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3.7: Limits on National and State Governments

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    Figure 3.7.1: The U.S. Federal system has "checks and balances" to make sure that no branch of government would become too powerful.

    The U.S. system of government was intended by its founders to be a mixed form of government because it includes elements of all three forms: monarchy (the presidency); aristocracy (the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court); and democracy (the House of Representatives, elections). The founders created a mixed form of government as part of the institutional system of checks and balances.

    Checks and Balances

    The system of checks and balances was designed to create a political system where institutions and political organizations provided a measure of protection against corruption and abuse of power. The Founders thought that the mixed form of government was the best way to avoid what historical experience seemed to indicate was inevitable: the tendency of a political system to become corrupt.

    The Founders were acutely aware of the historical problem of corruption, and the tendency of governments to become corrupt over time. History provided many examples of power corrupting both individuals and governments. The awareness of corruption caused the Founders to worry about centralized power. Their worries were succinctly expressed by the 19th Century Italian- British figure, Lord Acton (1834-1902), whose famous aphorism warned: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    The Founders believed the corruption by power problem could be avoided by dividing power so that no one person or institution had complete power. The Founders also realized that each form of government tended to become corrupt or decay over time. A monarchy, (which might be a good form of government of one), was apt to turn into tyranny. An aristocracy, (which might be a good form of government of the few best and brightest), was apt to turn into an oligarchy (government of the rich or powerful). A democracy (government of the many) was apt to decay into a mobocracy, tyranny of the majority, or rule by "King Numbers." So the Founders created a mixed form of government.

    The roots of American thought about democracy can be traced to Classical (or ancient) Greece and the Roman Republic, the Age of Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation, and colonial experiences under the British Empire. The ancient Greeks in the city-state Athens created the idea of the democratic government, practiced as a kind of democracy. The Romans developed the concept of the representative democracy, one where citizens elect representatives to act on their behalf. The United States is a republic. A republic is a representative democracy.

    Figure 3.7.2: The diagram pictures the difference between direct and representative democracy.

    In a republic, individuals do not directly govern themselves. Voters elect representatives who, as government officials, make laws for the people. This contrasts with a direct democracy, where voters choose public policies themselves. Today, however, the term democracy is used generically to include direct and indirect democracy (or republican systems of government).

    The Constitution’s original design provided for only limited democracy in the way the national government worked. The members of the House of Representatives were directly elected by the people, but the members of the Senate were selected by state legislators, the president was chosen by the Electoral College (not by popular vote of the people), and federal judges were nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to serve life terms.

    Only a small percentage of citizens (white male property owners) were originally allowed to vote in elections. The Constitution provided only limited popular control over the government because the Founders were skeptical of direct democracy. Over time, the Constitution, the government, and politics become more democratic with the development of political parties, the direct election of senators, and an expansion of the right to vote.

    Figure 3.7.3: The Texas state seal

    Texas Government

    The Constitution divides the powers of the government of the state into three distinct departments: the legislative, the executive and the judicial. Under the terms of the Texas Constitution, no person in any one department may exercise any power attached to another department unless specifically authorized to do so by the Constitution.

    Legislative Branch

    The legislative power of the state is vested in a House of Representatives and a Senate, which together constitute the Legislature of the state. The House of Representatives consists of 150 members who are elected for terms of two years each, and the Senate consists of 31 members who are elected for four-year terms. After senatorial redistricting, which occurs every 10 years, each member must run for re-election. At that time the members must draw lots, with 15 senators to serve two-year terms and 16 senators to serve four-year terms.

    Proceedings in the House of Representatives are presided over by the speaker of the house, who is selected by the members of the House of Representatives from among their ranks. Proceedings in the Senate are presided over by the lieutenant governor, who is elected by a statewide vote, or in his absence, the president pro tempore of the Senate, who is selected by the members of the Senate from among their ranks.

    Regular sessions of the Legislature are held every two years in odd-numbered years and may not exceed 140 days in duration. Special sessions of the Legislature may be convened by the governor at any time. A special session of the Legislature may not exceed 30 days in duration and may address only those subjects designated by the governor.

    Executive Branch

    The executive branch is often referred to as a “plural executive” because many of the offices in that branch of government are elected directly by Texas voters. This means that executive branch officials answer directly to the people who elected them and share power, which adds a level of checks and balances to the government in Texas that is not seen at the national level.

    The Governor

    The Executive Department of the state is composed of the governor, the lieutenant governor, the comptroller of public accounts, the commissioner of the General Land Office, the attorney general and the secretary of state, all of whom are elected except the secretary of state (who is appointed by the governor).

    There are other elected state officials, including the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and the three commissioners of the Railroad Commission, (which has regulatory jurisdiction over certain public utilities, transportation, and the oil and gas industry).

    The governor is elected for a term of four years and is eligible to seek re-election for an unlimited number of terms. The Constitution requires the governor to cause the laws of the state to be faithfully executed and to conduct all business of the state with other states and the United States. The Constitution also requires the governor to present a message on the condition of the state to the Legislature at the commencement of each session of the Legislature and at the end of his term in office and to recommend to the Legislature such measures as deemed expedient.

    The governor has the power to veto any bill or concurrent resolution passed by the Legislature and to veto specific items in appropriation bills, but the Legislature may override any veto, including a line-item veto of an appropriation, by a two-thirds vote. If the governor becomes disabled, he is succeeded in office by the lieutenant governor, who continues as governor until the next general election.

    The governor of Texas is currently Greg Abbott. The outgoing governor, Rick Perry, served longer than any other governor in Texas state history. He began his third full term in January 2011 and completed it on January 19, 2015. Before his first full term, he served out the term of then Governor George W. Bush, who became 43rd President of the United States and vacated his position as governor of Texas.

    Lieutenant Governor

    The lieutenant governor is elected for a term of four years and is eligible to seek re-election for an unlimited number of terms. The governor and the lieutenant governor are elected separately and may be members of different political parties. The lieutenant governor is the president of the Senate and is empowered to cast the deciding vote in the event the Senate is equally divided on any question. The lieutenant governor also performs the duties of the governor during any period that the governor is unable or refuses to do so or is absent from the state.

    Because of the legislative and executive duties that are given to the lieutenant governor, many political experts believe that the lieutenant governor is the most powerful elected official in the state of Texas. There is a great deal of validity to this argument as the lieutenant governor presides over the Senate and can decide the fate of legislation through committee appointments, oversight of debate, and the scheduling of legislation for floor votes. In addition, the lieutenant governor serves in an active capacity over the committee that creates and recommends the state budget to legislators.

    If the office of the lieutenant governor becomes vacant, a successor is elected by the members of the Senate from their ranks. Until a successor is elected, or if the lieutenant governor is absent or temporarily unable to act, the duties of the lieutenant governor are performed by the president pro tempore of the Senate.

    The exiting lieutenant governor was David Dewhurst, and his successor is former Texas state Senator Dan Patrick. Patrick’s first term as lieutenant governor began on January 20, 2015 when the Governor-Elect Greg Abbott took office and the new legislative session began in Texas.

    Comptroller of Public Accounts

    The comptroller of public accounts (the “comptroller”) is elected for a term of four years and is the chief accounting officer of the state. The comptroller is generally responsible for maintaining the accounting records of the state and collecting taxes and other revenues due to the state, although other state officials share responsibility for both of these functions. The Comptroller is required by statute to prepare an annual statement of the funds of the state and of the state’s revenues and expenditures for the preceding fiscal year.

    In addition, the Constitution requires the comptroller to submit to the governor and the Legislature, at the commencement of each regular session of the Legislature, an itemized estimate of the anticipated revenues that will be received by the state during the succeeding biennium based upon existing laws. The Constitution also requires the comptroller to submit supplemental statements at any special session of the Legislature and at such other times as may be necessary to show probable changes. The state Constitution also requires the comptroller to certify that any appropriations bill passed by the Legislature falls within available revenues before the bill goes to the Governor for his signature.

    In recent years, the comptroller’s responsibilities have been expanded by the Legislature and/or the voters to include the following: the startup of the Texas Lottery, the transfer of the Property Tax Board to the comptroller’s office, the administration of the Texas Tomorrow Fund, the transfer of the job duties and responsibilities of the state treasurer to the comptroller's office and the transfer of the responsibilities of the State Energy Conservation Office.

    The outgoing Comptroller was Susan Combs, who began her second four-year term in January 2011 and completed that term on January 1, 2015. The current comptroller of public accounts, who began his term on January 2, 2015, is Glenn Hegar of Houston, Texas.

    Commissioner of the General Land Office

    The commissioner of the General Land Office is elected for a term of four years. The commissioner of the General Land Office is generally responsible for administering the public lands owned by the state. The commissioner of the General Land Office serves as the chairman of the School Land Board, which has authority over the sale and lease of state-owned lands, and as chairman of the Veterans’ Land Board.

    The commissioner of the General Land Office also serves as the chairman of boards that control the exploration for oil, gas and other minerals on state lands.

    The outgoing commissioner of the General Land Office was Jerry Patterson who began his third four-year term in January 2011 and completed his term on January 1, 2015. On January 2, 2015, George P. Bush (nephew of President George W. Bush) became the newly elected commissioner of the General Land Office.

    Secretary of State

    The secretary of state is the only major executive position appointed by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and serves during the term of service of the Governor by whom he or she is appointed.

    The secretary of state is required to maintain official records of all laws and all official acts of the Governor and to perform such other duties as are required by law. The Legislature has made the secretary of state generally responsible for the supervision of elections and for corporate and other similar filings. The most important of the secretary of state’s duties is the conduction and oversight of elections in Texas

    The current secretary of state is David Whitley. On December 17, 2018, he was appointed and sworn in as Texas' 112th Texas secretary of state by Governor Greg Abbott.

    Figure 3.7.4

    Study/Discussion Questions

    1. Describe the "balancing act" faced by the Founding Fathers and the plan they devised to maintain the balance of power between the national government and the states.

    2. How is the government "mixed"?

    3. Why did the Founders provide a checks and balances system?

    Lenz, Timothy O, and Mirya Holman. American Government . Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013.

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