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Harvard University

U.S. Political Institutions: Congress, Presidency, Courts, and Bureaucracy

Harvard University via edX


How do the three branches of government operate? How is power shared among Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court? What role is played by federal agencies that have no direct constitutional authority oftheir own?

In this part of our series on American Government, we will examine the separation of powers among the three branches of government, and the role of voters, political parties, and the broader federal bureaucracy. We’ll explore how “the people” affect the behavior of members of Congress, what constitutes success in a president’s domestic and foreign policies, and how much power an unelected judiciary should have in a democratic system.


Week 1: Congress & Constituency
In this session, we will examine how their constituencies affect the behavior of members of Congress, including their influence on the type of bills that members are most likely to support. The 2014 farm bill will be used to highlight constituency influence.

Week 2: Congress & Party
This session will describe the role of parties in Congress and explain the developments that have contributed to party polarization within Congress. We’ll examine the 2013 government shutdown as a case study in party conflict. The session will also explain why Congress’s fragmented structure makes it difficult for Congress to take the lead on major national issues while making it perfectly suited to taking on scores of smaller issues at once.

Week 3: Presidents & Domestic Policy
This session will examine the factors that affect presidential success in the area of domestic policy. Several factors will be mentioned, but the focus will be the partisan makeup of Congress—whether a majority of its members are from the president’s party. The 1964 food stamp bill and the 1996 welfare bill will be used to illustrate the relationship between presidential success and Congress’s partisan makeup.

Week 4: Presidents & Foreign Policy
In this session, we’ll examine the president’s comparative advantages—for example, control over information—in the making of foreign policy. We’ll look particularly at the president’s war power and at executive agreements—treaty-like arrangements authorized solely by the president. President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 will serve as a case study.

Week 5: Federal Bureaucracy
In this session, we’ll examine the federal bureaucracy—its structure, staffing, and operation. We’ll also explore the challenge of holding the bureaucracy accountable for its actions. The Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet program will serve as a case study of bureaucratic politics.

Week 6: Judiciary & Supreme Court
This session will examine judicial power and the influence of politics on Supreme Court decisions. We will also consider the normative question of how much power an unelected judiciary should have in a democratic system. The primary case study in this session will be the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), which struck down an act of Congress prohibiting independent campaign expenditures by corporations and labor unions.

Taught by

Thomas E. Patterson


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  • Alex Neeley
    The lecture videos did a great job of explaining the content in a way that made sense. Everyone should view these videos as a way to understand how our government works. Examples used in lessons were recent and relevant to today's world.

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