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Civics and Government: GED Test Prep

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Updated on Jul 5, 2011

The civics and government questions on the GED Social Studies Exam will come from both national (American) and global contexts, so you should be prepared to answer a wide variety of questions.

In this article, you will learn about the basic ideas of civics (the rights and responsibilities of citizens) and government (the way that political power is organized and distributed). After an overview of the different types of political systems that exist in other countries, you will review the American system of government: its structure at the federal, state, and local levels; political parties; voting and election procedures; the ways individuals and groups influence the government apart from voting; and the process of becoming an American citizen.

Political Systems

Varying types of political systems can be found around the world. These types differ in how power is attained and how it is used. See chart.

Exercise 1 (See answers below)

Use the information from the chart to answer the following questions.

  1. A military leader uses his power to overthrow a country's government and seizes absolute control. He takes over all of the nation's television stations and newspapers. What kind of government has he set up?
    1. absolute monarchy
    2. dictatorship
    3. oligarchy
    4. direct democracy
    5. representative democracy
  2. In which of the following political systems would citizens have the most influence over lawmaking?
    1. absolute monarchy
    2. dictatorship
    3. oligarchy
    4. direct democracy
    5. representative democracy

The American System of Government

The United States is a federal republic—a representative democracy in which power is split between a central government and the states. Under the federal system, certain powers are the exclusive domain of the federal government, including declaring war, conducting foreign policy, printing money, and regulating interstate and international trade. Other powers belong exclusively to the states, including regulating intrastate business and issuing licenses. Certain powers are shared. For example, both the federal government and state governments may collect taxes, build roads, and conduct trials. Occasionally, this results in conflicts between the national government and state governments.

The rules explaining powers and the limits on power of the U.S. government are explained in the United States Constitution, which is the highest law of the land. So that power is not concentrated in one authority, the central, or federal, government is divided into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Each branch has an important function:

  • The legislative branch makes laws.
  • The executive branch carries out laws.
  • The judicial branch interprets laws.

The powers of each branch are protected by the principle of separation of powers, which is laid out in the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Constitution also allows each branch to place controls or limits on the power of the other two branches, so that no one branch dominates. This framework is called the system of checks and balances. For example, the legislature (U.S. Congress) may pass a bill, but before it can become law, the executive (the president) must sign it. The president can refuse it by vetoing it. However, Congress can still pass the bill into law—in an action called overriding the veto—if two-thirds of its members vote for it. Likewise, the judicial branch has the power to overturn a law by declaring it unconstitutional; the legislature may respond by passing a new law that adheres to the court's judgment, or it may seek to initiate an amendment, or change, to the Constitution. (See the following table.)

The Constitution is often described as a "living document," meaning that it is open to interpretation. The Constitution lays out broad principles but does not contain much in the way of specifics; thus, the exact powers reserved to each branch of government and the rights of the people and states as described in the Constitution are often open to debate. Throughout American history, the power of each branch of government relative to the others has ebbed and flowed, depending on historical circumstances and the individuals leading each branch. During times of war and other national crises, executive power has tended to expand. Following periods in which the executive overreaches—for example, as Richard Nixon did—the executive branch is subsequently weakened, and the legislative branch gains power. The power of the judiciary depends largely on how judges themselves interpret their powers.

The fact that the Constitution can be changed by amendment is another reason that it is described as a living document. The Constitution has been amended 27 times over the course of American history. The first ten amendments were added soon after the Constitution was ratified; together, they are known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments protect the rights of individuals against the federal government. Those protections include the following:

  • the right to practice one's religion freely
  • the right to free speech
  • the right to a free press
  • the right to bear firearms
  • the right to meet and to petition the government
  • the right to a fair and speedy trial
  • the right to representation by a lawyer
  • the right to know the crime with which one is being charged
  • protection from being tried twice for the same crime
  • protection from excessive bail and/or cruel and unusual punishment

The final two amendments to the Bill of Rights reinforce the notion that the U.S. national government is a limited government. The Ninth Amendment states that U.S. citizens have rights above and beyond those described in the first eight amendments; in other words, the government may not deny an individual right simply because it is not mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment states that any power not specifically granted the federal government by the Constitution belongs to the states or to the people, rather than to the federal government.

It's a good thing the Constitution can be changed, because the original document included some serious flaws. It allowed for slavery, for one thing. It also allowed states to deny the right to vote on the basis of race and gender. Amendments to the Constitution corrected these imperfections and others, abolishing slavery (1865), prohibiting racial discrimination in voting rights (1870), granting women the right to vote (1920), limiting the number of terms a president may serve (1951), banning poll taxes as a means of preventing citizens from voting (1964), and lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 (1971).Amendments to the Constitution generally have limited federal power and/or expanded the rights of individual citizens.

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