Most Americans only have a basic understanding of how the United States Government operates and is structured. If you fall into that category, do not feel bad! This multi-faceted government system is dynamic and complex, to say the least. Here is a comprehensive guide to understanding the three branches of the Unites States Government and the responsibilities that each plays in making the country run.
The Legislative Branch
The main role of the Legislative Branch is to establish laws. The two chambers (people and processes) that make up the Legislative Branch are called Congress. Congress is divided up into two distinct bodies called the Senate and the House of Representatives. The people of each state elect two Senate representatives to serve terms of six years. The House of Representatives consists of 435 total individuals. The number of Representatives each state elects is proportionate to the population of that state. House representatives serve two year terms. There is no limit to the number of terms any individual may serve on either the Senate or the House of Representatives.
The Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches of the United States Government have been in place since the drafting of the United States Constitution. They were designed as such in an attempt to balance governmental authority and prevent dictatorship. While the various laws and committees adjust to changing social circumstances and world events, the process of checks and balances remains.
In addition to the Senate and the House of Representatives, Congress also consists of several smaller agencies with very specific functions. These include the following agencies related to the Capitol building: Architect of the Capitol building, the Capitol Visitor’s Center, the Capitol Police, and the Botanic Garden. It also includes the the Congressional Budget Office and Research Agency, the Copyright, Government Accountability, and Government Publishing Offices, the House Offices of Inspector General and Clerk, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, the Library of Congress, the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission and Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, the Office of Compliance, the Open World Leadership Center, and the Stennis Center for Public Service.
Congress spends the majority of it time drafting up new laws to propose. Laws begin as bills, which is the name for a piece of legislation that has been brought before the legislative branch but not yet passed into an official law. Bills can be introduced and sponsored by any member of the Senate or House, and is then assigned to a committee of members who research and fine tune it. Once the committee feels confident with the bill, they present it to the rest of their chamber for voting. If passed, it transfers to the other chamber for the same process. If both chambers pass the bill, they then must agree upon one single version and then present it to the President. The President may either approve the bill into a law or veto the bill. If vetoed by the President, Congress may or may not vote to overturn the veto and pass the bill into a law, depending on how long the President takes to make his or her decision.
In addition to law making, Congress confirms and rejects the President’s nominations for agency members, federal judges, and the Supreme Court. More information on these individuals is presented below in the discussion on the Judicial Branch. Congress also possesses the authority to declare war.
The Executive Branch
While the President of the United States is involved in the actions of the other two branches, his or her office formally resides within the Executive Branch. The Executive Branch is responsible for carrying out the laws passed by the Legislative Branch. The President wears many hats within this branch: leader of the nation and the federal government, head of state, and Commander in Chief of the United States Military. Presidents are elected for four year terms and may serve two terms.
The Vice President of the United States also sits in the Executive Branch. His or her main duty is to support the President. Should the President become unable to serve for any reason, the Vice President steps into the role of President. Vice Presidents are also elected to four year terms along with specific Presidents, but they may serve an unlimited amount of terms with different Presidents.
The Vice President is also a member of the Cabinet, the third body of the Executive Branch. Members of the Cabinet, who also include Executive Department Heads and others in highly ranked Government offices, act as advisors to the President. Cabinet members are nominated by the President and approved by a majority Senate vote.
Similar to the Legislative Branch, much of the work of the Executive Branch is conducted through special agencies and committees. The Executive Office of the President contains nine offices tasked with communicating the president’s messages regarding top issues such as the federal budget and national security. There are 15 U.S. Executive Departments governing all other important aspects of the United States Government, the heads of which are members of the Cabinet. There are also a plethora of sub-agencies and independent agencies in place to manage specific issues and special populations.
The Judicial Branch
Last but not least, the Judicial Branch is responsible for interpreting the laws. This includes deciding whether or not they support the United States Constitution, and applying them to specific legal cases. This branch is split into the Supreme Court and Other Federal Courts and Agencies.
The Supreme Court is comprised of nine members, called Justices. They are all nominated by the President and approved by a majority Senate vote, and there is no fixed term length. There is one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices, and it takes agreement among at least six Justices to make a formal ruling. Cases are brought to the Supreme Court by Lower Courts who either are struggling to make a decision or whose decision is being challenged. In the case of a tie among the Supreme Court, the decision of the lower court is upheld.
As mentioned above, Congress votes in other Federal Judicial Courts. These courts manage cases related to specific issues such as Constitutional law suits, Military cases, financial issues such as taxation and bankruptcy, and trade. They also elect members to Federal Judicial Agencies responsible for supporting the Courts and conducting judicial research.
The Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches of the United States Government have been in place since their original draft into the United States Constitution. They were designed to spread governmental authority among many in order to prevent dictatorship. While the individual committees and laws adjust to meet the needs of modern society and current events, the system of checks and balances will remain forevermore.