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U.S. Political Institutions

Congress, Presidency, Courts, and Bureaucracy

Thomas E. Patterson

How do the three branches of government operate? How is power shared among Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court? What role is played by federal agencies that have no direct constitutional authority oftheir own?

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How do the three branches of government operate? How is power shared among Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court? What role is played by federal agencies that have no direct constitutional authority oftheir own?

In this part of our series on American Government, we will examine the separation of powers among the three branches of government, and the role of voters, political parties, and the broader federal bureaucracy. We’ll explore how “the people” affect the behavior of members of Congress, what constitutes success in a president’s domestic and foreign policies, and how much power an unelected judiciary should have in a democratic system.

What you'll learn

  • How Congressmembers are influenced by their constituencies
  • What causes political polarization between Republicans and Democrats
  • How Congress’s structure limits progress on significant issues
  • How executive orders expand the powers of the presidency
  • Why presidents are less constrained in foreign policy than in domestic policy
  • How federal agencies promote and protect their programs
  • The influence of politics on Supreme Court decisions

What's inside

Learning objectives

  • How congressmembers are influenced by their constituencies
  • What causes political polarization between republicans and democrats
  • How congress’s structure limits progress on significant issues
  • How executive orders expand the powers of the presidency
  • Why presidents are less constrained in foreign policy than in domestic policy
  • How federal agencies promote and protect their programs
  • The influence of politics on supreme court decisions

Syllabus

Week 1: Congress & Constituency In this session, we will examine how their constituencies affect the behavior of members of Congress, including their influence on the type of bills that members are most likely to support. The 2014 farm bill will be used to highlight constituency influence.
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Week 2: Congress & Party This session will describe the role of parties in Congress and explain the developments that have contributed to party polarization within Congress. We’ll examine the 2013 government shutdown as a case study in party conflict. The session will also explain why Congress’s fragmented structure makes it difficult for Congress to take the lead on major national issues while making it perfectly suited to taking on scores of smaller issues at once.
Week 3: Presidents & Domestic Policy This session will examine the factors that affect presidential success in the area of domestic policy. Several factors will be mentioned, but the focus will be the partisan makeup of Congress—whether a majority of its members are from the president’s party. The 1964 food stamp bill and the 1996 welfare bill will be used to illustrate the relationship between presidential success and Congress’s partisan makeup.
Week 4: Presidents & Foreign Policy In this session, we’ll examine the president’s comparative advantages—for example, control over information—in the making of foreign policy. We’ll look particularly at the president’s war power and at executive agreements—treaty-like arrangements authorized solely by the president. President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 will serve as a case study.
Week 5: Federal Bureaucracy In this session, we’ll examine the federal bureaucracy—its structure, staffing, and operation. We’ll also explore the challenge of holding the bureaucracy accountable for its actions. The Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet program will serve as a case study of bureaucratic politics.
Week 6: Judiciary & Supreme Court This session will examine judicial power and the influence of politics on Supreme Court decisions. We will also consider the normative question of how much power an unelected judiciary should have in a democratic system. The primary case study in this session will be the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), which struck down an act of Congress prohibiting independent campaign expenditures by corporations and labor unions.

Good to know

Know what's good
, what to watch for
, and possible dealbreakers
Explores the structure and operation of the federal bureaucracy
Taught by Thomas E. Patterson, a renowned scholar of American politics
Develops key concepts and models in the field of American government
Provides a comprehensive overview of the three branches of government and their roles
Offers insights into the political dynamics and processes that shape government decision-making
Suitable for students with a strong interest in American politics and government

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Reviews summary

Well-received political institutions course

According to students, this course provides an in-depth look at U.S. political institutions. Learners say the lecture videos do a great job of explaining course material. Examples used in lessons were recent and relevant to today's world.

Career center

Learners who complete U.S. Political Institutions: Congress, Presidency, Courts, and Bureaucracy will develop knowledge and skills that may be useful to these careers:
Political Scientist
Political Scientists need a comprehensive understanding of the political system to be successful. This course provides an overview of the structure and function of the three branches of the U.S. government. It will provide you with a foundation for conducting research and teaching about American politics.
Legislator
Legislators need to understand how the government works to be successful. This course focuses on the structure and function of the three branches of the U.S. government. By learning how the government works, you may make better decisions and be a more effective legislator.
Policy Analyst
Policy Analysts need to understand the policymaking process to be successful. This course introduces how Congress, the Presidency, and the Courts participate in making policy. The course provides a foundation for understanding how proposals become laws, regulations, and court rulings. The course may be particularly helpful if you work for a government agency or non-profit organization.
Teacher
Teachers may teach about U.S. political institutions at the high school or college level. This course will provide you with a comprehensive overview of the structure and function of the three branches of government. It will also help you develop the skills you need to teach effectively about American politics.
Government Relations Manager
Government Relations Managers need to understand the government and its processes to be successful. This course covers the structure and function of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the U.S. government. It will provide you with a base for understanding how laws are made, how regulations are developed, and how court decisions are reached.
Lobbyist
Lobbyists need to understand how the government works to be successful. This course focuses on the structure and function of the three branches of the U.S. government. By learning how the government works, you can better understand how to advocate for your clients' interests.
Nonprofit Executive Director
Nonprofit Executive Directors need to understand the government and its processes to be successful. In this course, you will explore how legislation, executive orders, and court decisions can impact the work of nonprofits. This knowledge will be important for developing effective strategies and programs for your organization.
Political Consultant
Political Consultants need to understand the political system to be successful. This course focuses on the structure and function of the three branches of the U.S. government. By learning how the government works, you may be able to make better recommendations to your clients or employer. The course may be particularly helpful if you work for clients that lobby the government.
Researcher
Researchers may research various aspects of U.S. political institutions. This course can provide a foundation for understanding the political system and how it functions.
Public relations manager
Public Relations Managers need to understand the media and public opinion to be successful. This course introduces how political polarization influences media coverage and public sentiment. You will learn how political institutions interact with the media and public, and how this impacts the public's perception of government.
Journalist
Journalists need to understand how the political system works to be successful. This course provides an overview of the structure and function of the three branches of the U.S. government. By learning how the government works, you will be better equipped to write accurate and informative articles about politics and public policy.
Historian
Historians may research and write about the history of U.S. political institutions. This course can provide a foundation for understanding how these institutions have evolved over time and how they have shaped American history.
Sociologist
Sociologists may research and write about the social and political behavior of individuals within U.S. political institutions. This course can introduce you to the political system and provide a foundation for understanding how it influences social behavior.
Economist
Economists may research the economic impact of government policies. This course will provide you with a better understanding of how the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government make and implement policies that can have a significant impact on the economy.
Lawyer
Lawyers may work in the public sector or represent clients with matters involving the government. This course can provide a better understanding of U.S. political institutions. This can be particularly helpful if you plan to practice law in areas such as constitutional law, administrative law, or criminal law.

Reading list

We've selected 11 books that we think will supplement your learning. Use these to develop background knowledge, enrich your coursework, and gain a deeper understanding of the topics covered in U.S. Political Institutions: Congress, Presidency, Courts, and Bureaucracy.
This book, written by the instructor of the course, offers a detailed analysis of the challenges facing Congress and proposes reforms to improve its effectiveness.
Offers a contemporary perspective on the fonctionnement of Congress, including the influence of partisanship and interest groups.
Provides a historical perspective on the growth of presidential power, particularly in the area of foreign policy.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Theodore Roosevelt provides insights into the role of the presidency in shaping domestic and foreign policy.
Examines the role of bureaucracy in modern government and its implications for public policy.
Examines the growth and influence of the federal bureaucracy, and its implications for democratic governance.

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