Remedial civics for the rest of us
Acton Institute Powerblog

Remedial civics for the rest of us

[Note: This is the introduction to an occasional series that provides information on what you should have learned in school—but probably didn’t—about how the U.S. government works (or why it doesn’t).]

For most of my adult life I thought I knew how laws were made. Since the age of seven I had been reciting the lyrics to the 1976 Schoolhouse Rock! segment, “I’m Just a Bill,” and I had learned in civics class the how-a-bill-becomes-law spiel so well I was able to recite it years after graduating high school.

And so I was surprised to find that lawmaking was a lot more complicated than I had been taught by my teachers, both those in my school and on my Saturday morning cartoons.

Like me, you were probably taught the legislative branch makes our laws, the judicial branch interprets our laws, and the executive branch enforces our laws. While this is correct, it’s also incomplete. For example, federal agencies are part of the executive branch and thus have the power to enforce laws. But these agencies also have legislative power through their ability to make regulations that have the force of law. They also have judicial power through the ability to determine what certain statutes passed by congress mean and how they are to be applied.

In fact, federal agencies often create more laws that Congress. One study found that in 2007, Congress enacted 138 public laws, while federal agencies finalized 2,926 rules, including 61 major regulations. You are also 10 times more likely to be tried by an agency than by an actual court. As Jonathan Turley has noted, in a given year, federal judges conduct roughly 95,000 adjudicatory proceedings, including trials, while federal agencies complete more than 939,000. Federal agencies are essentially a fourth branch of government.

This is just a small portion of what I didn’t know. Indeed, most Americans—even those with advanced degrees—don’t understand the most basic functions of government. And the misunderstandings that are repeated daily compound the problem (the number who believe the President “controls the economy” is enough to make you weep). The result is that many Americans—including far too many Christians—are forming opinions and making decisions about government that are based on faulty data.

Because we live in the Age of Information, the info about civics is available to all of us. But we often don’t know what we don’t know or know where to find it. You likely also don’t have the free time to spend hours of research looking it up.

In this occasional series I want to help rectify this knowledge gap (including my own) by providing updated and accurate facts about the U.S. government. In each article I’ll include material you (probably) didn’t know, so don’t be swayed to skip them based on their lackluster titles. For example, you may think you already know about members of Congress. But did you know there are four types?

Such information may seem like mere trivia. But because of the power and scope of our government, to be informed citizens we need as much remedial education as we can get.

Other articles in this series:

What you may not know about members of Congress

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).