Civics 101: A Podcast

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Ever wonder what a White House Chief of Staff actually does? How about a Press Secretary? And is gerrymandering still a thing in this country?

The first 100 days of the Trump administration is the perfect time to bone up on civics you should have learned in school…but probably didn’t. Civics 101 is your podcast guide to what you need to know, when it matters most.

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

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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.

Call the White House Comment Line: 202-465-1111

Send a letter to the President:

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue | Washington D.C. | 20500

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? 

Episode 12: The Nuclear Codes

Mar 2, 2017

What exactly does it mean when we say a president “has the nuclear codes”?  Is it really as simple as pressing a button? And what happens after a president does order a nuclear strike? Retired Marine lieutenant colonel James W. Weirick explains.  

Episode 11: The State of the Union Address

Feb 28, 2017

The State of the Union address is a longstanding tradition that involves bizarre, unexplained protocol and more applause than a high school graduation. It’s also mandated by the constitution. In this episode, we learn how the SOTU has changed since George Washington delivered the very first one to a joint session of Congress way back in 1790.  

Episode 10: Impeachment

Feb 24, 2017

A number of listeners have asked about a consequential government procedure: How is a president impeached? And why is it that the presidents that have been impeached haven’t been removed from office? Our guide today is Julia Azari, Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University.

Episode 9: Overturning a Supreme Court Ruling

Feb 21, 2017

We're staying on the federal court system beat with a deeper look into the Supreme Court. The word "supreme"is defined as: “an authority or office superior to all others.”  So when the Supreme Court decides on a case, it’s final, right? Not exactly. In Episode 9, we cover the handful of ways a Supreme Court ruling can be overturned.

Episode 8: Federal Courts

Feb 16, 2017

When a trio of judges on a federal appeals court in Washington state upheld a freeze on president Trump's Executive Order on immigration, some people celebrated, the administration protested - and at least a few people said: “Wait a minute... How do the federal courts work? Episode 8 looks into the structure and power of the federal courts - what they can do, how they do it, and why it matters.

Episode 7: Executive Orders

Feb 13, 2017

You may have heard of executive orders, but how about executive memoranda? Today, we talk about the different tools of executive action that the President uses to direct his administration, and enforce public policy. Are they laws? Can they be revoked by Congress? How are they vetted? Karen Hult, Chair of the Department of Political Scientist at Virginia Tech, fills us in.

Episode 6: The National Security Council

Feb 10, 2017

What's the purpose of the National Security Council? When was it created? Who serves on it? And why is Steve Bannon's appointment to its principals committee such a big deal? Former NSC member Stephen Sestanovich helps answer those questions.

Episode 5: Calling Your Congressperson

Feb 9, 2017
Logan Shannon

We're often urged to call our elected representatives to voice opinions on the issues, but what happens after that call is made?  Where does the message go? And do those calls ever sway decisions?  In this episode of Civics 101, we go into a congressional representative's office to find out.

Episode 4: How to Amend the Constitution

Feb 2, 2017
Logan Shannon / New Hampshire Public Radio

It’s been 25 years since the last constitutional amendment was ratified. How hard is it to change our most sacred document? We discover that there are not one, but two ways to amend the constitution – and one of them has never been used. Walter Olson, senior fellow of the Cato Institute explains that the founders didn’t exactly spell the process out clearly.

Logan Shannon

You've probably heard the term "comment period", but do you know what it means? What exactly happens when a government agency opens a proposed rule to public comment?  And do these comments ever sway decision making? Today, a look into the notice and comment rule making procedure. 

Episode 2: White House Press Corps

Jan 26, 2017
Logan Shannon / New Hampshire Public Radio

What's it really like for a journalist stationed at the White House? We go inside the press briefing room with NPR's Senior White House Correspondent, Scott Horsley.

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