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American Government FAQs

This FAQs page has been created to introduce the fundamentals of American Government to both undergraduates who are currently taking PLS 1153G (American Government) and for anyone who may be interested in the basic functions of the United States Government. This FAQs page is by no means complete. The development of this FAQs page is an ongoing process that has only recently begun. This page also works as a supplement to the Political Science Department's tutoring hours offered for PLS 1153G each semester and is administered by the Department's Presidential Graduate Assistant.

 

1.  What are the age requirements of  U.S. Representatives, Senators and the President?

2.  Are there any other requirements that must be met to serve as U.S. Representative, Senator or President?

3.  Why is there a difference in term lengths for U.S. Representatives and Senators?

4.  Do U.S. Representatives and Senators have term limits?

5.  How Many U.S. Representatives and Senators are elected from each state?

6.  How may I determine who my U.S. Representative is?  The U.S. Senators from my state?

7.  Why do we have two U.S. Senators for each state?  Why are there differences in the number of U.S. Representatives for the fifty states?

8.  What is meant by the term Reapportionment?  And why is it important to understanding the Congress?

9.  How long may a President serve?  Have there been any changes in presidential tenure in the history of the American presidency?

10.  Who are the Successors of authority following the President in the case of his/her death or incapacitation?

11.  What are examples of powers available to the Congress?  The President?  The U.S. Supreme Court?

12.  What role does the President play in the legislative process?  And can the President propose a bill?

13.  What is the presidential veto power and how may it be exercised?

14.  How does Congress override a President’s veto?

15.  What is a super majority vote in Congress?  And why do we hear so much discussion of this in the media?

16.  What is a Filibuster? Why does it exist?

17.  What do supporters of the Filibuster argue?  The critics of the Filibuster?

18.  What are the powers of the Congress and the President in declaring war?

19.  How many Supreme Court Justices are there and how are they selected?

20. What are he major courts in the U.S. Judicial system? What authority is held by each of the courts in this system?

21.  What are the methods used to select federal court judges who serve on courts other than the U.S. Supreme Court?

22.  What is judicial review and how did the Supreme Court get this power?

23.  Has the Supreme Court ever used the judicial review power to overturn a law?

24.  What is the federal bureaucracy and why does it exist? And what are the major types of organizations found in the federal bureaucracy?

25.  We often hear of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—what are they?

26.  Coverage of federal budgeting issues often mentions the OMB and CBO. Who are they and what are their roles and responsibilities?

27.  We keep hearing about "Sequestration". What is it and why is it important?

28.  What is the difference between the terms Deficit and Debt?

29.  What is meant by the term Debt Limit for the federal government? How is the debt limit set?

30.  What are good sources of information for learning more about the responsibilities of federal government departments, agencies, and commissions?

 

1.  What are the age requirements of U.S. Representatives, Senators and the President?

The United States Constitution does provide minimum age requirements for U.S. Senators, U.S. Representatives, and the President of the United States.  Representatives must be age 25 or above, Senators must be 30 or above, and the President of the United States must be 35 or above.  There are, however, no maximum age limits for any of these three public offices.

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2.  Are there any other requirements that must be met to serve to serve as U.S. Representative, Senator, or President?

There are indeed other requirements that must be met to serve as a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and President of the United States.  Representatives must be a citizen of the United States for seven years prior to election, and a resident of the state he or she is representing in the House.  Senators must be a citizen of the United States for nine years prior to election, and a resident of the state he or she is representing in the Senate.  The President has to be a natural born citizen of the United States, and must live in the United States for 14 years prior to their election.

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3.  Why is there a difference in term lengths for U.S. Representatives and Senators?

Representatives serve two year terms, and Senators serve staggered six year terms, with 1/3 of the Senate being up for reelection every two years.  The difference in term lengths can be explained by looking at the Senate’s original constitutional duties.  The Senate is known as the “upper” house because, as some have argued, its duties include constitutionally significant activities such as ratifying treaties, granting consent to presidential appointees, and trying all impeachments.  The House of Representatives has from its inception been known as the “People’s House” because the two year terms force its members to always be in close contact with their constituents—particularly by seeking their votes every two years.  The Senate meanwhile is considered as representing the states and the six year term length provides more of an electoral buffer for its members.  That is, in theory they can cast risky votes and then not have to face the voters until some years later. 

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4.  Do U.S. Representatives and Senators have term limits?

Currently there are no term limits for any members of Congress, although the idea has been discussed for many years.  From 1990-1994 there was a term limit movement among many states who through citizen referendum (or vote) passed term limits for their corresponding U.S. members of Congress.  However, in 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court case U.S. Term Limits v Thornton ruled against those states the enacted term limits by stating that the Constitution prohibits States from adopting Congressional qualifications in addition to those that already exist.  There are still some states clamoring for term limits, but currently the Constitution does not discuss term limits for members of Congress.

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5.  How many U.S. Representatives and Senators are elected from each state?

All 50 states have two elected Senators providing an equal platform of discussion for each state on the Senate debate floor.  The number of Representatives elected from each state varies depending on the states total population after each U.S. census.  There is currently total of 435 Representatives.  California has the most Representatives with 53, Alaska, Delaware, Montana, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming have only one Representative, and Illinois currently has 18 Representatives.

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6.  How may I determine who my U.S. Representative is? The U.S. Senators from my state?

First, to determine who your U.S. representative is you must first know what district you live in within your state.  For example, if you live in Charleston IL, you live in IL district 15, and from there you can visit house.gov to find out who your particular representative is.  If you are unaware of the district you live in go to your state government’s website and search for the state’s legislative district map in the search engine.  I say this because the websites vary state to state.  To find out who your senators are it is a much simpler process simply visit senate.gov and you can choose the state you live in.  Your two senators will then appear on the page.

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7.  Why do we have two U.S. Senators for each state? Why are there differences in the number of U.S. Representatives for the fifty states?

The answer to this question can be summed up by examining the Constitutional Convention’s Great Compromise.  Representatives from small states argued for equal representation in the bicameral Congress, while those representatives from large states claimed that proportional representation based on population was the way to go.  The Great Compromise in sum was the agreement of the convention, first proposed by Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, which stated the Senate with have each state represented equally, while the House of Representatives will represent each state proportionally, or based on each state’s population.  The exact number of senators, two, was chosen because having only one senator does not guard against illness or resignation of that one senator, while too many senators would create too large of a senate that would lose its distinctive membership and purpose.

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8.  What is meant by the term Reapportionment? And why is it important to understanding the Congress?

Reapportionment is easily defined as the redistribution of representation in the U.S. Congress according to changes in population following a census.  If following a census the population of a state changes, then the number of representatives the state will get in Congress will also be changed.  These changes will affect the state’s amount of representation either positively, more representatives, or negatively, less representatives.  Illinois is an interesting case, although Illinois’ population has increased at least incrementally every year since 1930, the table below shows that Illinois’ number of representatives has only dropped.  This has occurred because other states have grown in population at an exponentially higher rate than Illinois has and therefore have accumulated a higher number of congressional representatives.

Census Year

Population

U.S. Congressional Representatives

1930

7,630,654

27

1940

7,897,241

26

1950

8,712,176

25

1960

10,081,158

24

1970

11,110,285

24

1980

11,427,409

22

1990

11,430,602

20

2000

12,419,293

19

2010

12,830,632

18

 

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9.  How long may a President serve? Have there been any changes in presidential tenure in the history of the American Presidency?

Since the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951 an elected President can only serve two full terms, or 8 years.  However, interestingly, the total amount of years that one person can serve as President is 10 years.  If someone becomes President through the order of succession (see question 10) and serves less than two years, that person is still eligible to be President for two more terms.  If someone becomes President through the order of succession and serves more than two years, that person is only eligible to be President for one more term.  Prior to the 22nd Amendment there were no laws limiting the number of terms or years someone can be President, however, since George Washington was only President for two terms or 8 years, it became an unwritten rule to only serve two terms.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the only President to not follow this tradition as he served three full terms, or 12 years, although it was not done consecutively.

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10.  Who are the successors of authority following the President in case of his/her death or incapacitation?

Both Article 2, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution and the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 provide procedures in the event that the President resigns, dies, or becomes incapacitated.  In 1981 the Presidential Order of Succession became a top news story following the assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan.  Following the assassination attempt President Reagan was hospitalized, and before Vice President George H. Bush could be transferred to the White House, Secretary of State Alexander Haig made the statement heard round the nation, “As of now, I am in control here in the White House…”  Haig’s statement during this White House news conference became a very memorable moment within the history of the Presidency and the Order of Succession.

The Presidential Order of Succession following the President is displayed below:

-Vice President
-Speaker of the House
-President Pro Tempore of the Senate
-Secretary of State
-Secretary of the Treasury
-Secretary of Defense
-Attorney General
-Secretary of the Interior
-Secretary of Agriculture
-Secretary of Commerce
-Secretary of Labor
-Secretary of Health and Human Services
-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
-Secretary of Transportation
-Secretary of Energy
-Secretary of Education
-Secretary of Veterans Affairs
-Secretary of Homeland Security

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11.  What are examples of powers available to the Congress? The President? The U.S. Supreme Court?

Congressional powers can be easily accessed by examining Article 1 Section 8 of the United States Constitution.  The powers granted to Congress include creating and making federal laws related to the regulation of commerce, collecting taxes, coining money, creating and maintaining a military, providing for the general welfare, among many others.  

The original Presidential powers can be found in Article 2 Section 2 of the United States Constitution.  However, other than these basic powers, the President has the ability to veto, or forbid, an act of legislation from becoming law.  The President can enact executive orders, defined as rules or instructions that have the power of law during his or her presidency without congressional action.  Another important power of the President is the ability to nominate individuals for the U.S. Supreme Court when a vacancy occurs, although the Senate must confirm the individual in a hearing.

The case jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court can be found in Article 3 Section 2 of the United States Constitution.  The jurisdiction includes cases between two or more states, when the United States is a party, and between citizens of different states, to name a few.  The most notable power of the Supreme Court is Judicial Review, which gives the Supreme Court the power to review the actions of the executive and legislative branches to ensure they are abiding by the constitution. For more information about judicial review, please see question 22.

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12.  What role does the President play in the legislative process?  And can the President propose a bill?

The President plays a critical role in the lawmaking process of the federal government.  Following the passage of a bill by the House and the Senate the President can sign the bill into law, or veto the bill if he or she does not like it.  When vetoing a bill, the President usually sends it back to Congress with a request for specific changes to be made.  Although the President can propose a bill, it has to be formally submitted by a member of Congress before it can be considered on the House and Senate floor.

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13.  What is the presidential veto power and how may it be exercised?

When the President receives a bill that has been passed by both the House and Senate,  he or she has the opportunity to either sign the bill or veto the bill.  The veto power is used when the President is unhappy with the bill, or at least part of the bill, for whatever reason.  From there, the President can choose from two main types of vetoes, the regular veto and the pocket veto.  The regular veto is the most common and occurs when the President vetoes a bill and sends it back to both houses of Congress explaining why he vetoed the bill.  The pocket veto occurs when the President does not sign or explicitly veto the bill.  The U.S. Constitution gives the President 10 days to review any bill passed by Congress.  If the 10 days go by without the President taking any action, the bill becomes law. However, if during that 10 day period Congress adjourns, the bill is essentially vetoed.

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14.  How does Congress override a President’s veto?

Congress can override a presidential veto with a “Yes” vote on the bill by a 2/3 majority vote of both the House and the Senate.  From here the President cannot do anything about the overridden veto except for proposing further legislation for possible consideration by the Congress.

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15.  What is a super majority vote in Congress? And why do we hear so much discussion of this in the media?

A Super Majority vote can easily be defined as a vote that needs more than a simple majority or just one more vote than the opposition.  Within Congress a super majority can be either a 2/3 majority vote or 3/5 majority vote.  Most legislation only needs a simple majority for its passage, however, votes on presidential impeachment or amendments to the Constitution need a super majority vote.  Super majority comes up most often in the media because if a party has a super majority in either the House or the Senate it becomes very difficult for the opposing to party to pass or stop the passage of legislation.  More specifically, in the Senate, there is a parliamentary procedure known as the filibuster that requires a super majority 3/5 vote, or 60 Senators, to take action to bring the filibuster to a conclusion.  For more information about the filibuster,  please see question 16.

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16.  What is a Filibuster? Why does it exist?

A filibuster is a parliamentary procedure used in the Senate that allows one or more Senators to extend debate with the purpose of delaying or preventing a vote on a specific piece of legislation.  During a filibuster one or more Senators can stand up and discuss any topic they want, whether it is relevant to the legislation on the floor, as long as they do not stop speaking.  The purpose of the filibuster’s existence is to provide the minority party in the Senate with some power to slow down or ultimately stop an impending vote on specific legislation.  As noted in question 15, a filibuster can only be stopped when 60 of the 100 Senators vote to do so; this is known as a Cloture Vote.

The longest filibuster ever by one person is 24 hours and 18 minutes.  The late Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina began his filibuster on August 28, 1957 in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act, during which he read the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, President George Washington’s farewell address, along with many other historical documents.

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17.  What do supporters of the Filibuster argue? The Critics of the Filibuster?

Supporters of the filibuster argue that one of the dominant themes of the Constitution is that of protecting the rights of the minority and that the filibuster is one senatorial procedure that ensures the majority party does not exploit its power at the expense of the minority party.  

Others have argued that the filibuster is undemocratic, at times make governing impossible, and may even be unconstitutional.  The Constitution makes no direct reference to the filibuster.  And it has been argued by some that the filibuster is at odds with the majority rule principle, when a small number of Senators can delay critically important legislation that may also need to be completed in a timely manner.

Both arguments have evidence to support them, and no matter which side you are on, the filibuster appears to be a senatorial procedure that will remain in existence for the foreseeable future.

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18.  What are the powers of the Congress and the President in declaring war?

The powers to declare war are split among both the U.S. Congress and the President.  Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution states that Congress has the power to declare war, raise and support the military, and control the funding of the military.  The Presidential powers related to declaring war are found in Article 2 Section 2.  The President is granted the authority to be the commander-in-chief of the military, arguably meaning that the President is the leader of the United States’ armed forces.  However, there is actually is no grant of authority for the President to declare war without congressional approval.

On another note, the War Powers Resolution of 1973 requires that the President must notify Congress within 48 hours of any commitment of armed forces into military action, while forbidding those forces to remain in military action for more than 60 days.

Although Congress is the only branch of government with the authority to declare war, it has only been formally used five times including: The War of 1812; the Mexican-American War; the Spanish-American War; World War I; and World War II.  Other than these five times, it has usually been initiated by the President, and so far, no successful legal action has been taken against a President for informal declaration of war.

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19.  How many Supreme Court Justices are there and how are they selected?

Currently there are nine Supreme Court Justices, although the number, determined by Congress, has varied throughout history--ranging from five to ten.  The selection process begins when the President nominates a candidate for a vacant position.  The Senate then votes whether or not that nominee should indeed be confirmed onto the Supreme Court through a simple majority vote.  This selection process was created to allow both the Executive and Legislative branches to have a say over who sits on the Supreme Court.

The current nine Supreme Court Justices include: Chief Justice John Roberts; Antonin Scalia; Anthony Kennedy; Clarence Thomas; Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Stephen Breyer; Samuel Alito; Sonia Sotomayor; and Elena Kagan. For more information about the current Supreme Court click here.

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20.  What are the major courts in the U.S. Judicial system? What authority is held by each of the courts in this system?

The diagram below shows the overall U.S. judicial system structure, and provides a map of the chain of authority among the courts--from the U.S. Supreme Court on through local trial courts.  This diagram shows that the U.S. judicial system consists not only of federal government courts but courts at the state and local government levels.

 

                        

Source:  http://www.maxwell.syr.edu/plegal/scales/court.html

 

Specifically looking at the federal courts (left side of the diagram), District Courts, Courts of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court, all are within the federal court system and deal with different case types.

U.S. Federal District Courts focus on cases involving the violation of federal labor, civil rights, Social Security, federal crimes, anti-trust laws, and several others.

U.S. Courts of Appeals were created in 1891, and deal with cases in which the losing party or parties of federal trial courts (or Federal District Courts) want to appeal or petition the decision that was made.  Usually Courts of Appeals have 3 judge panels, in which 2 of the 3 judges have to vote to uphold the previous decision; otherwise, the appeals court overturns the original decision.

U.S Supreme Court is the ultimate court authority in the United States and has almost complete discretion over what cases to review.  Cases are usually chosen on the basis of constitutional significance.  In other words, the cases that are chosen are deemed by the majority of the nine Supreme Court Justices as important and necessary to review.  Of the thousands of cases they are asked to review each year, only around 100 is normally chosen for Supreme Court review.

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21.  What methods are used to select federal court judges who serve on courts other than the U.S. Supreme Court.

Federal court judges are chosen through a nomination method similar to that of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The President nominates the judges, usually from a list of names recommended to him from U.S. Senators, and sometimes House members, who are of the President’s political party.  The Senate confirms the nominations through Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, which can sometimes be quite lengthy depending on factors such as past rulings, ideology and experience of each nominated judge.

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22.  What is judicial review and how did the Supreme Court get this power?

Judicial review allows the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of a law, treaty, administrative regulation, or the Constitution itself.  Although this power is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, it has been determined to be a power through the structure, provisions, and history of the Constitution.  The Supreme Court case Marbury v Madison, in 1803, established the power of judicial review through Chief Justice John Marshall’s majority opinion.  Chief Justice John Marshall stated that the federal courts have the right and duty to review the acts of Congress to ensure their constitutionality and also to declare them void if they are deemed to be unconstitutional.  the power of Judicial Review thus ensures a prominent role for the U.S. Supreme Court in the U.S. political system.

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23.  Has the Supreme Court ever used the judicial review power to overturn a law?

The Supreme Court has declared over 1,000 acts of Congress and state laws unconstitutional, by using the power of judicial review.  The first of these, as mentioned in question 22, was Marbury v Madison.  More recently, part of the Affordable Care Act was deemed to be in violation of principles of the U.S. Constitution.  In this case, the Court upheld the individual mandate to purchase health insurance, while striking down the portion of the law that would penalize states, by taking away all federal Medicaid funding if they did not expand Medicaid coverage to more of each state’s population.

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24.  What is the federal bureaucracy and why does it exist? And what are the major types of organizations found in the federal bureaucracy?

The federal bureaucracy can be defined as governmental organizations, normally staffed on the basis of expertise and experience, that implement public policy.  Specifically, the federal bureaucracy implements policy that ranges from environmental protection to regulation of the economy.  The implementation of these policies sometimes comes with large amounts of autonomy by federal government agenices (or independence from Congress) because of the ambiguity of most laws that are passed.

Some of the major organizations included within the federal bureaucracy include; the Departments of the StateAgricultureCommerce, Education, and Defense among many others. The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are also well known organizations within the federal bureaucracy.

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25.  We often hear of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—what are they?

Fannie Mae, short for the Federal National Mortgage Association, and Freddie Mac, short for the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, are both government sponsored enterprises that provide financial services.  They both owe their existence to being created by Congress.  Fannie Mae was initially created in 1938 to provide local banks with federal money to finance home mortgages and raise the overall level of home ownership in American society.  Freddie Mac was created in 1970 with the goal of providing competition to the newly privatized Fannie Mae, and to further advance available funds for home loans and mortgages.

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26.  Coverage of federal budgeting issues often mentions the OMB and CBO? Who are they and what are their roles and responsibilities?

The OMB stands for the Office of Management and Budget.  First created in 1921, at that time named the Bureau of the Budget, the OMB is an office within the Executive Office of the President, and has the main job of assisting the President in preparing the federal government budget.  The OMB also measures the quality of agency programs, policies, and procedures as well as seeing whether or not these agencies are complying with the President’s policies. 

The CBO stands for the Congressional Budget Office.  The CBO is a federal agency within the legislative branch that provides economic data to Congress which is then used, in part, to determine the overall budget agreed to by Congress.  Created in 1974, the CBO was created as a nonpartisan agency with the goal of providing Congress with objective analysis of economic and budgetary decisions on a wide range of programs within the federal budget.

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27.  We keep hearing about "Sequestration". What is it and why is it important?

Sequestration can be defined as the legal taking of assets until a debt has been paid off.  As it pertains to Congress, the current sequestration refers to a set of automatic spending cuts put into law by the 2011 Budget Control Act.  This act called for 1.2 trillion dollars in spending cuts from the congressional budget, and since Congress has been unable to agree on these cuts they are being cut automatically, as the Budget Control Act stated. 

Sequestration is important because these automatic cuts will drastically reduce spending on the military, healthcare, education, law enforcement, disaster relief, and many others categories of federal spending.  Although these automatic spending cuts are done over a nine year period, or until 2021, by the end of the 2013 fiscal year, 85 billion dollars in cuts are set to go into effect.

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28.  What is the difference between the terms Deficit and Debt?

With respect to government budgeting, the term Deficit can be defined as the difference between the money the government takes in relative to what the government spends.  When the government spends more in one year than it takes in, this loss of money is what’s called a deficit.  When there is a deficit, the U.S. Treasury must borrow the money needed to pay government bills.

The term Debt can be thought of as an accumulation of deficits.  Debt is the total amount of money that an organization, business, or in this case, government owes.  Just as it would work with an individual, if you are behind in your bills you may have to use credit cards or loans to pay them off, but ultimately the bills do come due.  This is the situation the U.S. government is currently experiencing on a much larger scale; however, it must be noted that there are disagreements over the extent to which deficits and debt are major policy problems--or at least how high they should be on the nation's agenda of immediate policy actions. 

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29.  What is meant by the term Debt limit for the federal government? How is the debt limit set?

The debt limit, also known as the debt ceiling, is a fairly simple concept.  It can be defined as the maximum amount of debt that a government can take on.  The debt limit is set by Congress, and has been raised numerous times in order to ensure that the United States does not default, or fail to pay the money that is owed to creditors.  As long as the debt does not go over the debt limit, the United States can continue to fund its programs at levels that meet the public's expectations, but it must be noted that extension of the debt limit has emerged in recent years as a matter of major political debate.  What once was a fairly routine process--that is, Congress voting to extend the debt limit--has become an intensely debated question with implications that even bring about fears in the international economy.

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30.  What are good sources of information for learning more about the responsibilities of federal government departments, agencies, and commissions? 

The following links provide good quality accurate information about the federal government along with the many departments, agencies, and commissions associated with it.

-USA.gov provides information about nearly every aspect of federal government.

-USA.gov A-Z Index has an index of every federal government department, agency, or commission that is out there.

-Fedworld.gov provides various links to the many agencies and commissions within the federal government.

Although these are of course not the only sources of information out there about federal government departments, agencies, and commissions, these links do provide the most accurate and exhaustive description of each federal government department, agency, or commission's history and responsibilities.

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