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Civics 101: How US Laws Interact With Each Other & Why The Executive Branch Has Become So Powerful

Stefan Zaklin
Getty Images
The U.S. Capitol on June 5, 2003, in Washington, D.C.

As we near next week’s primary election and the November general election, there has been an even greater focus on U.S. politics. But these conversations can become stilted by our own knowledge gaps about how government works in our country.

To give people a better working knowledge of how our political system developed here in the U.S., how it’s changed over time, and how it functions today, we spoke with Phil Rocco. He's an assistant professor in the department of political science at Marquette University.

“I really think about there being five major sources of law in the United States," he says. They are:

  • Common law made by judicial decisions 
  • The Constitution
  • Statues made by legislatures
  • Executive orders
  • Voter referendums

These don’t all exist in a vacuum though. They often interact with each other. One major way is the census.
Article I of the Constitution dictates that there must be a count made every 10 years but leaves it up to Congress to decide how that actually happens. At first, Congress would design an entirely new process every 10 years. But in 1902, it created the Census Bureau and streamlined the process. As we have seen with President Trump’s attempts to influence the census, executive orders can also be used to influence this process.

“Just one piece of the Constitution, the census, but many different sources of law that go into how it works,” he says.  

Another large part of the American government is the idea of checks and balances. Our federal government was set up with checks and balances, but Rocco says they’re not functioning in the triangle diagram we learned in civics.  

Through the industrialization of the country and as more federal agencies are created, the executive branch has become more and more powerful, but the legislative branch has not kept up.

“As the executive branch is gaining leverage over the latter half of the 20th century, Congress does not always expand its own capacity in response,” says Rocco. “In the 1990s, Congress actually divests itself of a lot of key institutions that help it challenge and exert its authority over the executive branch.”

Rocco says there are two different ideas of how to address this. First, we should accept the enlarged role of the executive and more clearly define its powers. Second, Congress should expand its oversight power to check these expanded powers of the executive.

Until one is adopted, the executive branch continues to be a powerful force. 

Joy Powers is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.