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Federal government of the United States

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The government of the United States of America, established by the U.S. Constitution, is a federal republic of individual states. The laws of the United States are laid out in Acts of Congress (especially the United States Code and Uniform Code of Military Justice), administrative regulations, and judicial cases interpreting the statutes and regulations. The federal government has three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial. Through a system of separation of powers or "checks and balances" (historical phrase), each of these branches has some authority to act on its own, some authority to regulate the other two branches, and has some of its own authority, in turn, regulated by the other branches.

Legislative branch

Main article: United States Congress

The Congress of the United States is the legislative branch of the federal government of the United States. It is bicameral, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives consists of 435 members, each of whom represents a congressional district and serves for a two-year term. House seats are apportioned among the states by population; in contrast, each state has two Senators, regardless of population. There are a total of 100 senators (as there are currently 50 states), who serve six-year terms (one third of the Senate stands for election every two years). Each House has particular exclusive powers—the Senate must give "advice and consent" to many important Presidential appointments, and the House must introduce any bills for the purpose of raising revenue. However, the consent of both Houses is required to make any law. The powers of Congress are limited to those enumerated in the Constitution; all other powers are reserved to the states and the people. The Constitution also includes the "necessary-and-proper clause", which grants Congress the power to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers."

Members of the House and Senate are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisiana and Washington, which have runoffs.

The Constitution does not specifically call for the establishment of Congressional committees. As the nation grew, however, so did the need for investigating pending legislation more thoroughly. The 108th Congress (2003-2005) had 19 standing committees in the House and 17 in the Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both houses overseeing the Library of Congress, printing, taxation, and the economy. In addition, each house can name special, or select, committees to study specific problems. Because of an increase in workload, the standing committees have also spawned some 150 subcommittees.

The Congress has the responsibility to monitor and influence aspects of the executive branch. Congressional oversight prevents waste and fraud, protects civil liberties and individual rights, ensures executive compliance with the law, gathers information for making laws and educating the public, and evaluates executive performance. It applies to cabinet departments, executive agencies, regulatory commissions, and the presidency. Congress's oversight function takes many forms:

  • Committee inquiries and hearings;
  • Formal consultations with and reports from the President;
  • Senate advice and consent for presidential nominations and for treaties;
  • House impeachment proceedings and subsequent Senate trials;
  • House and Senate proceedings under the 25th Amendment in the event that the President becomes disabled, or the office of the Vice President falls vacant;
  • Informal meetings between legislators and executive officials;
  • Congressional membership on governmental commissions;
  • Studies by congressional committees and support agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office, and the Government Accountability Office, both of which are arms of Congress.

Responsibilities of a Congressperson

Each individual congressperson must assume three roles. These roles include: legislator, committee member, and representative of their constituents. Often he or she must also juggle these responsibilities with party affiliation, in association with the two main parties of the United States, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

Powers of Congress

The Constitution grants numerous powers to Congress. These include the powers: to levy and collect taxes in order to pay debts, provide for common defense and general welfare of the U.S.; to borrow money on the credit of the U.S.; to regulate commerce with other nations and between the states; to establish a uniform rule of naturalization; to coin money and regulate its value; provide for punishment of counterfeiting; establish post offices and roads, promote progress of science, create courts inferior to the Supreme Court, define and punish piracies and felonies, declare war, raise and support armies, provide and maintain a navy, make rules for the regulation of land and naval forces, provide for the militia, arm and discipline the militia, exercise exclusive legislation in Washington D.C, and make laws necessary to execute the powers of Congress.

Executive branch

Main article: President of the United States

The Executive branch consists of the President of the United States and his delegates. The President is both the head of state and head of government, as well as the commander-in-chief of the military, and the chief diplomat. The President, according to the Constitution, must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." To carry out this responsibility, he presides over the executive branch of the federal government, a vast organization numbering about 4 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel. In addition, the President has important legislative and judicial powers. Within the executive branch itself, the President has broad constitutional powers to manage national affairs and the workings of the federal government, and may issue executive orders to affect internal policies.

The President may sign or veto legislation passed by Congress. He may be impeached by a majority in the House and removed from office by a two-thirds majority in the Senate for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The President may not dissolve Congress or call special elections, but does have the power to pardon criminals convicted of federal offenses (though not crimes against a state), give executive orders, and (with the consent of the Senate) appoint Supreme Court justices and federal judges.

Main article: Vice President of the United States

The Vice President of the United States is the second-highest executive official of the government. As first in the presidential line of succession, the Vice President becomes the new President of the United States upon the death, resignation, or removal of the President, which has happened nine times. His only other constitutional duty is to serve as the President of the Senate and break any tie votes in that chamber, but over the years the office has evolved into a senior advisor to the President

All executive power in the federal government is vested in the President of the United States, although power is often delegated to his/her Cabinet members and other officials. The President and Vice President are elected as 'running mates' for four-year terms by the Electoral College, for which each state, as well as the District of Columbia, is allocated a number of seats based on its representation (or ostensible representation, in the case of D.C.) in both houses of Congress.

Further information: U.S. Electoral College

The relationship between the President and the Congress reflects that between the English monarchy and parliament at the time of the framing of the United States Constitution. Congress can legislate to constrain the President's executive power, even with respect to his or her command of the armed forces; however, this power is used only very rarely—a notable example was the constraint placed on President Richard Nixon's strategy of bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam War. While the President can directly propose legislation (for instance, the Federal Budget), he must rely on supporters in Congress to promote and support his or her legislative agenda. After identical copies of a particular bill have been approved by a majority of both Houses of Congress, the President's signature is required to make these bills law; in this respect, the President has the power—only occasionally used—to veto congressional legislation. Congress can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority vote from both houses. The ultimate power of Congress over the President is that of impeachment or removal of the elected President through a House vote, a Senate trial, and a Senate vote (by two-thirds majority in favor). The threat of using this power has had major political ramifications in the cases of Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton.

The President makes around 2,000 executive appointments, including members of the Cabinet and ambassadors, which must be approved by the Senate; the President can also issue executive orders and pardons, and has other Constitutional duties, among them the requirement to give a State of the Union address to Congress from time to time (usually once a year). (The Constitution does not specify that the State of the Union address be delivered in person; it can be in the form of a letter, as was the practice during most of the 19th century.) Although the President's constitutional role may appear to be constrained, in practice, the office carries enormous prestige that typically eclipses the power of Congress: the Presidency has justifiably been referred to as 'the most powerful office in the world'. The Vice President is first in the line of succession, and is the President of the Senate ex officio, with the ability to cast a tie-breaking vote. The members of the President's Cabinet are responsible for administering the various departments of state, including the Department of Defense, the Justice Department, and the State Department. These departments and department heads have considerable regulatory and political power, and it is they who are responsible for executing federal laws and regulations.

Cabinet, executive departments, and agencies

The day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws is in the hands of the various federal executive departments, created by Congress to deal with specific areas of national and international affairs. The heads of the 15 departments, chosen by the President and approved with the "advice and consent" of the U.S. Senate, form a council of advisors generally known as the President's "Cabinet". In addition to departments, there are a number of staff organizations grouped into the Executive Office of the President. These include the White House staff, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

There are also a number of independent agencies such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, there are government corporations such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

Judicial branch

Main article: United States federal courts

The highest court is the Supreme Court of the United States, which currently consists of nine justices. The court deals with matters pertaining to the Federal Government, disputes between states, and interpretation of the United States Constitution, and can declare legislation or executive action made at any level of the government as unconstitutional, nullifying the law and creating precedent for future law and decisions. Below the Supreme Court are the courts of appeals, and below them in turn are the district courts, which are the general trial courts for federal law.

Separate from, but not entirely independent of, this federal court system are the individual court systems of each state, each dealing with its own laws and having its own judicial rules and procedures. The supreme court of each state is the final authority on the interpretation of that state's laws and constitution. A case may be appealed from a state court to the U.S. Supreme Court only if there is a federal question (an issue arising under the U.S. Constitution, or laws/treaties of the United States). The relationship between federal and state laws is quite complex; together, they form the law of the United States.

The federal judiciary consists of the Supreme Court of the United States, whose justices are appointed for life by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and various "lower" or "inferior courts," among which are the United States Courts of Appeals and the United States District Courts.

With this guide, the first Congress divided the nation into judicial districts and created federal courts for each district. From that beginning has evolved the present structure: the Supreme Court, 13 courts of appeals, 94 district courts, and two courts of special jurisdiction. Congress today retains the power to create and abolish federal courts, as well as to determine the number of judges in the federal judiciary system. It cannot, however, abolish the Supreme Court.

There are three levels of federal courts with general jurisdiction, meaning that these courts handle criminal cases and civil law suits between individuals. The other courts, such as the bankruptcy courts and the tax court, are specialized courts handling only certain kinds of cases. The bankruptcy courts are branches of the district courts, but technically are not considered part of the "Article III" judiciary because their judges do not have lifetime tenure. Similarly, the tax court is not an Article III court.

The United States district courts are the "trial courts" where cases are filed and decided. The United States courts of appeals are "appellate courts" that hear appeals of cases decided by the district courts, and some direct appeals from administrative agencies. The Supreme Court of the United States hears appeals from the decisions of the courts of appeals or state supreme courts (on constitutional matters), as well as having original jurisdiction over a very small number of cases.

The judicial power extends to cases arising under the Constitution, an act of Congress, or a treaty of the United States; cases affecting ambassadors, ministers, and consuls of foreign countries in the United States; controversies in which the U.S. government is a party; controversies between states (or their citizens) and foreign nations (or their citizens or subjects); and bankruptcy cases. The Eleventh Amendment removed from federal jurisdiction cases in which citizens of one state were the plaintiffs and the government of another state was the defendant. It did not disturb federal jurisdiction in cases in which a state government is a plaintiff and a citizen of another state the defendant.

The power of the federal courts extends both to civil actions for damages and other redress, and to criminal cases arising under federal law. Article III has resulted in a complex set of relationships between state and federal courts. Ordinarily, federal courts do not hear cases arising under the laws of individual states. However, some cases over which federal courts have jurisdiction may also be heard and decided by state courts. Both court systems thus have exclusive jurisdiction in some areas and concurrent jurisdiction in others.

The Constitution safeguards judicial independence by providing that federal judges shall hold office "during good behavior". Usually they serve until they die, retire, or resign. A judge who commits an offense while in office may be impeached in the same way as the President or other officials of the federal government. U.S. judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Another Constitutional provision prohibits Congress from reducing the pay of any judge—Congress could enact a new lower salary applying to future judges, but not to those already serving.


Suffrage has changed significantly over time. In the early years of the United States, voting was considered a matter for state governments, and was commonly restricted to white men who owned land. Direct elections were held only for the U.S. House of Representatives (the "lower house" of Congress, a bicameral parliament) and state legislatures, although this varied from state to state. Under this original system, both senators representing each state in the United States Senate (the "upper house" of Congress) were chosen by a majority vote of the state legislature. Since the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, members of both houses of Congress have been directly elected.

Today, partially due to the Twenty-sixth Amendment, U.S. citizens have almost universal suffrage from the age of 18 regardless of race, sex, or wealth, and both Houses of Congress are directly elected. There are some limits, however: felons are disenfranchised and in some states former felons are as well. (See also Felony disenfranchisement.)

Currently, the national representation of territories and the federal district of Washington, D.C., in Congress is limited: residents of the District of Columbia are subject to federal laws and federal taxes but their only congressional representative is a non-voting delegate. Residents of U.S. territories have varying rights, for example residents of Puerto Rico do not pay federal taxes (on local income) but cannot vote for president and have no voting representatives in congress.

State, tribal, and local governments

United States of America, showing states, divided into counties (parishes in Louisiana; boroughs in Alaska). Note that Alaska and Hawaii are shown at different scales, and that the Aleutian Islands and the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are omitted from this map.
United States of America, showing states, divided into counties (parishes in Louisiana; boroughs in Alaska). Note that Alaska and Hawaii are shown at different scales, and that the Aleutian Islands and the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are omitted from this map.
Main articles: U.S. state and Local government in the United States

The state governments have the greatest influence over most Americans' daily lives. Each state has its own written constitution, government, and code of laws. There are sometimes great differences in law and procedure between individual states, concerning issues such as property, crime, health, and education. The highest elected official of each state is the Governor. Each state also has an elected legislature (bicameral in every state except Nebraska), whose members represent the voters of the state. Each state maintains its own state court system. In some states, supreme and lower court justices are elected by the people; in others, they are appointed, as they are in the federal system.

Denver, Colorado is a rare consolidated City and County, and exemplifies a strong executive, weak council type of government.
Denver, Colorado is a rare consolidated City and County, and exemplifies a strong executive, weak council type of government.

As a result of the Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia, Indian tribes are considered "domestic dependent nations" that operate as sovereign governments subject to Federal authority but, generally, outside of the influence from state governments. Hundreds of laws, executive orders, and court cases have modified the governmental status of tribes vis-ā-vis states, but have kept the two officially distinct. Tribal capacity to operate robust governments varies, from a simple council used to manage all aspects of tribal affairs, to large and complex bureaucracies with several branches of government. Tribes are empowered to form their own governments, with power resting in elected tribal councils, elected tribal chairpersons, or religiously appointed leaders (as is the case with pueblos). Tribal citizenship (and voting rights) is generally restricted to individuals of Native descent, but tribes are free to set whatever membership requirements they wish.

The institutions that are responsible for local government are typically town, city, or county boards, making laws that affect their particular area. These laws concern issues such as traffic, the sale of alcohol, and keeping animals. The highest elected official of a town or city is usually the mayor. In New England, towns operate in a direct democratic fashion, and in some states, such as Rhode Island and Connecticut, counties have little or no power, existing only as geographic distinctions. In other areas, county governments have more power, such as to collect taxes and maintain law enforcement agencies.

See also

Wikibooks Wikiversity has more about this subject:
School of Political Science


  • President of the United States
  • Executive Office of the President of the United States
  • United States Federal Executive Departments
  • United States Cabinet
  • Executive Order


  • Supreme Court of the United States
  • United States federal courts
  • United States federal judicial circuit
  • United States courts of appeals
  • United States federal judicial district
  • United States district courts
  • United States bankruptcy courts


  • Constitution of the United States of America
  • Law of the United States
  • Legal research
  • List of U.S. government designations for places
  • United States Code

Agencies Some agencies are legislative, some are executive, some are judicial.

  • Independent Agencies of the United States Government
  • List of United States federal agencies

States and territories

  • Political divisions of the United States
  • States of the United States
  • United States territory

Web site

  • Web portal of the U.S. government

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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