16 Things You Might Not Know About Tammy Duckworth

United States Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
United States Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Democrat Tammy Duckworth was sworn in as the freshman senator from Illinois on January 3, 2017—and on April 9, 2018, she became the first sitting U.S. senator to give birth. A combat veteran with a PhD, she has an impressive history of overcoming adversity with grit and humor.

1. SHE HAD AN INTERNATIONAL CHILDHOOD.

Ladda Tammy Duckworth was born in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1968. Her father, Franklin Duckworth, was an American Marine who had served in World War II. The Vietnam War then brought him to Asia, where he stayed to work with refugees for the United Nations. In Thailand, he met Lamai Sompornpairin, a Thai native of Chinese descent, and they got married. Soon Tammy entered the picture, followed by her brother, Thomas.

Franklin’s work for the UN and various international companies took his family all over Southeast Asia. During the first 16 years of her life, Tammy lived in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia (then the Khmer Republic), Singapore, and Hawaii. Life was chaotic at times: “I remember my mother taking me as a very little kid to the roof of our home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to look at the bombs exploding in the distance,” Duckworth wrote in Politico. “She didn’t want us to be scared by the booms and the strange flashes of light. It was her way of helping us to understand what was happening.” Duckworth’s family fled Cambodia in April 1975, two weeks before the Khmer Rouge took over the capital.

By 1982, the Duckworths were living in Singapore, where Tammy attended the Singapore American School. She excelled academically—skipping ninth grade—and athletically, playing volleyball and medalling in shot put for the varsity track team.

2. IMMIGRATION DISCUSSIONS HAVE A PERSONAL RESONANCE.

When the company Franklin worked for was sold, he lost his job, and the Duckworth family moved to the United States. But Lamai, a non-citizen, initially could not enter the country. Teenaged Tammy and her younger brother, Tommy, were separated from their mother for six months while Lamai navigated the American immigration system. Duckworth has supported comprehensive immigration reform during her time in the House, tying the issue to family values and women’s rights.

3. SHE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO NEED HELP.


Her family settled in Hawaii in 1984 because, Duckworth has said, “[T]hat’s where we were when the money ran out. We couldn’t go any further.” Franklin, then in his 50s, had a difficult time finding work, so teenaged Tammy got an after-school job and Lamai took in sewing, which she completed in the family’s studio apartment. During her time at Honolulu’s McKinley High School, Duckworth relied on reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches and her family tried to make it on food stamps. “I remember to this day at the grocery store, we would go and count out the last five brown $1 food stamps—I still remember the color,” Duckworth said in August.

Duckworth says her family’s struggles with poverty give her extra motivation to fight for working families and to support government safety nets and strong public schools. When she encounters Americans who have lost their jobs or who are suffering through a weak economy, Duckworth says, “I understand the challenges they’re facing, because I’ve faced them myself.”

4. SHE WENT TO COLLEGE THANKS TO STUDENT LOANS AND GRANTS.

By the time Duckworth was applying to college, her family remained in a financially precarious position. “The summer before I started college,” she told the Democratic National Convention in 2016, “my parents walked everywhere instead of taking the bus. Once a week, they would hand over $10 to the university housing office, a deposit so I could move into the dorms in the fall.” Government-funded Pell grants, waitressing, and student loans helped Duckworth to graduate from the University of Hawaii in 1989 with a bachelor’s in political science.

5. SHE WANTED TO BE AN AMBASSADOR—BUT FELL IN LOVE WITH THE ARMY.

Tommy Duckworth with a World War II vet. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

After finishing undergrad, Duckworth moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a master’s in international affairs at George Washington University. She wanted to enter the foreign service in hopes of eventually becoming an ambassador—her dream since she was a child—and the school had among the highest passing rates for the foreign services exams at the time. While at George Washington, Duckworth noticed that many of her classmates were active or retired military personnel, and “I just naturally gravitated toward those folks as my friends,” she said. These friends encouraged her to try ROTC, and Duckworth joined in 1990. “I was interested in becoming a Foreign Service officer; I figured I should know the difference between a battalion and a platoon if I were going to represent my country overseas someday. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love with the camaraderie and sense of purpose that the military instills in you,” Duckworth wrote in Politico.

6. SHE MET HER HUSBAND THROUGH ROTC.

Duckworth also fell in love with a fellow cadet named Bryan Bowlsbey. Bowlsbey had spent five years as an enlisted soldier before going back to school at the University of Maryland and beginning the training to become a commissioned officer. As a graduate student, Duckworth was also older than most of the other cadets in ROTC, who were undergraduates, and she and Bowlsbey hit it off—after a rocky start. She told C-SPAN in 2005, “He made a comment that I felt was derogatory about the role of women in the Army, but he came over and apologized very nicely and then helped me clean my M16.”

7. SHE HAD ACADEMIC AMBITIONS …


While working on her master’s degree, Duckworth took a job assisting the curator for Asian history at the Smithsonian, putting together anthropological exhibits on Asia. Intellectually excited by the work, she began considering pursuing a PhD. Her boss insisted that the best school for scholars focusing on Southeast Asia was Northern Illinois University, so Duckworth went to DeKalb, Illinois, to check out the school. “I went and fell in love,” she told Chicago Magazine. “I did not know I was a Midwesterner until I got there. I just fell in love with the people.”

After being accepted at the school, Duckworth packed her things and moved to Illinois. Bowlsbey followed, and the two were soon married.

8. … BUT THE ARMY TOOK PRECEDENCE.

After receiving her Army Reserves commission in 1992, Duckworth selected helicopter pilot as her first-choice assignment. It was one of very few combat roles available to women at the time. “I was going to get the same rank, the same pay, and I wanted to face the same risks [as male officers],” Duckworth said. In 1993, she suspended her doctoral education to attend flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama, where she spent a year. The only woman in her unit, Duckworth knew she couldn’t show any weakness to her male colleagues. She logged more hours in the flight simulator than any other student, she says, and finished in the top three of her flight class of 40—and those top three got to become pilots of Black Hawk helicopters.

Returning to her Army Reserves unit in Illinois in 1994, Duckworth became a platoon leader and was soon named first lieutenant. She was deployed to Egypt for a NATO training mission in 1995, but upon learning her unit was being deactivated, Duckworth switched to the National Guard. Then, from 1996 to 2003, Duckworth worked toward her PhD while holding down various civilian jobs, serving her leadership role in the National Guard, and keeping her flying skills sharp. Duckworth said, “In order to maintain proficiency I must fly 96 hours each year. I worked during the day and flew one or two nights each week.”

Making captain in 1998, Duckworth went on to spend three years as commander of Bravo Company, 106th Aviation of the Illinois Army National Guard, but she was about to transfer to another unit in October 2003 when she learned that the 106th, known as the Mad Dogs, was being called up for duty. Duckworth refused to be left behind, pleading with her battalion commander to be included with those deployed. When the Illinois National Guard decided they needed more soldiers to deploy than initially planned, Duckworth got her wish. She shipped out for Iraq in December 2003.

That meant Duckworth left her academic career behind. Having finished her classes, Duckworth was in the midst of writing the proposal for her dissertation when she deployed to Iraq. She would not finish her political science doctorate.

9. SHE EXPERIENCED A TRAUMATIC ORDEAL …


Duckworth was one of only a handful of women to fly Black Hawk helicopters during the War in Iraq. “I love controlling this giant, fierce machine,” Duckworth has said. “I strap that bird on my back and I'm in charge of it and we just go, and it's just power.”

Duckworth had been serving in Iraq and Kuwait for nearly a year when the Black Hawk she was copiloting was attacked by Iraqi insurgents on November 12, 2004. Chief Warrant Officer Dan Milberg was flying the helicopter with Duckworth in the seat beside him when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded beneath the cockpit. Duckworth struggled for control of the aircraft, but her feet couldn’t work the pedals. She didn’t realize that both her feet and the pedals were gone. Milberg managed to land the helicopter safely, at which point Duckworth lost consciousness. “I assumed at that point that she had passed,” Milberg told Mother Jones. “All I saw was her torso, and one leg on the floor. It looked like she was gone from the waist down.”

Milberg and others carried Duckworth away from the burning chopper and soon put her into a medical evacuation helicopter, which flew her to Baghdad, where surgeons amputated both her legs—the right leg a few inches below the hip bone and the left just below the knee. They set the bones in her shattered right arm and sealed her cuts. Under heavy sedation, she was then airlifted to the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany, and quickly transferred to Walter Reed in Maryland, where her husband met her, keeping vigil by her bedside until she awoke days later. Ultimately, Duckworth underwent over 20 surgeries and retained only partial mobility in her right arm. She remained at Walter Reed for a year, undergoing surgical procedures and fighting through physical therapy.

10. … BUT MAINTAINED HER SENSE OF HUMOR.

When Duckworth first woke up from sedation and saw her husband at her bedside, she didn’t cry. She recalled, “I said three things when I woke up in Walter Reed. ‘I love you.’ ‘Put me to work,’ and ‘You stink! Go shower!’” Bowlsbey was relieved; her body was broken, but Duckworth’s personality and spirit were very much intact.

Duckworth has adopted a joking approach to her injuries, wearing funny t-shirts that say things like, “Lucky for me he's an ass man.” Her husband isn’t as fond of the shirt as Duckworth is. She told GQ, “[H]e's thrown it away at least once, and I've pulled it back out of the garbage can and worn it.” Another t-shirt reads, “Dude, where’s my leg?”

“I can better honor the struggle that my crew went through to save my life by having a sense of humor about it,” Duckworth has said.

Duckworth also makes use of her prosthetic legs for tasks other than getting around. During a June 2016 House of Representatives sit-in designed to force a vote on gun control legislation, Duckworth worried security would begin confiscating members’ cell phones, so she hid hers inside her prosthetic leg. She also joked to GQ that she sometimes hides Sour Patch Kids candy in there, and she enjoys using her prosthetics to make a fashion statement—she ordered special ones that can accommodate a 2-inch heel.

11. SHE CELEBRATES THE DAY SHE ALMOST DIED.


Duckworth calls it Alive Day. Every year on November 12, she tries to get together with the crewmates who saved her life. On the first anniversary of the attack on their helicopter, Dan Milberg, Duckworth’s fellow pilot on that mission and one of the men who carried her to safety, called her in the hospital at Walter Reed, saying, “It’s almost 4:30 in Iraq. In five minutes you’re going to be shot down.” They shared a moment of gratitude. The next year, Duckworth had just lost her first congressional campaign, and Alive Day helped pull her out of her disappointment over that loss. The crew continued to meet every year, excepting 2008, when all except Duckworth were deployed. In 2009, Duckworth had begun a job with the federal VA, and her crewmates flew to Washington, D.C., where she gave them a tour of the Capitol and the White House. During her first Alive Day in Congress, in 2013, Duckworth gave a speech on the House floor, thanking by name the men who saved her life. “You can choose to spend the day of your injury in a dark room feeling sorry for yourself or you can choose to get together with the buddies who saved your life, and I choose the latter,” Duckworth told the Chicago Tribune in 2006.

12. SHE BECAME INTERESTED IN POLITICS WHILE RECUPERATING.

Duckworth calls Walter Reed the “amputee petting zoo,” and has noted it was a popular place for politicians to have a feel-good photo op. While she was rehabilitating at Walter Reed, Duckworth met a number of politicians who came to visit the patients, and she also struck up a friendship with former senator and Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, who was in the hospital as a patient. But it was only after her Illinois senator, the Democrat Dick Durbin, invited her and a number of other wounded veterans from Illinois to attend the 2005 State of the Union that she began to consider a political career of her own.

Younger service members who were being treated at Walter Reed had started coming to Duckworth for advice and help navigating pay issues and medical care, and Duckworth used her new connection to Senator Durbin to advocate for these soldiers and their families. Her passion and persistence made such an impression that Durbin suggested she run for office. After talking it over with Bowlsbey, Duckworth decided to launch a campaign for Congress. In the 2006 race for Illinois’s 6th district, Duckworth won the Democratic primary but lost to Republican Peter Roskam in the general election by less than 5000 votes.

13. SHE’S WORKED TO IMPROVE SERVICES FOR VETERANS.

Duckworth being sworn in as Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public domain

After losing her first Congressional race, Duckworth became the Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, serving from 2006 through the beginning of 2009. While running the Illinois state VA, she created a mental health hotline for suicidal veterans and instituted the nation’s first mandatory screening for brain injuries for all members of the state National Guard returning from service overseas.

Soon after his inauguration, President Obama appointed Duckworth the Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, where she worked primarily on public relations and created an online communications office in hopes of using the internet to better reach young veterans. In 2012, Duckworth was elected to Congress, defeating incumbent Joe Walsh to take the seat in Illinois’s 8th District. During her time in the House, she backed legislation to support veterans, working to pass the Clay Hunt Act, a bill aimed at reducing suicide among returning service members. The bill became law in 2015.

14. OPPONENTS HAVE ATTACKED HER MILITARY SERVICE …

During the 2012 Congressional race, Joe Walsh, the Republican incumbent, lashed out at Duckworth, suggesting she wasn’t a “true hero” because she talks too much about her military service. Asserting that John McCain’s political advisors had to pressure him to talk about his own military service, Walsh then attacked Duckworth, saying, “I’m running against a woman who, my God, that’s all she talks about. Our true heroes, it’s the last thing in the world they talk about.” Some years earlier, Duckworth had told The Washington Post, “I can't avoid the interest in the fact that I'm an injured female soldier. Understand that I'm going to use this as a platform.”

Duckworth had also faced anger in some quarters when she criticized the Iraq war during her 2006 campaign. “I think [invading Iraq] was a bad decision,” she told The Washington Post. “I think we used bad intelligence. I think our priority should have been Afghanistan and capturing Osama bin Laden. Our troops do an incredible job every single day, but our policymakers have not lived up to the sacrifices that our troops make every day.” However, Duckworth reiterated her pride at serving her country in uniform, stating that, despite believing the decision to invade Iraq was an error, “I was proud to go. It was my duty as a soldier to go. And I would go tomorrow.”

15. … AND THAT OF HER ANCESTORS.

During her 2016 senate campaign, the military service in question was not Duckworth’s own but that of her ancestors. During a debate with her opponent, Republican incumbent Mark Kirk, Duckworth proudly asserted, “My family has served this nation in uniform going back to the Revolution.” Kirk retorted, “I’d forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.” Democrats quickly condemned the remark, with a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee calling it “offensive, wrong, and racist.” Kirk later apologized on Twitter.

While Duckworth’s mother is a Thai native, her father’s family has been in the United States since before it became a country—and at least one such ancestor was a Revolutionary War soldier. Following the line of her paternal grandmother, Duckworth’s fifth great-grandfather, Elijah Anderson, served in the Virginia militia under Captain John Bell during the Revolution. Following her paternal grandfather’s line, Duckworth seems to be related to Aaron Duckworth, who may have served as a private during the Revolutionary War.

Duckworth’s own investment in the US military comes from her father, Franklin, who left his small Virginia town at 15 and lied about his age to enlist in the Marines. He served in World War II, earning a Purple Heart when he was wounded at Okinawa. Franklin went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam, passing his military values onto his children once he’d reentered civilian life: Tammy’s younger brother also has a military record, having spent eight years in the Coast Guard.

16. SHE DOES NOT GIVE UP.

When she was deployed to Iraq in 2004, Duckworth’s doctoral studies fell by the wayside. Recovering from her injuries and helping other veterans became her focus when she returned stateside, but Duckworth told Chicago Magazine in 2012 that “One of the greatest disappointments in my life is that I ran out of time; I just didn’t finish [my political science PhD].” While her new career in government work kept her from returning to Indiana to study, it also shifted her interests. Duckworth started an online PhD program in Human Services while she was working as the Assistant Secretary for the federal VA. She continued to chip away at her doctoral work after being elected to the House of Representatives, and after six years of effort, Duckworth graduated with her PhD in 2015. Her dissertation looked at the use of digitized medical records among doctors in Illinois.

Perhaps that kind of determination shouldn’t be surprising from a woman who wouldn’t let the amputation of both her legs keep her from serving in the military—or even from flying. While injured veterans are usually discharged, Duckworth petitioned to remain on active duty—switching to inactive duty when she started doing political work. As soon as June 2006, she was working intermittently as an aviation safety instructor for the Illinois National Guard while also conducting her first congressional campaign. She finally retired from the military in 2014.

She even got her wings back: In 2010, Duckworth secured her license to fly a fixed-wing airplane. By 2014, she was flying helicopters again. Small ones, not military copters, but the return still felt triumphant. She told the Daily Herald, “When I got back in a helicopter, it felt like home.”

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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A User's Guide to the Branches of U.S. Government

Gage Skidmore, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Gage Skidmore, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

By Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, Quick and Dirty Tips

Today, we're bringing you our very own Big Three—the three branches of the U.S. government: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

But before we tackle that, let's get one important thing out of the way. The system that keeps it all spinning—checks and balances. Because as Federalist Paper #51 puts it, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

What is the separation of power in the U.S. government? Checks and balances!

The framers were very much aware that the grand ideas and philosophies they laid out in the Constitution would have to be implemented by fallible humans. And fallible humans have a tendency to get a little wild-eyed where power is concerned.

The first step in creating checks and balances was to skirt the whole king issue by splitting the governing power across three branches—something called the separation of power. But that wouldn't be enough. Those branches would need to keep a watchful eye over one another so that no one entity would get too big for its britches.

Who checks Congress?

So, let's start where the Constitution starts—Congress. The legislative branch makes laws that govern the people of the nation. Pretty straightforward, right? Of course, that's also an immense, almost staggering amount of power. You've got 535 mostly white, mostly male, mostly well-off people—that's 435 congresspeople and 100 senators—making the rules for hundreds of millions of Americans. What could possibly go wrong?

James Madison had our back on this one. So here's the catch, or in this case, the "check."

In order for a bill from Congress to actually become law, the president has to either sign it or, alternatively, do this thing where he doesn't do anything to it and the bill becomes a law on its own. But if the law says something like "Only Americans whose names end in the letter L are allowed to drive," the president could say "Hey, I don't like that. I'm vetoing it."

But then Congress has the power to veto that veto with a veto override, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in both houses.

That veto override can be helpful if you've got a president who's totally at odds with Congress. Andrew Johnson, for example, had 15 of his vetoes overridden. That's a lot, given the fact that we've only had 111 veto overrides in the history of the United States.

The veto override, in and of itself, is a check, both on Congress and the president. But just because Congress overrides a veto to make that the law, it doesn't mean that that law is good or right. Lucky for us, the framers thought of that one, too.

What about the judicial branch?

Is that the solemn swish of black robes we hear?

There are keepers of the Constitution—the judicial branch, specifically the Supreme Court. If Congress strong-arms a law into being, the Supreme Court can then review it and strike it down if they deem it unconstitutional.

And that power to strike down laws is not constitutional power. It's a power that the Supreme Court essentially gave to themselves in their ruling on Marbury v. Madison.

The ability to grant governmental powers is, in fact, quite an immense amount of power on its own. It's the executive branch's job to prosecute violations of federal law through the Department of Justice. And the prosecutor has the power to bring a case before the Supreme Court or not. And Congress has the power to regulate federal jurisdiction.

In other words, they can decide the kinds of cases that the courts have the power to rule on.

Impeachment and other checks

Congress has the power to impeach members of the federal judiciary. And, of course, they can also impeach the president.

The president is mainly checked by Congress. Impeachment is a big check, but a relatively rare one. More frequently, Congress holds the purse strings and can slow the president's agenda by not budgeting for the things the president wants. They can also pass laws like the 22nd Amendment, which said, yeah, no more Franklin Delano Roosevelt; we're limiting all presidents to two terms in office.

But what do we do if the executive goes all rogue and we can't wait for Congress to pass a law or an amendment?

That's where those constitutional stewards, the Supreme Court justices, come into play again. The Supreme Court has the power to declare executive actions unconstitutional. It is a rare bird, that one, but all-important in a government where men are most certainly not angels.

What are the three branches of the U.S. government?

Now that we know how we keep the government from going mad with power, what is it that we're keeping in check?

Let's start with the Constitution itself and the legislative branch.

The legislative branch—Congress

Article I, which sets up the power of the legislative branch, gets far more ink than any other branch. It's four out of the seven pages of the Constitution. But what are these two houses of Congress? Are they alike in dignity? What do they even do?

It's a poorly guarded secret that the framers were a little bit scared of democracy. Having one large legislative house that's determined by the size of the population? That was scary to them. So we have two houses in our bicameral legislature.

The House of Representatives is the large brass 435-member chamber that's up for election every two years. The more people you have in your state, the more representatives you get in the House.

And then we have the highfalutin Senate. The Senate consists of two senators from each state, and each gets a six-year term.

While the House and Senate have several separate powers, they have one big collective one—they're the ones who make the laws that govern our country.

The Schoolhouse Rock version is that the House or the Senate initiates bills, they go to committee, they get out of committee, they're voted on, and then they go to the other chamber for a similar process. And if it passes both houses, it goes to the Resolute Desk of the President of the United States to be signed into law.

We're going to tell you right now, the Schoolhouse Rock version is almost never how bills actually become law.

There are 1000 pitfalls that alter and stymie a bill at every turn. Suffice to say, it is a winding path. Indeed, the one difference between the two chambers is that only the House, not the Senate, can initiate bills to do with spending. This is called the Power of the Purse. The framers thought the people's House should be the one who decides where the money goes.

Who can be a Senator or Representative?

The actual restrictions on who can become a senator or congressperson are few. For representatives, you have to be at least 25 years old and have been a U.S. citizen for seven years to qualify. And for the Senate, you have to be 30 years old and a citizen for nine years.

The bills that get proposed in either chamber have such a litany of obstacles that only about 3 percent of proposed bills become law. And most of those are noncontroversial, like naming a courthouse or making an honorary holiday.

Some see the fact that so little legislation is actually passed as terrible. And others see it as a wonderful feature of our democracy because a congress that passes tons of legislation has way too much power.

What other powers does Congress have?

The House has some unique powers—they can break an electoral tie to determine the next president. And that hasn't happened since the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876.

The House can also initiate impeachment. But they just initiate; they don't actually remove the official from office.

Many of us know this since we recently had an impeached president. The House starts the procedure. And with a majority vote, that official is impeached. The Senate then holds a trial, and it requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate to remove that official from office.

And this leads us to the unique powers of the Senate. As we said, they try impeachments and remove officials from office. They also confirm presidential appointments for over 2000 different positions. The president picked someone for a job (like a cabinet position or a judge), and 99 percent of the time, the Senate gives the appointee the thumbs up.

The Senate also picks the vice president in case of an electoral tie, which happened one time and probably won't again, since nowadays, the VP and president run on the same ticket.

And one final thing—either house can declare war, which is something we haven't actually done since 1942. So how have we been in so much war since then?

And that's your very subtle transition to the powers of the executive.

The executive branch—the President and federal government departments

When you think of the executive branch you think of, well, the executive—the president.

But the executive branch employs over 4 million people. It is the nation's largest employer by a wide margin. The Department of Defense alone out-employs Walmart by about a million people.

And that's what we think it can be easy to forget—the executive branch comprises not only the president and everyone who works in the Executive Administrative Office, but there are also 15 departments that fall under the banner of the executive branch. Those department heads make up the president's cabinet, along with whomever else the president appoints as an advisor, and hundreds of smaller agencies.

Here are the 15 federal departments in the order of their creation.

  1. State Department. They handle relationships with foreign countries.
  2. Treasury. They make the money by collecting taxes. This includes the IRS.
  3. Defense. Our largest department, which includes the military.
  4. Justice. They enforce laws that protect public safety. This includes the FBI and U.S. Marshals.
  5. Interior. The Department of the Interior manages the conservation of our land, which includes national parks.
  6. Agriculture. That's the USDA. They oversee farming.
  7. Commerce. They promote our economy and handle international trade.
  8. Labor. That's our workforce.
  9. Health and Human Services. That includes the FDA and the CDC. They also manage Medicare and Medicaid.
  10. Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They address national housing needs.
  11. Transportation. That's the federal highways and the Federal Aviation Administration.
  12. Energy. They manage our energy and research better ways to make it.
  13. Education. They focus on national education and federal student loan programs.
  14. Veterans. Veterans Affairs programs benefit those who have served in the military.
  15. Homeland Security. It's their job to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks within the United States.

Now, there are the president's constitutional powers, and then there are the president's political powers. Most broadly, with the aid of the many executive departments, the president is tasked with making sure laws are followed through with. And we already know the president can sign bills into law or veto them. The Constitution also empowers the president to appoint people to powerful positions in the cabinet, as well as the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and circuit courts. All told, the president appoints people to around 4000 positions, 1200 of which require Senate approval.

That's a lot of appointment power. And of course, the president is empowered to make treaties with foreign nations and is the commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.

But the president cannot declare war.

Here's where we stumble into those political powers not enumerated in the Constitution. Congress has not declared war since World War II. America's presidents have led us into many armed conflicts without congressional approval and simply called them "police actions." Police actions can look like war, act like war, talk like war. But if warlike actions are called police actions, they can be done without congressional approval.

What are executive orders and executive agreements?

So, there are also these things called executive orders where the president simply declares something. And executive orders happen. When Obama wanted immigration policy, and he couldn't get it from Congress, he just signed the DREAM Act. And a lot of undocumented teenagers got to stay in the U.S.

Executive agreements fall along a similar line in terms of skirting Congress, but they are used in place of treaties. The president can just make an agreement with a foreign nation without going through the treaty process.

We should clarify (because these executive orders and agreements sound like a big ol' way around the checks and balances our framers so thoughtfully established) that the Supreme Court can block an order or agreement, and Congress can pass a law that invalidates that action. The only underlying principle is that any executive action has some sort of legal validation process.

It's all about what Congress or the Supreme Court chooses to let fly.

The Vice President

And let's not forget the veep—the vice president.

The vice president has long gotten the short shrift in the United States. For most of the job's history, it was barely a job at all.

The vice president is president of the Senate. That means that they preside over proceedings, but they only get to vote in the event of a tiebreaker. So, usually, they just don't show up. More recently, the veep has been tapped to represent the president in matters of foreign relations. And, of course, on the rare occasion that the president dies while in office or resigns, the vice president gets the world's biggest promotion.

The judicial branch—The Supreme Court

That just leaves one branch hanging, the one that Alexander Hamilton called "the weakest branch" and "next to nothing."

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the Supreme Court interprets it. They decide what is or is not constitutional. Article III of the Constitution, which deals with the judiciary, is short and vague. (One scholar told us it was so short and vague because the framers wanted to get the heck out of there before Rhode Island showed up and made a hash of everything.)

But while the Constitution was vague on the powers of the Supreme Court, we've cleared that up a bit since then. They have less notable powers, which is that they hear cases involving ambassadors, public officials, and states. But most of the time the Supreme Court is an appellate court, which means that it hears appeals. You don't like the outcome of a state or federal court decision? You can appeal it up to a higher court.

And this is important—you're not appealing the verdict of the jury. You're not disputing if you're guilty or not. You're appealing the way that the trial went. You're saying that the laws that you broke were unconstitutional.

This power, which is called judicial review, was granted upon the Supreme Court by the Supreme Court itself in the first landmark case, Marbury v. Madison, which is a delightful tale. We're gonna get into that in the next episode, so let's talk about how a case gets to the highest court in the land—with an immense amount of difficulty.

Appeals to state and local decisions rise slowly but surely through the American court system. But that last step is nigh on impossible. To get your case heard by the nine in D.C., you have to file for what's called a writ of certiorari, which honestly, nobody can agree on how to pronounce. That writ tells the court, you should hear my case and here's why.

Between 7000 and 8000 writs of certiorari are filed each year. And the court agrees to hear about 80. You're more likely to have your case heard if there's what's called a circuit split, where several of the circuit courts in the U.S. have ruled differently on something and you've got parts of the country interpreting the constitution differently.

The parties in a Supreme Court case aren't a plaintiff and defendant like on The People's Court or Judge Judy—they are petitioner and respondent.

The petitioner lost their last case, and they're petitioning to have it heard. And in the case name, the petitioner's name always comes first. So in a trial like Texas v. Johnson, Texas lost the last case, and they're petitioning to have it reversed.

One more word, it's not lawyers who present arguments in the Supreme Court. They're referred to as advocates.

The court hears cases starting in October. They discuss them in conferences, they vote on them, and someone who voted in the majority writes the opinion, which is read some time afterward. Other justices can add their name to that opinion if they have concurring opinions with different legal reasoning. Or if you're on the side that voted the other way, you can write a dissent.

By the way, the vast majority of Supreme Court decisions are unanimous, but like everything, it's never so cut and dry as that. Once the court rules, you have the long circuitous route to the states adopting the ruling into their laws, which can take decades.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as A User's Guide to the Branches of U.S. Government. Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the authors

Hannah McCarthy is the co-host of Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio. She came to New Hampshire by way of Brooklyn where she worked as a radio producer and writer. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nick Capodice is the co-host of Civics 101. Before coming to NHPR, Nick worked in the Education Department at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where he wrote and led tours, trained educators, and helped design digital exhibits. He also led beer history and tasting tours for Urban Oyster in Brooklyn.

Nick and Hannah are the authors of A User's Guide to Democracy: How America Works, with illustrations by Tom Toro.