The Government in The United States
From July 4,1776, the date on which the Declaration of Independence was ratified by each of the thirteen colonies, the United States has strove to live up to the basic principle on which the country was founded: that all citizens have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This principle was made official with the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1788. That document, which 200+ years later continues to serve as the law of the land in America, became the basis of a united federal government that “allowed the states to act together as one, while still protecting the sovereign rights of each individual state.”
After more than a century of unchecked British rule, the American forefathers drafted a Constitution that would ensure no individual or group would accrue too much power. They did this by dividing the responsibilities of the federal government between three distinct branches—the Executive, Legislative and Judicial Branches—guaranteeing that the powers to create, implement and interpret laws were equally separated. Each branch of the United States government is checked and balanced by the powers of the other. The Executive Branch, for example, can veto bills brought forth by the Congress, and the Congress has the power to approve or reject the Presidential appointments to the Judicial Branch, and can even impeach and remove the President under extreme circumstances. The Judicial Branch of the government—appointed by the Executive Branch and approved (or rejected) by the Legislature—has the power to overturn any laws they deem unconstitutional.
This unique balance of power in United States government assures that elected officials serve the people they represent rather than their own interests and beliefs.
Branches of United States GovernmentThe Executive Branch
The Executive Branch of the United States government is essentially made up of three parts: the President, the Vice President and the various Cabinet departments and federal agencies. Below we will take a closer look at the duties and responsibilities of each of these Executive government entities.
The President of the United States
The President of the United States serves as America’s head of state, head of government and Commander in Chief of the American military. As of this writing, Barack Obama is the current American President—the 44 President of the United States.
America’s President is tasked with many important duties and responsibilities, most notably the execution and enforcement of the laws enacted by the Legislature. To assist him with these duties there are 15 independent departments (Department of Education, Department of Defense, etc.), each headed up by an appointed individual—individuals that collectively comprise the President’s Cabinet. There are also a number of other executive agencies (Federal Bureau of Investigation, CIA, USDA, etc), that assist with the day-to-day operations of the Executive Branch of government. The leaders of these agencies are not considered part of the Cabinet, although they do answer directly to the President.
The President of the United States is bestowed with the power to either sign bills into legislation or veto them, although Congress can override any veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both houses. The President and his State Department regularly conduct diplomatic matters with foreign nations, with the President being allowed to negotiate and sign treaties—treaties that first must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate before becoming law. The President can also issue executive orders, and extend pardons and clemencies for federal crimes.
Qualified candidates who plan to run for the office of President of the United States must meet certain requirements. The President must be at least 35 years of age, a natural born citizen, and have lived in the United States for at least 14 consecutive years. Elections are held every four years, and Presidents are (now) limited to two terms of office, or eight full years of service. Barack Obama is currently serving his second term, which means there will be a new face in the Oval Office come 2016. The official residence for the President and his family is the White House, located in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C.
The Vice President
The number one responsibility of the Vice President of the United States, an office currently held by Joseph Biden, is to be prepared at all times to assume the presidency in the event the President dies, resigns, is impeached or becomes otherwise incapacitated and therefore unable to carry out his duties.
In elections, the Vice President runs on the same ticket as the President. He is elected along with the President by the Electoral College, with each elector casting one vote for President and another for Vice President. In the popular vote, however, each vote for the President is also a vote for the Vice President with whom he chooses to run.
Officially, the Vice President serves as the President of the American Senate, and is tasked with the responsibility of casting a deciding vote in the case of a tie. However, except for instances in which a potential tying vote may be needed, the Vice President rarely presides over the Senate.
The Vice President is the President’s top advisor and assists him in all matters of the state. He also has an active role in diplomatic matters with other nations. He attends official events, either with the President or in his stead, and acts as a liaison between the Executive and Legislative branches. Joe Biden is the 47 Vice President of the United States. His office is located in the West Wing of the White House, and like the President, he also maintains an official residence: a residence located at the United States Naval Observatory in Northwest Washington D.C.
The President’s Cabinet
The President’s Cabinet is comprised of the directors of the 15 executive departments. These 15 individuals are some of the President’s most important and closest advisors. They are not elected, but rather directly appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Each of these Cabinet directors takes the title of “Secretary,” all but the head of the Justice Department, who is known as the Attorney General. Below we have listed and briefly described the functions of each of the 15 cabinet departments:
The Department of Agriculture: The Department of Agriculture is responsible for developing and executing policy with regard to agriculture, farming and food. It promotes agricultural trade and production, assures the safety of America’s food supply and helps protect natural resources.
The Department of Commerce: The United States Department of Commerce is the agency responsible for improving living standards for all Americans by promoting good business practices, economic development and trade and technological innovation.
The Department of Defense: The Department of Defense is responsible for recruiting, training and overseeing the American military. It consists of the departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as a number of other agencies, offices and commands.
The Department of Education: The Department of Education is the federal agency that oversees American schools. Members are responsible for providing the tools and preparation needed for competition in a global economy by fostering excellence and ensuring equal access to educational opportunity.
The Department of Energy: The primary goal of the Department of Energy (DOE) is to develop and improve the national, economic and energy security of the United States.
The Department of Health and Human Services: The Health and Human Services Department of the United States is responsible for protecting the health of all Americans and providing crucial human services, particularly to the poor and those unable to care/provide for themselves.
The Department of Homeland Security: America’s newest Cabinet Department, established following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for protecting Americans from security threats, both foreign and domestic.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development: This department, which goes by the acronym “HUD,” is a federal agency responsible for addressing America’s housing needs and for developing and improving its communities.
The Department of the Interior: The Department of the Interior, or “DOI,” is the United States’ primary conservation agency. Its responsibilities range from protecting America's natural resources, to developing recreational opportunities, to conducting scientific research in the name of preservation.
The Department of Justice: The Department of Justice (DOJ), led by the Attorney General of the United States, is responsible for enforcing the laws of the U.S., prosecuting federal crimes and protecting the American people against all enemies and threats.
The Department of Labor: The United States Department of Labor oversees federal programs that guarantee a strong and productive American workforce. These programs address issues such as job training, safe working conditions, minimum hourly wage and overtime pay, employment discrimination, and unemployment insurance.
The Department of State: Seen as one of the most crucial Cabinet Departments, the Department of State plays a major role in creating and implementing American foreign policy and conducting diplomacy with foreign nations.
The Department of Transportation: The Department of Transportation oversees America’s transportation system, ensuring its efficiency and safety as a means towards enhancing the quality of life for all American citizens.
The Department of the Treasury: The Treasury Department oversees the national and international financial systems so crucial to American life and promotes economic prosperity and security.
The Department of Veteran Affairs: The Department of Veteran Affairs, also known as the VA, is tasked with developing and administering benefit programs for American veterans and their families.
The Legislative Branch
The Legislative Branch of the United States government consists of two bodies: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Together these two assemblies are known as the United States Congress. The U.S. Congress is given a number of powers, responsibilities and duties. Members are responsible for writing and enacting legislation, confirming or rejecting presidential appointments, declaring war and a number of investigative duties and powers.
House of Representatives
There are 435 elected members comprising the United States House of Representatives. They are divided among the 50 states according to population, with the more populous states having a greater number of elected Representatives. In addition to these 435 voting members of Congress, there are also 6 non-voting House members—members who represent the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and four other territories of the United States. The Speaker of the House, who is elected by his peers in the House of Representatives, presides over that body. He or she is also third in the line of succession to the Presidency, after the Vice President.
To qualify to run for a seat in the House of Representatives, candidates must be at least 25 years of age and a resident of the state they represent. They must also have been a United States resident for at least seven consecutive years prior to their candidacy. House Members are elected every two years by popular vote.
The United States Senate consists of 100 members—two members from each of the 50 states, regardless of population. Although Senators are now elected by popular vote every six years, this has not always been the case. Prior to the ratification of the 17 Amendment in 1913, Senators were chosen by the various state legislatures, and not directly elected by the people. Today, the individual six-year terms of U.S. Senators are staggered—staggered in a way so that every two years about one-third Senate members are up for re-election.
To qualify for candidacy to the Senate, individuals must be at least 30 years old, a resident of the state they represent, and a U.S. citizen for at least nine consecutive years prior to their candidacy. As mentioned earlier, the Vice President of the United States serves as President of the Senate and is allowed to cast a vote in the case of a tie. The Senate also has a Majority Leader and a Minority Leader, the former hailing from the party that is currently “in control” of the Senate—the party, whether Republican or Democrat, that has more current members.
In addition to enacting legislation in conjunction with the House of Representatives, the Senate is responsible for confirming Presidential appointments, ratifying treaties and launching investigations with regard to government officials. The Membership is also responsible for hearing and deciding impeachment cases of federal officials, elected and appointed, referred to it by the House of Representatives.
The United States Congress—the House and Senate—is the only branch of government that can enact and change existing laws. While the President can veto a bill proposed by Congress, that veto can be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Unlike the ranking officials in the Executive and Legislative branches, members of the Judicial Branch of United States Government are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
The main body of the Judicial Branch is the United States Supreme Court. This panel, which since 1869 has consisted of nine members—one Chief justice and eight Associate Justices—is the highest court in the land and the “final court of appeals.” Members of the Supreme Court hear appeal cases from plaintiffs not satisfied with the verdict handed down by the lower courts. The main goal of the court is to determine the legality of a verdict based on the language and provisions in the United States Constitution. In cases where the verdict—or the law that led to the verdict—is deemed unconstitutional, the law would be struck down and the verdict overturned.
Although all members of the Judicial Branch are appointed by the President, the United States Congress, through the confirmation process, has significant discretion in determining the shape and structure of the courts. Historically, this has led to a fairly equal balance in the court with regard to party and political affiliation.
In addition to the Supreme Court, the Judicial Branch of the United States government also consists of many federal district courts across the nation, as well as 13 courts of appeals. District courts hear most federal cases in the United States, while the various courts of appeals review appealed cases from the district courts. Only when this entire process has been exhausted—federal district court to the court of appeals—can an appeal case be heard by the Supreme Court. As a result, the Supreme Court generally only hears but a few cases each year
Federal judges, regardless of the court, are appointed for a life term. In almost all cases, judges and justices serve until death or retirement. They can only be removed through impeachment, a process in which they are brought up on charges of misconduct by the House of Representatives and convicted by the United States Senate. The “life term” design of the federal judiciary ensures that the members will be insulated from party politics and the passions of the public, thus enabling them to apply the law fairly, with only justice in mind, and not political or electoral concerns.
Not every law enacted by Congress is necessarily reviewed by the federal court system. All courts, including the Supreme Court, only hear actual cases and controversies where a given person or persons were harmed by an existing law. In other words, they only hear cases in which their decision, whether for or against the complainant, will have an actual practical effect.
The Judicial Branch of the United States government is the only branch given the power to interpret laws, determine their constitutionality and apply their findings to individual cases. In the cases that make it to the Supreme Court, once the members make a ruling with regard to the constitutionality of a law, their decision must be abided from that time onward by all the lower courts in the federal system.
Click on one of the following links to learn more about the culture, language, education, health & safety, economy, government, history, religion, gastronomy, visas, local services, climate, locations in The United States.