manner of the elections and it requires the congress to assemble at least once a year. In the seventeenth amendment the treatment of senators and representatives is fixed to occur in the same manner (now a part of our national elections). The Twentieth amendment will fix the time of initial assembly of the congress for the year as January 3rd at noon.
Section 5: Sets the quorum for each house at a majority of its membership and allows for the houses to compel the attendance of absent members. Each house determines its own rules of meeting, can punish members who act disorderly and even expel a member with a 2/3 vote (censure and lesser punishments require only a majority vote). Each house is required to keep a journal of its proceedings that will be published, but may exempt parts that require secrecy. It also requires both houses to not break for longer than three days while congress is in session (so that one house doesn’t by inaction delay the action of the other house).
Section 6: Requires that Senators and Representatives are compensated for their services. Since 2009 the basic salary for a Senator or Representative has been $174,000. It also exempts Senators and Representatives from arrest except in cases of Treason, Felony and Breach of Peace while attending at session of their house, returning to or from their respective house, and they may not be arrested for any speech or debate in those houses. This is also an important concept within the balances of power because it prevents the Executive branch or state or federal authorities from threatening members of the legislative branch with imprisonment for dissenting. Senators and Representatives to preserve the separation of powers cannot at the same time as they serve in the House or Senate assume a role within the executive or judicial branch.
The first six articles provide the foundation for the senators and representatives to do the primary work they are appointed for: the process of making laws and raising and appropriating funds for the functioning of the republic. The process of creating laws, the responsibilities and limits of the legislative authority and the limiting of the authority of the states closes out this article but these topics are detailed enough that they will constitute their own post in this series.