AP Government Review Terms (Overview)

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rule by the people. In the United States, democracy refers to a system of government which derives its power from the consent of the majority and governs according to the will of the majority.


having the right to vote taken away. The term is also used to refer to anyone whose rights and privileges of citizenship, including the right to vote, has been taken away.

Dissenting Opinion

written explanation of the opinion of one or more judges in a court who disagree with the decision of the majority of the court.

Domestic Policy

decisions, laws, and programs made by the government which are directly related to issues in the United States. Sometimes domestic and foreign policies influence each other.

Dual federalism

view of federalism that considers the national and state governments equal, but independent partners, with distinct responsibilities. According to this view, the two levels of government should not interfere with the work of the other. The dual federalism approach emerged after the Civil War and until the turn of the century.

Due Process of Law

proper legal procedure. The Constitution guarantees that every American citizen be protected from arbitrary actions by the government buy requiring the government to follow specific procedures, defined by law, in situations like investigating criminal actions and arresting suspects.


process by which people choose the candidate they want to become a public official. Many positions in government are elected positions, which means that many voters have to decide on a person to fill each job. Elections are held for positions like City Council person, Mayor, State Representative, Governor, Congressperson, and President of the United States. Some positions are not elected, but appointed.

Electoral college

a body of individuals which elect the President and Vice President of the United States. The Constitution created this body, which consists of gatherings of state electors in each state to formally cast their ballots for a candidate for whom they have pledged to vote. Today, the Electoral College is basically a formality. In the past, however, on at least two occasions, a president was elected based on the electoral college, even though he lost the popular vote.

Eminent Domain

governmental power to take private property for public use. The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution requires the government to pay "just compensation" to anyone from whom it takes private property under eminent domain.


payments made to a person or government which meets the requirements enumerated in the law. Social Security benefits, military pensions, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) are all entitlements

Enumerated Powers

powers specifically listed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution as being granted to the Congress.

Equal Protection Clause

provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution which prohibits states from discriminating against people arbitrarily. All Americans are, thus, guaranteed "equal protection of the laws." This amendment was passed in 1868, mainly to protect African-Americans, many of whom had previously lived under slavery, from discrimination on the basis of race.

Equal Protection of the Law

idea that all citizens should be treated equally under the law, and that no state has the right to grant privileges or discriminated against any individual or group. This idea is embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Equality of Opportunity

situation in which every person has an equal chance, especially in areas such as education, employment and political participation

Established religion

official religion, sponsored by the government. The First Amendment to the US Constitution forbids the government of the United States from establishing a state-sponsored religion.

Ethnic Group

group of people who are part of a common and distinctive culture. An ethnic group can be determined on the basis of a complex set of characteristics, including race, nationality, religion, ancestry, and language.


a set of characteristics which result in a distinctive culture, in which a group of people share. In the United States, ethnicity is a term that is somewhat flexible in meaning, but generally refers to a subset of the national culture in which people share one of more of the following characteristics: race, nationality, religion, ancestry, or language. Ethnicity sometimes refers to the group of people, as well as the culture itself

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

independent federal agency in the executive branch. Created in 1964, this agency works to eliminate employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, disability, age or other criteria unrelated to job performance. It investigates complaints of discrimination; files lawsuits in cases of discrimination and is responsible for enforcing equal opportunity laws in federal departments, offices and agencies.

Equal Rights Amendment

proposed amendment which states that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." This amendment was passed by Congress and was proposed to the states in 1972. It failed to be ratified by enough states in time for its 1982 deadline.

Ex Post Facto

"after the fact." An ex post facto law is one which makes a particular act illegal, and punishes people who committed that crime before the law was passed, i.e., when the act was legal. "Ex post facto" means "from a thing done afterward" in Latin.

Excise taxes

taxes on the manufacture, sale, or consumption of items made within the country which is imposing the tax.

Exclusionary Rule

principle that evidence cannot be used against a person if it was obtained illegally. This principle was established by the Supreme Court in the 1967 case, Mapp v. Ohio. In Nix v. Williams (1984), the Supreme Court ruled that evidence that had been illegally obtained could be used against someone in court if the prosecution could prove that the evidence "ultimately or inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means." In the same year, in United States v. Leon, the Court again restricted the exclusionary rule. The Court decided that, "when an officer acting with objective good faith has obtained a search warrant," the evidence obtained should be admissible in court, even if the warrant later proves to be faulty.

Executive Office of the President

name for the group of agencies, councils, and staff members which advise the president and help run the federal bureaucracy. The EOP was established by an executive order from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939, and the number and type of agencies included is determined by each president.

Executive Branch

section of the government which is responsible for executing laws. In the federal government, the executive branch consists of: the President, the Vice President, the Cabinet, all the executive departments, and several administrative agencies.

Executive Power

power of the President of the United States, delegated or implied by the Constitution, to implement and enforce laws.

Federal Reserve System

independent agency in the federal executive branch. Established under the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, the Federal Reserve System ("Fed") is the central bank of the United States. One of the most powerful agencies in the government, it makes and administers policy for national credit and monetary policies. The Fed supervises and regulates bank functions across the country, thus maintaining a sound and stable banking industry, able to deal with a wide range of domestic and international financial demands

Federal Judiciary

consists of the nine justices of the US Supreme Court and hundreds of federal judges, all of whom are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. Federal judges preside over constitutional courts, which include 94 district courts and 12 courts of appeal; and legislative courts, which consists of special courts like tax and military courts.


system for national government in which some powers are delegated to either national or state government, and other powers are shared between the two levels. This system presented a compromise at the 1787 Constitutional Convention between delegates fighting for a strong central government and delegates concerned about states’ rights.

Federalist Papers

a series of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison to convince readers to ratify the Constitution in New York State. The essays were later used to promote the ratification of the Constitution in other states. The Federalist Papers stand as a primary on what the writers of the Constitution had in mind when they were creating the document.


a tactic in which a Senator holds the floor for a long time in order to delay or prevent a vote on an issue. Filibusters cannot occur in the House of Representatives, since speaking time is limited.

Fiscal policy

government policies which seek to influence the economy through tax and spending policies.

Foreign Service

part of the Department of State. The Foreign Service has thousands of ambassadors and staff members, who are trained to represent the United States in embassies, missions, liaison offices, consulates and other agencies in the United States and throughout the world. Ambassadors report to the President via the Secretary of State. They are responsible for implementing US civilian foreign policy within the countries to which they are assigned.

Foreign Policy

decisions and programs made by the government which are directly related to issues involving other countries. Sometimes domestic and foreign policies influence each other.


term used to refer to the people who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 as delegates, or were involved in the writing of the Bill of Rights.


the right to vote

Franking privilege

power of members of Congress to send out mail free, without paying postal charges. This is one of the benefits or perquisites of being a House Representative or Senator, since members of Congress can use mailings to cultivate a positive popular image among their constituents.

Free Exercise Clause

section of the First Amendment to the US Constitution which forbids the government to make any laws to prohibit the free exercise of religion. This is the basis of the Constitution’s protection of the freedom of religion.

Free trade

buying, selling and other financial transactions which are conducted tariffs or other trade barriers.

Freedom of Assembly

the right to gather with other people in public. This right is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Freedom of expression

right to express oneself and one’s views in spoken words, actions, printed materials, assemblies or gatherings and petitions submitted to the government. It refers to the collective rights guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

Freedom of petition

the right to present requests to the government without punishment or reprisal. This right is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Freedom of religion

the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs. This freedom is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, although the Supreme Court has ruled that this freedom is not absolute.

Freedom of speech

the right to express oneself, with words or actions (verbally or symbolically). This freedom is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution; although the Supreme Court has ruled that this freedom is not absolute: it should not be applied when it endangers or harms the lives, liberty or property of others.

Freedom of the press

the right to publish or print without interference from the government, guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. This extent of this freedom has been debate by the public, in the legislatures, and in the courts, especially as regard to prior restraint, libel, obscenity and national security.

Full faith and credit

first words of Article IV, Section 1 of the Constitution, which requires states to respect the "public acts, records, and judicial proceedings" of all the other states.

Fundamental Rights

rights and privileges considered essential by the general society.


drawing the boundaries of an election district so that one party or group has a significant advantage. The strategy generally used is to concentrate opposition votes in a few districts, while spreading out the rest of the opposition over many districts. Gerrymandering is often used to help get candidates of a particular party elected, or to help increase minority representation in government.


institutions and officials which enact laws and execute and enforce public programs. Government in the United States is made up of executive, legislative and judicial branches at federal, state, and local levels.


chief executive of a state

Grand jury

ranges in size from 6 to 23, depending on the state, and functions to determine whether there is enough evidence available against a person accused of a crime to justify a trial.

Grandfather Clause

clause included in the state constitutions of several southern states after the Civil War placing high literacy and property requirements for voters whose ancestors did not vote before 1867. These clauses were designed to interfere with African-American citizens’ right to vote. In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled grandfather clauses unconstitutional.

Grants-in-aid programs

federal funding given to states and local governments to fund policies and programs. The Morrill Act (1862) was the first grant-in-aid program.

Great Compromise

proposal presented by Connecticut delegates at the 1787 Constitutional Convention to compromise between the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. The Great Compromise suggested that a bicameral Congress be established, with representation in one house being determined by state population, and the other having equal representation from each state.


rational or factual basis for arguing something. In order to appeal a case, the attorneys must have grounds for appeal. They cannot simply appeal because they are not happy with the decision.


pertaining to a governor

Hatch Act

formally known as the "Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities," called the "Hatch Act" after Senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico, who was its major sponsor. The purpose of the law was to calm fears that federal civil service employees might be able to wield extraordinary influence on the election of the President and members of Congress. As a result of the Hatch Act, federal employees may vote, but may not take an active part in partisan politics.

Hate Speech

type of speech which is used to deliberately offend an individual; or racial, ethnic, religious or other group. Such speech generally seeks to condemn or dehumanize the individual or group; or express anger, hatred, violence or contempt toward them.

Thomas Hobbes

British political theorist who argued that individuals formed governments because of their rational self-interest. One of the major intellectual figures of the Enlightenment, his most famous work is The Leviathan, published in 1651.

House majority leader

prominent position in the majority party, second only to the Speaker of the House in party authority. Like the Senate majority leader, the House majority leader helps promote the legislative agenda of the party in the House.

House minority leader

the head of the minority party in the House of Representatives. The minority leader represents the interests of the minority party by meeting with the majority leader and, in the case of the House, the House Speaker to schedule bills and rules for floor action.

House of Representatives

one of the two houses of the Congress, created in Article I, Section 1 of the US Constitution. The House of Representatives has 435 members, called Representatives, who serve for 2-year terms. The number of Representatives from each state is determined by the state’s population, so that states with large populations have more Representatives in Congress than states with small populations.


set of beliefs and goals of a social or political group that explain or justify the group’s decisions and behavior.


formal charges of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" brought against the President, the Vice President, a Supreme Court justice, or any executive and judicial official. Members of Congress and military officers are not subject to impeachment. The House Judiciary Committee investigates the situation and makes a recommendation to the rest of the House on whether the official should be impeached. The rest of the House votes on the issue and, if the official is impeached, the Senate tries the case. If the official is convicted, he or she is removed from office. Since the ratification of the Constitution, the House of Representatives has impeached 16 federal officials, including 13 federal judges, of whom 7 were convicted by the Senate.

Implied Powers

powers claimed by Congress which are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, but are implied in its necessary and proper clause (Article I, Section 8).


a candidate who holds the office for which he or she is running in an election. It is usually difficult for an incumbent candidate to be defeated in an election, unless he or she has had a very poor term in office. Incumbents have the benefit of having

Individual Rights

rights claimed by the individual, as opposed to rights claimed by a group.

Interest Groups

organization of people who share political, social or other goals; and agree to try to influence public policy to achieve those goals.

International Law

laws that govern the interactions and relations between nations, resulting from officials rules, treaties, agreements and customs.

Interstate Commerce

trade that takes places across state lines. This is distinct from intrastate commerce, which takes place within a state, and foreign trade, which takes place between countries. Article I, Section 8, clause 3 of the Constitution gives the Congress the authority to regulate interstate trade, as well as foreign trade.

Jim Crow Laws

laws which promoted segregation, or the separation of people based on race. These laws worked primarily to restricted the rights of African Americans to use certain schools and public facilities, usually the good ones; to vote; find decent employment and associate with anyone of their own choosing. These laws did not make life "separate but equal," but only served to exclude African Americans and others from exercising their rights as American citizens. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the US Supreme Court ruled that Jim Crow laws were unconstitutional. It took many years and much effort, however, before Jim Crow laws would be overturned across the country.

Joint Chiefs of Staff

a group of high-ranking military officers who represent the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines. They assist the civilian leaders of the Department of Defense in integrating policies and programs, and advise the President and National Security Council when asked. The Joint Chiefs of Staff is headed by a Chairman.

Judicial Activism

belief that the Supreme Court has the right or obligation to perform judicial review.

Judicial Branch

section of the government that interprets the laws and administers justice. In the federal government, the judicial branch consists of: the Supreme Court, the Circuit Courts of Appeal, District Courts, and several special courts.

Judicial Restraint

belief that the Supreme Court should not exercise judicial review often. People who support this view feel that justices, who are appointed, should not use much power to overturn the decisions of Congress, which is elected.

Judicial review

power of a court to refuse to enforce a law or government regulation which it believes to be unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Marshall articulated this right in the decision of Marbury v. Madison (1803). So far, the Supreme Court has ruled about 1500 congressional acts or parts of acts unconstitutional.


authority of a court to hear a case. A case cannot be tried in a court which does not have jurisdiction over it.


a group of people chosen according to the law, who listen to a case in court and reach a decision on the case. In Article III, Section 2, clause 3, the Constitution guarantees a person’s right to a trial by jury. Thus, people have their cases decided by a group of people, and not just one individual. Impeachment cases, cases brought before the Supreme Court, and very minor cases are not brought before a jury.

Lame Duck

person holding office after his or her replacement has been elected to the office, but before the current term has ended. In the American presidency, the period after election day in November and the swearing-in of the new President in January is known as the lame duck period.



Legistlative Branch

section of government that makes laws. In the federal government, the legislative branch consists of: Congress, the Library of Congress, the Congressional Budget Office, and General Accounting Office, and the Government Printing Office. On the state level, the state legislatures make up the legislative branch.

Legislative Power

power to make laws. In the federal government of the United States, the Congress holds most of the legislative power.


a group of elected people who create the laws. The national legislature is the Congress, while states and local governments also have legislatures.


the belief among citizens that their government has the right to pass and enforce laws.


use of print or pictures to harm someone’s reputation. Until 1964, a person could prove that they had been libeled simply by showing that the statements in question were incorrect. In 1964, the Supreme Court decided that public officials had to prove that the statements in question were made with "actual malice"-for the purpose of harming the person’s reputation. As a result of the Supreme Court case, Time, Inc. v. Firestone (1976); private individuals only have to prove negligence, rather than "actual malice," on the part of the press.

Line-Item Veto

power given to the president allowing him or her to veto specific provisions of appropriations and tax bills. Congress passed a limited line-item veto in 1995, but a federal judge struck it down in 1997. The Supreme Court recently refused to rule on the law claiming that those suing( a group of Congressmen) had not been harmed by the law and thus did not have standing to sue.

John Locke

British political theorist of the Enlightenment who argued that government should be based on the consent of the governed, and that people had the right to revolt against ineffective or unfair government. His most famous work, Two Treatises on Government, was published in 1690.


exchanging political support for political favors, especially by members of Congress and other legislatures

Magna Carta

British document, signed by King John, which reaffirmed long-standing rights and responsibilities of the English nobility; limited the powers of the king; and recognized that all people, including the government and monarch, are subject to the law.

Majority Leader

in the Senate, this is the first-ranking party position, held by a distinguished senior member of the majority party in the Senate. The Senate majority leader schedules floor actions on bills, and helps guide the majority party’s legislative program through the Senate. In the House, the majority leader stands second to the Speaker of the House in party authority. Like the Senate majority leader, the House majority leader helps promote the legislative agenda of the party in the House.

Majority Rule

idea that all the people in a group or society should be held to the rules and decisions established by more than half of the people.

Marshall Plan

a set of foreign policies adopted by the United States after World War II. Named after Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the policies provided substantial aid to European countries to help them rebuild their countries, economies and democracies, many of which had been destroyed or severely damaged during the war.

Matching Grants

funding strategy in which the donor, whether the government or a private agency, requires the recipient to provide a given percent of the money needed to implement to program.

Merit system

manner of choosing employees that emphasizes their ability, education, experience, and job performance; rather than their connections or other political factors. In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which called for reforms to make sure more federal employees were hired by a merit system and fewer by Presidential appointment. Today, almost 95% of federal civilian employees are hired on a merit basis, through civil service examinations and educational and skill qualifications.

Minority Leader

the head of the minority party in either the House or the Senate. The minority leader represents the interests of the minority party by meeting with the majority leader and, in the case of the House, the House Speaker to schedule bills and rules for floor action.

Monetary Policy

government policies which try to influence the economy by changing the amount of money circulating in the economy (money supply) and the interest rate (rate at which people, companies, or the government can borrow money).

Charles de Montisquieu

French political theorist who analyzed different government constitutions and developed the theory upon which the separation of powers is based. His most famous work was De l’esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws), published in 1748.

National Security

the condition of the nation, in terms of threats, especially threats from outside. One of the major jobs of the federal government is to ensure the security of the nation.

Natural Law

set of principles which govern human interactions, which are built into the structure of the universe, as opposed to being imposed by human beings.

Natural Rights

rights, freedoms and privileges which are such a basic part of human nature that they cannot be taken away. These are different from rights which are given to people by the law. According to the Declaration of Independence, these rights include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."


process by which an alien becomes a citizen

Necessary and Proper Clause

clause 18 of Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution. This clause establishes the "implied powers," by which Congress has authority to pass legislation in areas not specifically listed in the Constitution.


unfair practice in which people in power give positions in a government or organization to their relatives or friends, rather than to any individual who is well-qualified. This can lead to inefficiency in the functioning of the government or organization, since hiring is based on personal connections, rather than ability or merit. In addition, nepotism can cause conflicting loyalties for the person who receives the job: he or she may be more loyal to the person who hired him or her than to the government or organization.

North Atlantic Treaty Ogranization (NATO)

established by a treaty signed in 1949. The treaty tied the security interested of the United States to those of the nations of Western Europe and other areas. NATO arose out of fear of the military and security threat posed by the Communist Soviet Union, although it still exists even after the fall of the U.S.S.R.


person in a government agency to whom people can go to make complaints or explain problems with the programs or policies of the agency

Original jurisdiction

authority held by a court to be the first court to hear a particular case.


legal forgiveness for a crime. Governors can issue pardons for state crimes, and the President can issue pardons for federal crimes.


partial to a particular party or person, often political in nature. One criticism of federal politics, especially regarding Congress, is that some politicians spend more time and effort trying to promote their party’s platform than trying to develop laws and policies which serve the American people.

Party Identification

belief that one belongs to a certain party, and the extent to which that belief affects one’s political views and actions.

Petit Jury

a trial jury, which weighs the evidence against someone accused of a crime, and determines his or her guilt or lack of guilt under the law. Trial or petit juries traditionally have 12 people, although several states have juries with only 6 people. In most states, all the members of the jury must make their decision on the person’s guilt or lack of guilt (verdict) unanimously. Some states, however, only require a majority which is greater than a simple majority. If a jury cannot agree on verdict, it is declared a "hung jury," and the matter is either dropped or brought to another trial with a new jury.


set of opinions and ideas for policy, upon which the members of a political party decide. Party members often determine their platforms in caucuses.

Political Action Committee (PAC)

an independent organization established by interest groups, political candidates, and people who hold office. PACs serve to raise and contribute money to the political campaigns of individuals whose platforms agree with the aims of the PAC. These organizations were founded because federal laws prohibit most interest groups from contributing money directly to political campaigns.

Political Culture

basic beliefs, customs and assumptions about government which are shared by the people in a group or nation.

Political participation

becoming involved in activities such as voting, running for political office, signing petitions and other activities which help citizens make an impact on public or political issues.

Political Party

organized group of people who want to control or influence government by winning elections, holding public office, and having the government’s laws and policies reflect their political beliefs. In the United States, there are two major parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.


an area of activity aimed at influencing or controlling the government in order to formulate or guide public policy.

Poll tax

a tax a person is required to pay before he or she is allowed to vote. Poll taxes were used in many southern states after the Reconstruction period to restrict African-American citizens’ right to vote.

Popular sovereignity

idea that government should reflect the general will of the people, or the interests that all citizens have in common. Political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) described this concept in Du contrat social (The Social Contract), published in 1762.

Popular vote

vote of the people of a nation or group. In the United States, this contrasts with an electoral vote, which is done by a small group of electors, rather than the general public.

Pork Barrel legislation

laws that directs funds to local projects in an area which a member of Congress represents.


smallest, most local unit in the typical structure of political parties at the local level. Precincts act as voting districts, and cover an area of several blocks.


Chief Executive of the United States, Head of State and Commander and Chief of the US Armed Forces. The President of the United States is elected every 4 years, by the Electoral College.


process by which members of a party elect candidates to run for office as the representative of the party. Primaries are held in national presidential elections, as well as more local elections.

Prior restraint

blocking a story before it is punished or broadcast

Privileges and immunities

refers to Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution, which guarantees that "citizens of each state shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens" in any other state in the United States.

Proportional representation

system of electing members of the legislature, in which the number of seats given to a particular party is determined by the percentage of the popular vote which goes to that party. This system is used in many countries, including most European nations.

Public policy

actions which the government takes to address problems and issues raised in society and introduced through the political system.

Public Service

time, effort and energy given to local, state or national communities, generally through opportunities in appointed or elected office.


minimum number of people needed a meeting for the business at hand to take place.


process by which people or legislatures express their official approval of a proposed document or plan. Amendments to the US Constitution cannot become part of the Constitution until they have been ratified either by two-thirds of the state legislatures or by conventions in two-thirds of the states.


a direct vote by the people on an issue of public policy.

Representative Democracy

system of government which derives its authority from the people and governs according to the will of the majority, but in which the people elect individuals to represent their will.


form of government based on a constitution, in which decisions are made by elected or appointed officials in a democratic manner.

Reserved Powers

powers given to the states that are not enumerated in the US Constitution. According to the Tenth Amendment, "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

Rule of Law

doctrine that no individual stands above the law, and that all rulers are answerable to the law. This is one of the major legacies of the constitutional system. The rule of law can also be understood as the belief that there is a universal standard of justice, equality and impartiality, against which all governments and governmental actions may be measured.

Rule of Men

doctrine that an individual or government may stand above the law, and rule according to personal whim or choice. The doctrine reflects the belief that standards of justice, equality and impartiality are subjective, not universal. This is the opposite of the rule of law.

Search warrant

a court order that allows the person holding the order, generally a law enforcement officer, to search areas specified in the order for items specified in the order.

Selective Service System

independent federal agency in the executive branch. Selective Service works to register all males in the United States, between the ages of 18 1/2 to 26,to make sure that the Armed Forces can be adequately supplied with people in case of a crisis in national security.


independent federal agency in the executive branch. Selective Service works to register all males in the United States, between the ages of 18 1/2 to 26,to make sure that the Armed Forces can be adequately supplied with people in case of a crisis in national security.

Senate Majority Leader

first-ranking party position, held by a distinguished senior member of the majority party in the Senate. The Senate majority leader schedules floor actions on bills, and helps guide the majority party’s legislative program through the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader

the head of the minority party in the Senate. The minority leader represents the interests of the minority party senators by meeting with the majority leader to schedule bills and rules for floor action.

Separation of Church and State

idea that the government and religion should be separate, and not interfere in each other’s affairs. In the United States, this idea is based on the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which states that the government cannot make any laws to establish a state religion or prohibit the free exercise of religion.

Separation of Powers

division of governmental authority among the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial branch. The US Constitution uses this principle in setting up the presidency, the Congress, and the courts.

Shared Powers

powers granted to the national government by the Constitution, but not denied to the states. One example is the right to lay and collect taxes.

Shay’s Rebellion

incident in western Massachusetts in 1786-1787. Small-farm owners, led by Daniel Shays, rebelled in reaction to the state’s failure to address the widespread farm foreclosures and credit difficulties. Although troops were able to calm the rebellion, the rioting convinced many national leaders that the Articles of Confederation were insufficient for national stability, and that a stronger central government was needed. This helped compel leaders to create what would become the US Constitution.


the use of spoken words to harm someone’s reputation.

Social Contract

agreement among all the people in a society to give up part of their freedom to a government in exchange for protection of natural rights. John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were two European political philosophers who wrote about this concept.


supreme and final authority or power in a government. In the United States, sovereignty rests with the people.

Speaker of the House

leading member of the house of Representatives. Third in line to the presidency.

Special Courts

federal courts which were created by Congress to hear specific types of cases. Sometimes called "legislative courts," they include: the Court of Military Appeals, the Claims Court, the Tax Court, territorial courts, and the courts of the District of Columbia.

Suffrage-the right to vote

The Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees suffrage for all Americans, regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed suffrage for all Americans, regardless of gender.

Supremacy Clause

Article VI, Section 2 of the Constitution, which states that the "Constitution, and the laws of the United States made in pursuance thereof … shall be the supreme law of the land." Thus, if any state laws come into conflict with the Constitution , then the Constitution must win out.

Supreme Court (also High Court)

the highest court in the judicial branch of the United States government, and the only court specifically mentioned in the Constitution. It consists of a Chief Justice and eight other Associate Justices. The Supreme Court is the "court of last resort" for appeals-the final authority on any questions dealing with the Constitution, acts of Congress, and treaties of the United States. The only way to get around a Supreme Court decision is to amend the Constitution or have the Supreme Court itself reverses the decision. If a case is decided by the US Supreme Court, it cannot be appealed anywhere else.

Symbolic Speech

action that is meant to convey a message.


taxes on goods, often placed on goods being brought into the United States from foreign nations (import tariffs).


money collected by federal, local or state government from individuals or businesses for use in public spending.


official agreement between two or more sovereign nations. Many treaties establish terms of peace after a war or conflict, or determine the rules nations must follow in theory relationship with other nations. A treaty creates rights or responsibilities, or restricts existing rights or responsibilities.

Treaty Ratification

power given to the Senate to accept or reject treaties made by the President. A two-thirds majority is needed to ratify a treaty, as stated by the Constitution in Article II, Section 2, clause 2.

Unalienable rights

fundamental rights belonging to people, which cannot be taken away. The phrase "unalienable rights" was used in the Declaration of Independence (1776).

Unenumerated rights

rights not listed in the Constitution or constitutional amendments; but either implied or, for some other reason, recognized and protected by the Supreme Court.

Unfunded mandates

actions imposed by the federal or state government on lower levels of government which are not accompanied by the money needed to fund the action required.


"one room." The term refers to a legislature that has only one body, such as the Israeli Knesset or the German Bundestag.

Unitary government

system of government in which all authority is placed in a central government. Countries with unitary governments, such as Great Britain and France, have regional and local governments which derive their power from the central government.

Unitary system

a system of government in which constitutional authority lies in the hands of the national government. In such a system, political subdivisions created by the central government take responsibility for much of the everyday administration of the government. Great Britain is an example of a country with a unitary system of government.

United Nations

international organization established in 1945. The U.N. supports cooperation among nations and the peaceful settlement of debates. The United States is one of the U.N.’s 183 member states.


power given the President to refuse to sign a bill that has been passed by Congress, thus blocking its becoming a law. Congress can override a veto with a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. American presidents have vetoed about 2500 acts of Congress, of which Congress has overridden about 100. "Veto" means "I forbid" in Latin.


choose. In order to vote in the United States, a person has to be at least 18 years old and a citizen of the United States. People who are eligible to vote must register.

Wall of separation

term for the separation of church and state, coined by Thomas Jefferson. According to Jefferson, the freedom of religion articulated in the First Amendment to the Constitution could best be articulated with the image of a "wall of separation" between the state and the church. This view of the First Amendment has been criticized by some.


a court order that makes an official action legal, such as a search warrant or an arrest warrant.

Writ of certiorari

court order issued by the Supreme Court to order a lower court to send up the record of a case. Supreme Court justices use writs of certiorari to bring cases from lower courts to the Supreme Court for review. "Certiorari" means "to be informed" or "to be made more certain" in Latin.

Writ of Habeas Corpus

court order which requires that individuals who have been arrested or detained be physically brought before the court to determine whether they are being held on legal grounds. This helps protect people from being arbitrary arrested and/or held in custody for excessive periods unnecessarily. "Habeas corpus" means "you must have the body."

Adversary system

A system of law where the court is seen as a nuetral area where disputants can argue the merits of their cases.

Affirmative action

Government-mandated programs that seek to create special employment opportunities for blacks, women and other victims of past discrimination.

Bread and Butter issues

Those political issues are specifically directed at the daily concerns of working-class Americans, such as job security, tax rates, wages, and employment benefits.

Broad constructionism

Belief that the Constitution should be interpreted loosely concerning the restrictions it places on federal power.

Budget deficit

Condition that arise when federal expenditures exceed revenues.

Budget resolution

Set of budget guidelines that must pass both houses of Congress in identical form by April 15.


A recount of the population every ten years for purposes of reapportionment of the Congress


A combination of groups of people who work together to acheive a political goal.


A political ideology that tends to favor defense spending and school prayer and disapprove of social programs, abortion, affirmative actions and a large, active government.


the weakening partisan preferences that points to a weakening of the two party system and a rise of independents in politics.

Double jeopardy

The act of trying an individual a second time after he has been acquitted on the same charges.


Process by which governments return fugitives to the jurisdiction from which they have fled.


Because early primaries have grown increasingly important in recent years, many states have pushed forward the date of their primary elections.


Written statement of criminal charges brought against a defendant.


Process through which voters may propose new laws.

Iron triangle (subgovernment)

The close working relationship between interest grousp, congressional committees and executive agencies.

Killer amendment

Amendment to a bill proposed by its opponenets for the specific purpose of decreasing the bill’s chance of passage.

Legislative orversight

One of Congress most important tasks–to investigate and evaluate the executive departments and agencies.


Level of support for an elected official as perceived through election results.

Objective good faith

Exception to the exclusionary rule that allows the use of illegally obtained evidence at a t trial if the court determines that the police beelived they were within the limits of the law when they obtained the evidence.

Senatorial courtesy

A check placed on the presidency whereby candidates for the federal bureaucracy must first be approved by the Senate.

Shield law

Law guaranteeing news reporters the right to protect the annonymity of their sources. States have passed this–not the federal government.

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