The U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1788, created the basic framework for the federal government. To prevent any individual or group from acquiring too much power and thereby threatening the people's basic liberties, the Constitution separated the government into three branches:
The legislative branch, or Congress, which drafts and enacts laws
The executive branch, led by the president, which administers the laws
The judicial branch, consisting of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts, which determines the constitutionality of the laws
For a greater understanding of how the U.S. government is organized and functions, check out the media materials below.
U.S. ConstitutionA copy of the Constitution that highlights sections that subsequently were amended.
U.S. Constitution ExplainedA page from the U.S. Senate website that reproduces the Constitution along with an explanation of each part.
The Executive Branch
The executive branch, which is led by the president, was established by Article II of the Constitution. The president serves for 4 years and is limited to 2 terms. In contrast to members of Congress, who are elected directly by the voters, the president is elected via the Electoral College, which is described later in this guide.
The president is the nation's chief executive. In this capacity the president signs bills into law, after which the executive branch administers and enforces them. Alternatively, the president can veto bills. The president also functions as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Finally, Article II empowers the president to appoint ambassadors, nominate federal judges, and sign treaties, with "the Advice and Consent of the Senate."
The president is supported by the Cabinet, which is comprised of 15 department heads plus the vice president. Well-known departments include the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Department of Justice. The most recently created department is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was established in 2003 following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
To learn more about the nature and history of the executive branch, click on the links below.