Civics 101: A Podcast

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Why does the U.S. have an Electoral College? How do congressional investigations work? What does the minority whip actually do? Civics 101 is the podcast refresher course on some basics you may have forgotten, or slept through, in school.

Have a civics question you'd like us to answer? Fill out the form below!

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Episode 42: U.S. Territories

Jul 25, 2017

What is a U.S. territory? What is the status of its citizens with regard to the Constitution and U.S. law? Doug Mack, author of The Not-Quite States of America joins us for a lesson on territories.

Episode 41: Obstruction of Justice

Jul 21, 2017

“Obstruction of Justice” has been a term swirling around in the headlines lately, but what does the charge actually mean? And how do you prove it? We’re speaking with Brianne Gorod, Chief Counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center to learn about the many different ways one can be accused of obstructing justice – from witness tampering and retaliation to simple contempt and the many options in-between. 

Episode 40: Church & State

Jul 18, 2017

The separation of church and state is widely considered to be a building block of American democracy,  but what did the founders really have in mind when they wrote "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” into the first amendment? And what's the deal with "one nation under God," and the whole swearing on the bible thing? Backstory's Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh lead today's civics lesson.

Episode 39: Lobbying

Jul 14, 2017

When discussing the political power of special interest groups, you can't help but talk about lobbying.  But what does a lobbyist actually do?  We know they hand over checks (lots of them) but how do they spend the rest of their time? What separates legal lobbying from bribery? And how is the food at all those Washington D.C. fundraising breakfasts anyway? Jimmy Williams, former lobbyist and current host of Decode D.C. spills the beans. 

Episode 38: The 25th Amendment

Jul 11, 2017

When a monarch dies, power stays in the family. But what about a president? It was a tricky question that the founders left mostly to Congress to figure out later. In this episode, the National Constitution Center's Lana Ulrich explains the informal rules that long governed the transition of presidential power, and the 25th Amendment, which currently outlines what should happen if a sitting president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to carry out his duties. #civics101pod

The United States is described as a republic, a federation, and a constitutional democracy. So, what is it? Are those terms interchangeable? And, while we're at it, what's the difference between totalitarianism, despotism, and dictatorship? Political science professor Seth Masket digs into the 'isms, 'cracies, and 'archies for a brief primer on different forms of government. 
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Episode 36: Approval Ratings

Jun 28, 2017

Presidential job approval. It seems we get a weekly report from news organizations on how citizen’s think the President is doing, so we're digging into how it gets calculated and how much that number really matters with Dan Cassino, Associate Professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Episode 35: Party Whips

Jun 21, 2017

With more than 500 members of Congress, parties have to coordinate members and keep them on the same page. Enter: party whips. But what do they actually do? Several of you asked us to find out. We asked Larry Evans, the Newton Family Professor of Government at the College of William and Mary to help us out.

Episode 34: Separation of Powers

Jun 14, 2017

In this episode we untangle two terms that are closely related, but not the same: Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances. The framers envisioned a government structure that would consist of three separate branches, each with their own power, in order to avoid having one person or one branch from having full control of the country. University of Minnesota Law Professor Heidi Kitrosser joins us to explain how the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches are separated and once separated, how they ensure those powers are kept in check.

Episode 33: Declaring War

Jun 7, 2017

War, what is it good for? For a country that’s spent a significant amount of its history engaged in conflict, the United States has only officially declared war 11 times – most recently in WWII. So what about all the other conflicts we’ve entered into as a nation? And how do we decide to set off into battle anyway? To learn more about how the US declares war, we’re speaking with Albin Kowalewski, Historical Publications Specialist for the US House of Representatives. 

Episode 32: Budget Basics

Jun 1, 2017

We've received a LOT of questions about how the budget process works and honestly, we had a lot of our own! It should come as no surprise that the budget process of the United States government is complex and difficult to explain in less than 15 minutes. We decided to cover some of the terminology that you hear when the budget is discussed to give us all a good foundation. Chances are you'll have more questions when you finish listening this week, but hopefully you'll have a better idea of what's supposed to happen.

Episode 31: How a Bill Becomes a Law

May 24, 2017

Even if you slept through most of your Government classes in High School, there's a good chance you have a vague recollection of how a bill becomes a law thanks to Schoolhouse Rock! The series designed to teach kids about grammar, science, math, civics, and more, got its start in the mid 70s. In 1976, "I'm Just a Bill", introduced viewers to the inner workings of government legislation. We decided to give this topic a podcast update and asked award winning Social Studies teacher, Dave Alcox, to take us back to class and explain how a bill becomes a law. 

Episode 30: National Debt & The Deficit

May 17, 2017

The National Debt and The Deficit: two terms that are often used interchangeably, but take on different meanings when it comes to the government. Louise Sheiner is a Policy Director for The Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution and she's here to help guide us through the differences between the debt and the deficit, and what the implications of carrying debt are.

If you’d like to try your hand at navigating the fiscal ship, the Brookings Institution has designed a game to “challenge you to put the federal budget on a sustainable course”: The Fiscal Ship

Episode 29: Political Speechwriting

May 10, 2017

We do our best to answer your questions about how American democracy works, but many of you have also told us you like to get the insider's view from people who work, or have worked in government. We asked Sarada Peri, former senior presidential speech writer for Barack Obama, about the art of political speech writing.

Episode 28: Congressional Caucuses

May 5, 2017

We've received multiple questions about Congressional Caucuses, what are they, how are they formed, and what is their purpose? We asked Colleen Shogun, Deputy Director of Outreach at the Library of Congress to help us understand the 800 Congressional Caucuses, from the Authors Caucus to the Civility Caucus.

Episode 27: How a Case Gets to the Supreme Court

Apr 26, 2017

The Supreme Court of the United States hear about 80 cases each year, but how do lower court cases make their way to the highest court in the land, and how do they decide which ones to hear? We asked Behzad Mirhashem, Assistant Professor of Law at University of New Hampshire School of Law to help walk us through the process. 

Episode 26: The Cabinet

Apr 21, 2017

Kristen in California asked: "How exactly does the cabinet work? How much control do the secretaries have? And are they loyal to the president or the department." We asked Dean Spiliotes, Civics Scholar at Southern New Hampshire University to help guide us through the history and inner workings of a president's cabinet. 

Episode 25: Term Limits

Apr 18, 2017

Why are there no term limits on Congress, how long has it been that way, and what would it take to actually change how long someone can serve? In this episode we look into the long history of term limits for government officials from the President to the Vice President to Congress. 

Episode 24: The IRS

Apr 14, 2017

When Congress imposed the first personal income tax on Americans in 1861, nothing happened – because there was no agency to collect it! The following year saw the creation of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, or as you know it today, the Internal Revenue Service.

Today, the IRS is a massive federal bureaucracy charged with collecting taxes, doling out credits, and capturing and jailing tax cheats.  On this episode, Joe Thorndike, Director of the Tax History Project, walks us through the history and role of the IRS. 

Episode 23: Emoluments

Apr 11, 2017

One of our listeners sent in a question asking about “the ethics clause”, which forbids presidents from receiving foreign gifts. As it turns out, there isn’t something in the constitution with exactly that title – but there is something called the “Emoluments Clause”, where the founders laid out some rules aimed at combating corruption. In this episode, we look at the language of the Emoluments Clause, and how the founders might have envisioned it working today.

Episode 22: Congressional Investigations

Apr 7, 2017

The Army-McCarthy hearings, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, the Select Committee on Benghazi, the Russian hacking probe.  Congressional investigations are a staple of American politics, but how do they work? When is it Congress' job to investigate an issue? And what the heck is the difference between a probe and an investigation, anyway? Professor of Government and Policy Linda Fowler guides us through the complicated world of congressional investigations.

Episode 21: The Congressional Budget Office

Apr 4, 2017

When Republicans first submitted their alternative to the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle anxiously awaited the release of the Congressional Budget Office's analysis—or "score"—for the bill. Determining the long and short-term cost for a specific piece of legislation is a complicated task, so we asked the founding director of the CBO, Alice Rivlin, to help explain the history of the office and how it manages to predict the financial outcome of a bill when there are so many moving parts. 

Episode 20: The Electoral College

Mar 31, 2017

We've received a lot of questions about The Electoral College from listeners, from how it works, to why it was set up, and whether or not it can it be changed or removed. So we asked Ron Elving from NPR to explain the basics of The Electoral College, from its formation to its current state. 

Episode 19: Senate Rules

Mar 28, 2017

When Senator Mitch McConnell barred Senator Elizabeth Warren from speaking during the debate over Jeff Session’s nomination for Attorney General, he invoked Rule XIX. It's safe to say many people suddenly realized how little they knew about the rules of the Senate. There are in fact 44 standing rules of the US Senate, but what are they? Where do they come from? And who can Presiding Officers turn to when they have a question? Alan Frumin spent 35 years in the Office of the Senate Parliamentarian and he gave us a primer.  

Episode 18: Office of Scheduling & Advance

Mar 24, 2017

If managing your personal appointment calendar is a struggle, imagine what it must be like for the President of the United States? From daily meetings, to promoting policies in speeches across the country, to elaborate trips abroad, the Office of Scheduling and Advance at the White House makes sure the president is in the right place at the right time. We wanted to know how the office works day to day and what their responsibilities are so we asked a former Director of the office, Alyssa Mastromonaco, to give us an inside look.

Episode 17: Veto

Mar 21, 2017

The presidential veto is one of the cornerstones of the system of constitutional checks and balances the framers used to prevent the misuse or abuse of power within any branch of government. How has the veto been used historically and more recently? In this episode we cover the basics of the veto.

Episode 16: Gerrymandering

Mar 17, 2017

Over the years, gerrymandering has become synonymous with weirdly-shaped maps of electoral districts, nefarious political maneuvering, and partisanship. But when did gerrymandering become the norm? Is it always used for political gain? And is there any way to stop it from happening? Our latest episode dives into the complicated history of the gerrymander.  

They are two of the most powerful positions in a president’s cabinet: the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. One has been around since the American Revolution, the other is relatively new. So what exactly do these two departments and their heads do? And are diplomatic efforts and military strategy natural opposites? In this episode, the history and interaction between two of the most powerful US agencies.

George Washington received five letters a day, Theodore Roosevelt received so many letters it became a fire hazard at the White House, and Ronald Reagan loved reading mail from the country’s youngest citizens. In today’s super connected world, who’s in charge of handling all the correspondence addressed to the President? We look into the history of the Office of Presidential Correspondence and go behind the scenes of the Obama administration to see how mail of all kinds gets sorted.

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Episode 13: Filibuster

Mar 6, 2017

From Jimmy Stewart's unyielding speech in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington to today's threats of using the nuclear option for approving Supreme Court nominees, the term "filibuster" gets thrown around a lot, but what is it? What are the rules governing this sanctioned form of unruliness? And is it effective? 

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