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Describe how decisions are made in a democracy, including the role of legislature, courts, executives and the public.

Topics on the Page

  • African Americans in Congress
  • Women in Congress
How Laws Are Made
The Executive

Focus Question: What are the roles of the legislature, courts, executives, and the public in making decisions in a democracy?

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For more information on democracy and the branches of the American government, see USG.5.2.

For historical background on the development of voting, see United States History I.23

external image 200px-Government_icon.svg.pngFor additional resources, see AP American Government V: C: The Role of Institutions in the Enactment of Policy

  • Branches of Power is a game that teaches students about the checks and balances and separation of powers in American government.

Image result for brainpop
Image result for brainpop
Click here to go to the Brainpop Educators website and explore several potential lesson plans exploring democracy.

Multimedia.pngInstant Runoff Voting provides a simulation of this voting reform concept using actual results from the 2000 presidential election in Florida.


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Definition - government by the people; especially: rule of the majority: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

Democracy in America is based on six essential ideals: (1) People must accept the principle of majority rule. (2) The political rights of minorities must be protected. (3) Citizens must agree to a system of rule by law. (4) The free exchange of opinions and ideas must not be restricted. (5) All citizens must be equal before the law. (6) Government exists to serve the people, because it derives its power from the people. These ideals form the basis of the democratic system in the United States, which seeks to create a union of diverse peoples, places, and interests.

To implement its essential democratic ideals, the United States has built its government on four elements: (1) popular sovereignty, meaning that the people are the ultimate source of the government’s authority; (2) representative government; (3) checks and balances; and (4) federalism, an arrangement where powers are shared by different levels of government.

WhiteHouseSouthFacade.JPGBarack Obama First African American President

See also the Barack Obama page at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia.

Multimedia.pngClick here for an animated short of the history of democracy.


The Congress of the United States is the legislative branch of the federal government.
  • African Americans in Congress
Rotating_globe-small.gifClick here for information about the first African Americans to serve in Congress, beginning with Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina in 1870. This link will also inform readers about African Americans serving during the Reconstruction period, the hiatus of African American representation in Congress as a result of Jim Crowism, and the remaining history of African Americans serving in Congress to the present day.

Statue of Jeannette Rankin
Statue of Jeannette Rankin

  • Women in Congress

Female_Rose.pngClick here to learn the history of women in Congress, beginning with Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana becoming the first woman to serve in Congress in 1917.

Since 1917, 260 women have served in Congress; all told more than 13,000 people have served in the House and Senate in American history. "To reach parity, we would need all-women Congresses for approximately 200 straight years" ("Pop Quiz Political Science: The 112th," Education Life, The New York Times, January 9, 2011, p. 32).

72 women (17 percent) are in the House of Representatives in the 112th Congress.

Congressional Timeline: Laws and other important legislative events from the 73th Congress (March 9, 1933) to 111th Congress (March 10, 2009).

  • How Laws are made
Laws may be initiated in either chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives or the Senate. For this example, we will track a bill introduced in the House of Representatives.
1. When a Representative has an idea for a new law, s/he becomes the sponsor of that bill and introduces it by giving it to the clerk of the House or by placing it in a box, called the hopper. The clerk assigns a legislative number to the bill, with H.R. for bills introduced in the House and S. for bills introduced in the Senate. The Government Printing Office (GPO) then prints the bill and distributes copies to each representative.

2. Next, the bill is assigned to a committee (the House has 22 standing committees, each with jurisdiction over bills in certain areas) by the Speaker of the House so that it can be studied.
The standing committee (or often a subcommittee) studies the bill and hears testimony from experts and people interested in the bill. The committee then may release the bill with a recommendation to pass it, or revise the bill and release it, or lay it aside so that the House cannot vote on it. Releasing the bill is called reporting it out, while laying it
aside is called tabling.
3. If the bill is released, it then goes on a calendar (a list of bills awaiting action). Here the House Rules Committee may call for the bill to be voted on quickly, limit the debate, or limit or prohibit amendments. Undisputed bills may be passed by unanimous consent, or by a two-thirds vote if members agree to suspend the rules.
4. The bill now goes to the floor of the House for consideration and begins with a complete reading of the bill (sometimes this is the only complete reading). A third reading (title only) occurs after any amendments have been added. If the bill passes by simple majority (218 of 435), the bill moves to the Senate.
5. In order to be introduced in the Senate, a senator must be recognized as the presidin
g officer and announce the introduction of the bill. Sometimes, when a bill has passed in one house, it becomes known as an act ; however, this term usually means a bill that has been passed by both houses and becomes law.
6. Just as in the House, the bill then is assigned to a committee. It is assigned to one of the Senate's 16 standing committees by the presiding officer. The Senate committee studies and either releases or tables the bill just like the House standing committee.
7. Once released, the bill goes to the Senate floor for consideration. Bills are voted on in the Senate based on the order they come from the committee; however, an urgent bill may be pushed ahead by leaders of the majority party. When the Senate considers the bill, they can vote on it indefinitely. When there is no more debate, the bill is voted on. A simple majority (51 of 100) passes the bill.
8. The bill now moves onto a conference committee, which is made up of members from each House. The committee works out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The revised bill is sent back to both houses for their final approval. Once approved, the bill is printed by the Government Printing Office (GPO) in a process called enrolling. The clerk from the introducing house certifies the final version.
9. The enrolled bill is now signed by the Speaker of the House and then the vice president. Finally, it is sent for presidential consideration. The president has ten days to sign or veto the enrolled bill. If the president vetoes the bill, it can still become a law if two-thirds of the Senate and two-thirds of the House then vote in favor of the bill.
Image result for how bills become laws
Image result for how bills become laws

game_icon.svg.pngClick here to play "LawCraft". In this game, you can pick which state you represent and make laws.

game_icon.svg.pngClick here to play "Represent Me!". In this game, you are a member of Congress and are seeking re-election.

Courts (for more on Courts, see USG.3.4)

New York State Court of Appeals
New York State Court of Appeals

Article III of the Constitution established the judicial branch of government with the creation of the Supreme Court. This court is the highest court in the country and vested with the judicial powers of the government. There are lower Federal courts but they were not created by the Constitution. Rather, Congress deemed them necessary and established them using power granted from the Constitution.
Courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws, how they are applied, and whether they violate the Constitution. The latter power is known as judicial review and it is this process that the judiciary uses to provide checks and balances on the legislative and executive branches. Judicial review is not an explicit power given to the courts but it is an implied power. In a landmark Supreme Court decision, Marbury v. Madison (1803), the courts' power of judicial review was clearly articulated.

Packing the Court: The Rise of Judicial Power and the Coming Crisis of the Supreme Court, a new book by historian James MacGregor Burns (Penguin Press, 2009) argues that the Supreme Court "has far more often been a tool for reaction, not progress." Burns cites the Dred Scott decision, cases that undermined Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War, and support for Japanese internment during World War II as examples of the Court's conservative tendencies. The Earl Warren court, in Burns words "would forge a luminous exception to the court's historic role as a bulwark of antidemocratic, anti-egalitarian conservatism."

Click here for a short video of the difference between State and Federal courts.

game_icon.svg.pngClick here to play "Supreme Decision" in which you learn how Supreme Court decisions are made.
game_icon.svg.pngClick here to play "Argument Wars" to help you learn the logic behind major Supreme Court cases.


When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention created the executive branch of government, they gave the president a limited term of office to lead the government. This was very different from any form of government in Europe and caused much debate. The delegates were afraid of what too much power in the hands of one person might lead to. In the end, with a system of checks and balances included in the Constitution, a single president to manage the executive branch of government was adopted.
The executive branch of the Government is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land. When George Washington was president, people recognized that one person could not carry out the duties of the President without advice and assistance. The Vice President, department heads (Cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies assist in this capacity. Unlike the powers of the President, their responsibilities are not defined in the Constitution but each has special powers and functions.
  • President: Leader of the country and Commander in Chief of the military.
  • Vice President: President of the Senate and becomes President if the President is unable to serve.
  • Departments: Department heads advise the President on policy issues and help execute those policies.
  • Independent Agencies: Help execute policy or provide special services.

game_icon.svg.pngClick here to play "Executive Command" and learn what it's like to be President.
game_icon.svg.pngClick here to play "Win the White House" to learn about what it's like to run for President.