Lesson 4: “Congress, the President, and the Constitution: Then and Now” (Grades 8-12)

Background: These days, when people in this country and around the world think of the United States of America, they think of the President as his is the face and the name most often associated with our government and country.  Unfortunately for whoever is occupying the role of president, just because they appear to have power does not make it so.

In constructing the document that would serve as the foundation of our government, one that has lasted longer than any other of its kind, the Framers’ were keenly aware that they had to create a more centralized government, but one that did not put all of its power with one person or one branch.  Even in creating a government with three branches that have multiple checks and balances upon one another, it is very clear that it is the legislative branch that the Framers’ intended to be the centerpiece within which the bulk of true power rests.

This lesson will give your students the chance to compare and contrast Articles I and II of the Constitution, and the powers delegated to both the legislative and executive branches.  Students will deeply examine the historic and current relationship between Congress and the President and how power and influence have seemed to ebb and flow between them over more than 200 years, including a look at the War Powers Act and how that has impacted the push-pull between Congress and the President, looking at some case studies from the past 35 years.

Objective: Students will be able to identify and explain the major powers granted to the Congress in the Constitution, as well as talk about the Framers’ intentions in creating a government where the legislative branch was meant to dominate, how more power has flowed to the executive branch over time, and the push-pull of power between Congress and the President over the past eighty years.


  • Compare Article I of the Constitution to Article II and answer the following questions (either individually or in groups, written or oral):
  • What key powers were designated to the Legislative branch rather than the Executive Branch?  Why are these so significant in illustrating why the Framers sought to make the Legislative branch the more powerful between those two?
  • Why, if the Framers gave the Congress the legal authority to declare war, did they decide that the President the role of Commander in Chief?  Have there been instances in our history when we have committed troops to parts of the world in combat roles without a declaration of war from Congress?  If so, how is that legal?  (Here you may want to supply supplemental materials on the War Powers Declaration, etc.)
  • Look at pictures showing the architecture of DC.  Why did L’Enfant and Washington choose to put the Capitol up on a hill?  Why The White House down below in a swamp? What does that tell us about Washington’s feelings about the Congress?
  • Read excerpts of the War Powers Resolution (linked below) to your class or have them read it individually (in class or for homework) and have them answer the following questions:
  • Why did Congress feel the need to pass such a resolution (be sure to note the date it was passed)?
  • What limits does it put upon the president’s ability to deploy combat troops without a congressional declaration of war?
  • What must the president do if he/she does decide to deploy military forces without a declaration of war?
  • Look at the recent conflict in Libya—did President Obama comply with the War Powers Resolution?  What about President Reagan in Lebanon?
  • How is that presidents continue to be able to get around the War Powers Resolution and what does that say about the power of both Congress and the executive over the years since it passed and the state of their relationship today?


DCPS Social Studies Standards covered:

  • 4.10
  • 8.3.6, 8.3.9
  • 11.1.6, 11.1.7, 11.7, 11.9, 11.14
  • 12.1.5, 12.1.6, 12.2, 12.3.1, 12.3.4, 12.5.1, 12.5.4, 12.5.8

U.S. History Content Standards covered:

  • Era 3, Standard 3 and Era 10, Standard 1

Virginia History and Social Studies Content Standards covered:

  • USI.1, USI.7, USII.8, USII.9
  • CE.1, CE.2, CE.6

Maryland State Social Studies Curriculum Standards covered (grades 8-12):

  • Standard 1.0, Topic A, Indicator 1, Objectives a-c, e
  • Standard 1.0, Topic A, Indicator 2, Objectives d-f
  • Standard 1, Expectation 1, Topic A, Indicators 1 and 2

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