GED Social Studies Test: The Presidential System

By Achim K. Krull, Murray Shukyn

You should expect that there will be questions about the presidential system on the GED Social Studies test. After all, it governs the country that is giving the test. The presidential system (also known as the congressional system) has been adopted in many parts of the world, especially in the United States and Central and South America. Like the parliamentary system, the presidential system comprises three branches of government:

  • Legislative: The legislative branch, which is responsible for writing laws (legislation), consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, collectively referred to as Congress. The legislative branch also confirms or rejects presidential appointments and has the power to declare war.

    The House of Representatives is intended to represent the popular views, while the Senate protects states’ rights to balance individual and state rights. In fact, prior to the 17th Amendment, senators were elected by state legislatures, not directly by the people of the state as they are now.

  • Executive: The president, vice president, and their cabinet form the executive branch of government, which is responsible for executing the laws passed by Congress. The president also serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

  • Judicial: The judicial branch, consisting of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, is responsible for reviewing laws and has the power to change laws through its review process, typically with the goal of making sure the laws comply with the Constitution. The justices of the Supreme Court are nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. They serve for life unless they resign or are impeached.

    Justices have their own political views, which can make the confirmation process difficult, especially when the president is of one party and the other party forms the Senate majority.

    The powers of each branch are fixed by the Constitution.

What are the two branches of Congress?

  • (A) the Cabinet and the Supreme Court

  • (B) the Supreme Court and the Senate

  • (C) the Senate and the House of Representatives

  • (D) the House of Commons and the Senate

The correct answer is Choice (C), the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Elections in the presidential system

Members of the legislative and executive branch are elected. The president and vice president are elected for four-year terms; senators, for six-year terms; and representatives, for 2-year terms. The president may only serve two terms, but all other elected members of government may run for reelection as often as they want. Senators are elected directly in the state they represent — two senators per state regardless of size of the state.

Terms of office of the Senate are staggered; one-third of the Senate is elected every two years, at the same time as the voting for the House of Representatives takes place. Representatives are elected directly in 435 electoral districts.

Although citizens cast ballots for president and vice president, their votes are assigned to electors in each state that collectively make up the Electoral College. Each state has a predetermined number of electors in the college based on population. Originally, the electors were leaders of their communities, citizens of standing and repute who were entrusted with the right to choose the president and vice president. They could choose at will from among the candidates.

However, today’s electors are bound to the candidates of one party or the other based on the popular vote in the state. As a result, a presidential candidate can win with fewer popular votes if he wins a majority of electoral votes.

At first glance, this election process seems convoluted, but the founding fathers feared that an uneducated electorate could run wild and elect a popular but unsuitable president. They were also concerned that the entire legislature and executive could be voted out at the same time, virtually overthrowing the entire government. That’s also why only one-third of the Senate is elected at any one time.

Separation of powers and the system of checks and balances

Significant features of the U.S. presidential system are the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances. The separation of powers keeps the three branches of government separate to prevent any one individual or group from dominating the government. The system of checks and balances subjects any branch of government to the scrutiny of the other branches so that all branches are held accountable for their actions and no one branch can run roughshod over the country.

The idea is to force all branches of the government to work with each other cooperatively by reaching reasonable compromises among differing political positions. Here are a few examples of checks and balances:

  • The president can veto a law passed by Congress.

  • Congress can override a president’s veto with a two-thirds vote.

  • The Supreme Court can declare a law passed by Congress unconstitutional.

  • The president nominates justices for the Supreme Court, but Congress must approve.

  • Congress can impeach justices and remove them from the Supreme Court.

  • Congress can impeach the president and remove him from office.

  • The House and Senate can veto each other’s bills.

Here are a few questions to check your knowledge.

  1. What is the point of the checks and balances system in American government?

    • (A) It allows for the impeachment of presidents.

    • (B) It ensures that the legislative branch of government remains dominant.

    • (C) It prevents the Supreme Court from being governed by any one political party.

    • (D) It prevents any one branch of government from dominating all government.

  2. What effect does the system of checks and balances have on the presidential veto of a bill?

    • (A) It prevents a presidential veto.

    • (B) It enables the legislature to override a president’s veto.

    • (C) It allows the legislation to be sent to the Supreme Court for reconsideration.

    • (D) It has no effect on the presidential veto.

  3. How can the legislative branch overrule a presidential veto?

    • (A) It can simply vote on and pass the same legislation by a majority vote.

    • (B) The legislative branch can’t overrule a presidential veto.

    • (C) The legislature can pass the same legislation with a two-thirds majority vote.

    • (D) The legislative branch can appeal to the Supreme Court to overrule the president.

Here are the answers.

  1. The only complete answer is Choice (D).

  2. The system of checks and balances enables the legislature (Congress) to override a president’s veto, Choice (B).

  3. The only correct answer is Choice (C); Congress can vote on the same legislation and pass it with a two-thirds majority.