The Three Branches of Government: Checks and Balances
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:
For a greater understanding of how the U.S. government is organized and functions, check out the media materials below.
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.
The legislative branch was established by Article I of the Constitution and consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the United States Congress. The Constitution grants Congress the sole authority to enact legislation and declare war, the right to confirm or reject many Presidential appointments, and substantial investigative powers.
The House of Representatives is made up of 435 elected members. The presiding officer of the chamber is the Speaker of the House. Members of the House are elected every two years and must be 25 years of age, a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, and a resident of the state (but not necessarily the district) they represent.
The Senate is composed of 100 Senators, 2 for each state, and are elected to six-year terms. Senators' terms are staggered so that about one-third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years. Senators must be 30 years of age, U.S. citizens for at least nine years, and residents of the state they represent. The Vice President of the United States serves as President of the Senate and may cast the decisive vote in the event of a tie in the Senate.
The judicial branch was established by Article III of the Constitution. Members of the judicial branch are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land and the only part of the federal judiciary specifically required by the Constitution. Members of the Supreme Court are known as "justices." All justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Justices may remain in office until they resign, pass away, or are impeached and convicted by Congress.
The Supreme Court is the final judicial arbiter in the United States on matters of federal law. Its task is to interpret the meaning of a law, to decide whether a law is relevant to a particular set of facts, or to rule on how a law should be applied. Lower courts are obligated to follow the precedent set by the Supreme Court when rendering decisions.
The Constitution also grants Congress the power to establish courts inferior to the Supreme Court such as the United States district courts, which try most federal cases, and thirteen United States courts of appeals, which review appealed district court cases.