Branches of Government
The Founding Fathers, the framers of the Constitution, wanted to form a government that did not allow one person to have too much authority or control. While under the rule of the British king they learned that this could be a bad system. Yet government under the Articles of Confederation taught them that there was a need for a strong centralized government.
With this in mind the framers wrote the Constitution to provide for a separation of powers, by breaking it up into three separate branches of government. Each has its own responsibilities and at the same time they work together to make the country run smoothly and to assure that the rights of citizens are not ignored or disallowed. This is done through checks and balances. A branch may use its powers to check the powers of the other two in order to maintain a balance of power among the three branches of government.
The three branches of the U.S. Government are the legislative, executive, and judicial.
The legislative branch of government is made up of the Congress and government agencies, such as the Government Printing Office and Library of Congress, that provide assistance to and support services for the Congress. Article I of the Constitution established this branch and gave Congress the power to make laws. Congress has two parts, the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Congress meets at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Its primary duty is to write, debate, and pass bills, which are then passed on to the President for approval.
Other Powers of Congress
- Makes laws controlling trade between states and between the
United States and other countries.
- Makes laws about taxes and borrowing money.
- Approves the making of money.
- Can declare war on other countries.
Each Congress lasts for two years. When the two years are over, new Members of Congress are elected. We are currently in the 110th Congress. Congress meets once every year and usually last from January 3rd to July 31st, but in special cases, it can last longer.
The way that states are represented in the House and the Senate is different. Why is this? Well, when the Founding Fathers were drafting the Constitution, there were debates over how states would be represented. States with larger populations wanted more representation than states with smaller populations. Meanwhile, states with smaller populations favored equal representation. So, a compromise was made -- Representation in the Senate would be equal, while representation in the House would be based on population.
In the House, representation is based on the number of people living in each state. There are a total of 435 representatives in the House. Each member represents an area of the state, known as a congressional district. The number of representatives is based on the number of districts in a state. Therefore, states with larger populations have more representation than states with smaller populations. Each state has at least one congressional district and therefore one representative in the House.
Each representative serves a term of 2 years. When the term is over, people from that state may choose to elect a new representative or keep the same one. There is no limit on the number of terms a representative can serve.
The House has special jobs that only it can do. It can:
- Start laws that make people pay taxes.
- Decide if a government official should be put on trial before the Senate if s/he commits a crime against the country.
Each of the 50 states sends 2 people to the Senate, so there are a total of 100 senators. This means that each state has equal representation in the Senate. Each senator serves a term of 6 years. When their 6 year term is over, the people from that state may choose to elect a new senator or keep the same one. There is no limit on the number of terms a senator can serve.
The Senate has special jobs that only it can do. It can:
- Say yes or no to any treaties the president makes.
- Say yes or no to any people the president recommends for jobs, such as cabinet officers, Supreme Court justices, and ambassadors.
- Can hold a trial for a government official who does something very wrong.
The executive branch of Government makes sure that the laws of the United States are obeyed. The President of the United States is the head of the executive branch of government. This branch is very large so the President gets help from the Vice President, department heads (Cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies.
- President: Leader of the country and commands the military.
- Vice President: President of the Senate and becomes President if the President can no longer do the job.
- Departments: Department heads advise the President on issues and help carry out policies.
- Independent Agencies: Help carry out policy or provide special services.
The President is the head of the executive branch and plays a large role in making America’s laws. His job is to approve the laws that Congress creates. When the Senate and the House approve a bill, they send it to the President. If he agrees with the law, he signs it and the law goes into effect.
If the President does not like a bill, he can refuse to sign it. When he does this, it is called a veto. If the President vetoes a bill, it will most likely never become a law. Congress can override a veto, but to do so two-thirds of the Members of Congress must vote against the President.
Despite all of his power, the President cannot write bills. He can propose a bill, but a member of Congress must submit it for him.
In addition to playing a key role in the lawmaking process, the President has several duties. He serves as the American Head of State, meaning that he meets with the leaders of other countries and can make treaties with them. However, the Senate must approve any treaty before it becomes official.
The President is also the Chief of the Government. That means that he is technically the boss of every government worker.
Also, the President is the official head of the U.S. military. He can authorize the use of troops overseas without declaring war. To officially declare war, though, he must get the approval of the Congress.
The President and the Vice-President are the only officials chosen by the entire country. Not just anyone can be President, though. In order to be elected, one must be at least 35 years old. Also, each candidate must be a natural-born U.S. citizen and have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years. When elected, the President serves a term of four years. The most one President can serve is two terms, for a total of eight years.
Before 1951, the President could serve for as many terms as he wanted. However, no one had tried. After two terms as President, George Washington chose not to run again. All other Presidents followed his example until Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt successfully ran for office four times. Early in his fourth term, he died, in 1945. Six years later, Congress passed the 22nd Amendment, which limits Presidents to two terms.
Do you have friends that you turn to for advice? When the President wants advice he asks a group of people called the Cabinet. The purpose of the Cabinet is to advise the President. They are the President's closest and most trusted advisors. The Cabinet includes the Vice President, the heads of 15 executive branch departments, and other Government officials chosen by the President. The Cabinet meets at least once a week to discuss matters that effect the United States.The judicial branch of government is made up of the court system. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Article III of the Constitution established this Court and all other Federal courts were created by Congress. Courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws, how they are applied, and whether they break the rules of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. The Supreme Court hears cases that have made their way through the court system, but of the more than 7,500 cases that are sent to the Supreme Court each year, only about 80 to 100 cases are actually accepted. Once the Supreme Court makes a decision, it can only be changed by another Supreme Court decision or by amending (changing) the Constitution. This is a very important power that can affect the lives of a lot of people. Also, since the main power of the Supreme Court is to decide cases that challenge the Constitution, the Court must decide if the case they receive really challenges the Constitution.
The Supreme Court is made up of nine Justices. One of these is the Chief Justice. They are appointed by the President and must be approved by the Senate. Justices have their jobs for life, unless they resign, retire, or are impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate (the removal process as described by the Consitution).
There are no requirements in order to be appointed a Justice, but all have been trained in the law. Many Justices served as members of Congress, governors, or members of the President's Cabinet. One president, William Howard Taft, was later appointed Chief Justice.