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United States Congress: Facts and Figures

19-12-2017

Congress is the legislative branch of the US system of government and is divided into two chambers: the House of Representatives (lower chamber) and the Senate (upper chamber). The formal powers of Congress are set out in Article 1 of the US Constitution, and include making laws, collecting revenue, borrowing and spending money, declaring war, making treaties with foreign nations, and overseeing the executive branch. Elections to the US Congress occur in November every second year, with the Congress ...

Congress is the legislative branch of the US system of government and is divided into two chambers: the House of Representatives (lower chamber) and the Senate (upper chamber). The formal powers of Congress are set out in Article 1 of the US Constitution, and include making laws, collecting revenue, borrowing and spending money, declaring war, making treaties with foreign nations, and overseeing the executive branch. Elections to the US Congress occur in November every second year, with the Congress convening the following January. The current, 115th, Congress was elected in November 2016 and was convened in January 2017. The US has a long-standing two-party system, which means that nearly all members of Congress belong to either the Republican or Democratic Parties, while independent members (if any) generally align or sit with one of the two main parties. At the most recent US Congressional and Presidential elections, in November 2016, the Republican Party retained its majority in both houses of Congress, as well as winning the White House. This EPRS Briefing is designed to provide key facts and figures about the US Congress as an institution, including relevant comparisons with the European Parliament (EP). The back page contains a map showing the location of the various Congressional buildings on Capitol Hill, home to the Congress in Washington DC.

US Presidential executive action

31-03-2017

Since Donald Trump took office as President of the United States in January 2017, he has fulfilled several of his campaign promises by signing executive orders (EOs) and memoranda. These executive actions have raised questions, including what actions the President may legally and unilaterally take, for what purposes the President may use his executive authority, and what he can actually do without passing through Congress. Although the data are not comprehensive, as not all presidential actions have ...

Since Donald Trump took office as President of the United States in January 2017, he has fulfilled several of his campaign promises by signing executive orders (EOs) and memoranda. These executive actions have raised questions, including what actions the President may legally and unilaterally take, for what purposes the President may use his executive authority, and what he can actually do without passing through Congress. Although the data are not comprehensive, as not all presidential actions have to be published, a historical perspective may help to give insight into how US Presidents have used their executive authority. It appears that since George Washington, all Presidents have, to different extents, made use of their executive authority to advance their policy views and organise their administration. Unilateral Presidential policy-making has raised tensions, in particular with Congress, to which the US Constitution confers all legislative powers. President Barack Obama was heavily criticised by his opponents for advancing his policy goals without Congress and by signing executive orders (making policy with the 'stroke of a pen'). Despite a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, President Trump appears to be following the same pattern. He signed two executive orders on the day of his inauguration and other presidential actions have followed, including a presidential memorandum to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). However, to date, the most controversial EO introduced temporary measures restricting entry to the country for refugees and citizens from seven countries defined as of 'particular concern' on national security grounds. The order led to massive protests in the US and across the world, was challenged in court, and was finally temporarily put on hold nationwide by a federal judge. On 6 March, President Trump signed a new EO revoking the contested one and introducing new measures, limiting immigration from six of the countries. But this EO too has run into legal hurdles.

How Congress and President shape US foreign policy

30-03-2017

The United States Constitution regulates the conduct of American foreign policy through a system of checks and balances. The Constitution provides both Congress and the President, as the legislative and executive branches respectively, with the legal authority to shape relations with foreign nations. It recognises that only the federal government is authorised to conduct foreign policy; that federal courts are competent in cases arising under treaties; and declares treaties the supreme law of the ...

The United States Constitution regulates the conduct of American foreign policy through a system of checks and balances. The Constitution provides both Congress and the President, as the legislative and executive branches respectively, with the legal authority to shape relations with foreign nations. It recognises that only the federal government is authorised to conduct foreign policy; that federal courts are competent in cases arising under treaties; and declares treaties the supreme law of the land. The Constitution also lists the powers of Congress, including the 'power of the purse' (namely the ability to tax and spend public money on behalf of the federal government), the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, the power to declare war and the authority to raise and support the army and navy. At the same time, the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the United States (US) army and navy and, although Congressional action is required to declare war, it is generally agreed that the President has the authority to respond to attacks against the US and to lead the armed forces. While the President’s powers are substantial, they are not without limits, due to the role played by the legislative branch. In light of the discussion of the foreign policy options of the new administration under President Donald Trump, this briefing specifically explores the powers conferred to conclude international agreements, to regulate commerce with foreign nations, to use military force and to declare war. It also explains how Congress performs its oversight – or ‘watchdog’ – functions with regard to foreign policy, the tools at its disposal, and the role of committees in the process.

The incoming US Congress's powers to overturn regulations of the previous administration

13-01-2017

During the election campaign, President-elect Donald Trump stated his intention to repeal or amend regulations issued by the Obama administration. Following the 2016 elections in the USA, as well as the White House the Republicans will hold the majority in both chambers of the 115th Congress. It is thus likely that the legislative branch will work closely with the executive to achieve common objectives. Congress can always introduce and pass legislation that modifies regulations made by agencies. ...

During the election campaign, President-elect Donald Trump stated his intention to repeal or amend regulations issued by the Obama administration. Following the 2016 elections in the USA, as well as the White House the Republicans will hold the majority in both chambers of the 115th Congress. It is thus likely that the legislative branch will work closely with the executive to achieve common objectives. Congress can always introduce and pass legislation that modifies regulations made by agencies. However, passing new legislation can be a cumbersome process, and there are tactics for the opposition to delay action, such as making points of order and tabling certain motions. As an alternative, under certain circumstances and within a specific timeframe, Congress could use an expedited procedure, laid down in the Congressional Review Act (CRA) of 1996, to overturn federal regulations passed in the closing months of the outgoing administration.

Appointment of US Supreme Court Justices

23-05-2016

In February 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, vacating a position on America’s highest court. That quickly focused American political discussion, in the midst of a heated Presidential campaigning season, on his possible replacement. The appointment of Supreme Court Justices is broadly depicted in Article II of the US Constitution as a process in which the President chooses a candidate but the Senate provides its 'advice and consent' on the nominee. The Republican-controlled ...

In February 2016, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, vacating a position on America’s highest court. That quickly focused American political discussion, in the midst of a heated Presidential campaigning season, on his possible replacement. The appointment of Supreme Court Justices is broadly depicted in Article II of the US Constitution as a process in which the President chooses a candidate but the Senate provides its 'advice and consent' on the nominee. The Republican-controlled Senate argued that President Obama should leave the nomination process to the next US President. Obama, meanwhile, affirmed his intention to fulfil his constitutional duty, and indeed on 16 March he put forward a nominee. The debate reflects an appointment process that is to a certain extent a bargain between the executive and legislative branches, framed by Constitutional norms and political considerations. From a procedural point of view, the process can be divided into two stages, the initial nomination phase, for the executive, and the subsequent confirmation phase, dominated by the legislative. Although the President maintains considerable discretion in choosing a candidate, many issues are taken into consideration before he or she submits the formal nomination. Some factors include the nominee’s professional competence and political affiliation, and the overall balance of the nine-member court in terms of the geographic, socio-ethnic, or religious backgrounds of the justices. Once the nominee is formally submitted to the Senate, the Judiciary Committee vets the nominee and organises public hearings. The Committee scrutinises the nominee's background closely, asking them to provide extensive professional and personal records which may support or cast doubt on his or her ultimate confirmation. After recommendation by the Judiciary Committee, the full Senate debates and ultimately votes on the nominee's confirmation.

Understanding US Presidential elections

15-04-2016

In July 2016, the two major US parties will nominate their respective official candidate for the 58th US presidential election which takes place in November. With less than three months before the national conventions, and a large number of delegates already allocated, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is running ahead of Bernie Sanders towards the nomination. On the Republican side there is still much uncertainty about who will finally be named official candidate. The President is head of ...

In July 2016, the two major US parties will nominate their respective official candidate for the 58th US presidential election which takes place in November. With less than three months before the national conventions, and a large number of delegates already allocated, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is running ahead of Bernie Sanders towards the nomination. On the Republican side there is still much uncertainty about who will finally be named official candidate. The President is head of state, head of government, and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Thus, presidential elections are an important part of American political life. Although millions of American citizens vote in presidential elections every four years, the President is not, in fact, directly elected by the people. Citizens elect the members of the Electoral College, who then cast their votes for the President and Vice President. While key elements of the presidential election are spelled out in the US Constitution, other aspects have been shaped by state laws, national party rules and state party rules. This explains why presidential campaigns have evolved over time, from the days when presidential candidates were nominated in the House of Representatives by the 'King caucus', to an almost exclusively political party-dominated convention system, and finally to the modern system of nominations based on primaries, introduced progressively to increase democratic participation. A number of additional developments have also played an important role in shaping today's presidential elections, notably political party efforts to limit 'frontloading'; the organisation of the Electoral College system and the changes to the campaign financing system.

Role of the US Congress in trade agreements: The 'Fast-Track' procedure

01-03-2016

Since 1974 the United States Congress has enacted several Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) acts to ensure speedy ratification of trade agreements in the United States, while maintaining a congressional hold on the objectives to be pursued by US negotiators. TPA defines the conditions and procedures for using a streamlined or expedited procedure, also known as the fast-track procedure, to vote in Congress on international trade agreements negotiated during a specific defined period of time. The current ...

Since 1974 the United States Congress has enacted several Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) acts to ensure speedy ratification of trade agreements in the United States, while maintaining a congressional hold on the objectives to be pursued by US negotiators. TPA defines the conditions and procedures for using a streamlined or expedited procedure, also known as the fast-track procedure, to vote in Congress on international trade agreements negotiated during a specific defined period of time. The current (2015) Trade Promotion Authority Act, which was finally passed in June 2015, sets out the rules for the expedited procedures applicable to any international agreement entered into by the US before 1 July 2018 (with possible extension up to 1 July 2021), covering inter alia the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership and any agreement stemming from the ongoing Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations. The TPA requirements in terms of negotiating objectives and consultation have constantly evolved to match the rising political need of Congress to exert greater control over the outcomes of US trade negotiations.

US Supreme Court puts Clean Power Plan on hold

26-02-2016

In August 2015, the Obama administration promulgated a landmark regulation known as the Clean Power Plan (CPP), to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil-fuelled power plants. Soon after the publication of the CPP in the Federal Register, state and industry petitioners contended that the administration had exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act (CAA), violated the historic and legal authority of the states, and imposed unmanageable restructuring of the power sector. In February ...

In August 2015, the Obama administration promulgated a landmark regulation known as the Clean Power Plan (CPP), to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fossil-fuelled power plants. Soon after the publication of the CPP in the Federal Register, state and industry petitioners contended that the administration had exceeded its authority under the Clean Air Act (CAA), violated the historic and legal authority of the states, and imposed unmanageable restructuring of the power sector. In February 2016, the US Supreme Court – the highest US court with unique authority over constitutional and federal affairs – temporarily suspended President Barack Obama's landmark carbon-emissions regulation for existing stationary sources.

US Congress modifies Visa Waiver Program

04-02-2016

The United States Visa Waiver Program (VWP) has allowed millions of citizens of European and other countries to travel to the US, and to remain there for as long as 90 days without requiring a visa, provided that they meet certain requirements. The recent terrorist attacks in Europe, as well as the presence of Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, have reignited debate in Congress over US domestic security. While recognising the importance of the VWP for transatlantic relations, Congress stressed ...

The United States Visa Waiver Program (VWP) has allowed millions of citizens of European and other countries to travel to the US, and to remain there for as long as 90 days without requiring a visa, provided that they meet certain requirements. The recent terrorist attacks in Europe, as well as the presence of Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, have reignited debate in Congress over US domestic security. While recognising the importance of the VWP for transatlantic relations, Congress stressed the need to prevent terrorists from exploiting potential vulnerabilities in the programme. This has prompted Congress to modify the VWP to require certain travellers, previously exempt, to apply for a visa in order to enter the US.

US humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis

01-12-2015

In recent months, the European Union has faced an unprecedented exodus of asylum-seekers and other migrants, arriving from Syria in particular. The current humanitarian emergency is the result of a conflict-embroiled country and ongoing horrific human rights violations, resulting in one of the worst humanitarian crisis of modern times. More than 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced since the beginning of the conflict in 2011; approximatively 12.2 million are in need of humanitarian ...

In recent months, the European Union has faced an unprecedented exodus of asylum-seekers and other migrants, arriving from Syria in particular. The current humanitarian emergency is the result of a conflict-embroiled country and ongoing horrific human rights violations, resulting in one of the worst humanitarian crisis of modern times. More than 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced since the beginning of the conflict in 2011; approximatively 12.2 million are in need of humanitarian assistance and more than 4 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and Europe. Given its geographic proximity, the EU is severely affected by the Syrian humanitarian crisis; however the EU is not alone in supporting the Syrian population in need of international protection. Syria’s neighbouring countries and the United States remain committed to assisting the Syrian population, inside and outside Syria. In the US, to address the most urgent humanitarian aspects, the Obama administration has proposed to admit an increasing number of Syrian refugees in 2016 and beyond. This announcement has generated political debate. Some argue that the quotas announced still fall short of the global demand for resettlement of people escaping systemic violence in Syria, and call for a higher intake of Syrian refugees; while others claim that the refugee flow from Syria should be treated as a serious national security risk. In fact, any plan to bring in additional Syrians should be accompanied by a concrete and fool-proof plan to ensure that terrorists will not be able to enter the US. Currently the political dilemma in the United States appears to be how to identify ways to help the affected population, while ensuring the security and safety of the US. And in the wake of the 13 November Paris attacks, that debate has become much sharper, with many arguing against admitting any Syrian refugees to the country.

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