IVLP 2O10: The American Federal System
WASHINGTON, Tuesday 9 February, 2010
Our first meeting was scheduled with Mr. Akram Elias, president of Capital Communication Group Inc. at White Meyer Dining Room of Meridian International Center. The room in which we had our discussion was once the residence of Eugene Meyer, the publisher of the Washington Post. He used to sit for several hours in the same room to discuss politics, journalism and foreign affairs with Senator John F. Kennedy who would subsequently become the president of the United States of America.
An international relation expert with more than twenty-four year professional experience in the field, Elias spoke to us in detail about the American federal system. The interaction with him was very helpful to make sense of the American federal system.
I learnt that the “individual” was the top-most focus of the American society. Every policy devised at the official level would firstly think how it would benefit or affect the individual living inside the American state. In our society, there is greater emphasis on family, society and the country but a lot of attention in the US is paid to individual liberty. The state tries to ensure all forms of liberty for the individual. This includes the freedom of religion. Every individual is free to practice whatever religion he or she prefers. However, there is no state religion in the US. The government does not have a religion or does it pursue any policy, including the foreign policy, on the basis of religion. There are no religious parties in the US.
Another important area of individual liberty enshrined in the US Constitution is the freedom of speech and cultural expression. While everyone is allowed to independently articulate their views, people are expected to refrain from making hate speeches.
There is also freedom of information. The government of the United States cannot put any curbs on the media. Interestingly, there is no Ministry of Information in the United States. The media is largely independent and free from official control. All media outlets are under private ownership which keeps ascertaining public opinion about their interest in different issues through opinion polls and surveys. The US media rarely discusses the country’s foreign policy. A lot of attention is paid to domestic issues by the media because not many people in the US take a keen interest in foreign affairs. Newspapers and TV channels keep the interest of their readers and viewers supreme and they avoid printing and broadcasting such material which fails to attract public attention.
For the first time, I learnt that CNN International was different from what the CNN viewers inside the US watched. While CNN International, for obvious reasons, gives more attention to international news, those watching the same channel in the US will barely get an international perspective as it is dominated by local news. Similarly, the Voice of America (VOA), controlled by the US government, does not broadcast inside the country. Airing programs in some 46 languages, the VOA was launched after the Second World War to counter Soviet propaganda during the Cold War days.
An individual in the US is also free to access all official information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This law was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on September 6, 1966. FOIA has proved to be a great help for investigative journalists to access detailed official documents.
The US system also assures complete freedom of commerce and movement. There is freedom of association. Every citizen can make a non-governmental organization (NGO) provided that he/ she presents the government a tax identification number.
Most people in the United States are not interested in the foreign policy issues. They believe this is something their elected government has to deal with. While in some countries of the world, foreign policy and defense are often considered intertwined, this is not true for the US where people indifferent towards foreign policy do not necessarily react similarly towards issues related to the country’s defense. Irrespective of political differences, everyone in the US supports a strong defense for their country and abhors any kind of laxity on the part of the government. Americans are largely patriotic and they love their armed forces.
The government structure in the US is not centralized. The country is divided into independent federal, state and local governments. There are fifty states in the US but all of them have different constitutions, separate laws and state flags. Several laws, including those pertaining to death penalty, gay and lesbian marriages or age of eligibility to use alcoholic drinks, differ from one state to the other. For example, death penalty is legal in New York but it is illegal in Florida. In the same way, punishment for one offense could also be different from one state to the next state.
Unlike Pakistan, the President of the United States does not appoint the governors of American states nor does he influence them. They are elected by the voters inside the states and enjoy full independence in terms of pursing state policies. The states in the US are so much powerful that they can even negotiate international trade deals with other countries provided that they do not clash with the interests of the US federation.
The American states are empowered to impose taxes on the citizens. Mr. Elias informed us that 90% of state budget in the US comes from public taxes while the government accounts for only 10% of the budget.
Another classic example of decentralized American federal system are the local governments. The local governments are also autonomous and powerful to impose taxes. The county police chief is elected. He is so powerful that even the President of the US cannot pressurize him. Thus, he is expected to perform well if he is interested to seek a new term for the same office. There is no national education policy in the US. Every county and state has its own education policy. Every county is divided into a school district. The federal government’s contribution to the total education budget of the states is barely 6% while the remaining budget is paid by the states themselves.
The US federal government has four mandates which can not be take away from it under the US constitution.
2- Foreign Policy
3-Management of dollar
The US has a bicameral presidential system comprising of the House of Representatives, the lower house with 435 members, and the US Senate, the upper house with 100 seats. Presently, the Democratic Party of President Barrack Obama has 255 seats in the lower house while the Republicans have 178 seats. Two other seats are currently vacant. Representation in the House of Representatives is given to the states on the basis of population. At the moment, California, the most populated state of the US, has 53 seats. The Senate provides equal representation to all states.
I asked Akram what an average American thought about his/ her country’s foreign policy towards Iraq and Afghanistan where American troopers were being frequently killed, he said the debate in the US was not only about how to withdraw from Afghanistan but most people, who take an interest in the foreign policy issues, were concerned about how to properly handle the situation in Afghanistan.
One reason he gave about many people’s indifference towards politics and foreign affairs was the fact that America is the land of a lot of migrants.
Several people, he explained, leave their native countries and settle in the US to start a new life after a major calamity such as war and political turmoil in their respective countries before coming to the US. They want to forget their past and start a new life in the US. In most cases, Americans look at policies at individual levels as to how much a government policy would affect them individually. In the media, coverage of foreign issues is rapidly shrinking. There are two reasons for this: Lack of public interest in foreign affairs. Programs dealing with foreign issues are likely to get fewer advertisements than those which discuss internal issues. Secondly, the wave of economic meltdown has forced several newspapers and news channels to cut down their staff at foreign bureaus. Since the recession started, many newspapers and TV channels’ coverage of foreign issues has remarkably declined in the US. For example, the Washington Post has only one correspondent to cover Iraq. Similarly, the coverage of ‘international news’ is hardly 30 seconds in the local broadcast. This situation is further keeping the American people less informed about rest of the world.