Adopted on Sept. 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution laid out the framework for our nation. As declared in its opening statement, the goal of the Constitution was to “establish a more perfect union” and to encourage peace, liberty, and security for the country. Adamant that the United States not be run under the absolute authority of a single monarch, the founding fathers created a system of government consisting of three parts: the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. The rights and responsibilities of each branch were explicitly outlined within the Constitution, and a clear system of checks and balances were put in place to ensure that no branch held a monopoly on political power.
The Executive Branch
In many political forums, a lot of attention is focused on the office of president of the United States. However, the person holding this important office is merely one component of the executive branch. Consisting of the president, vice president, and members of the Cabinet, this branch of the government is responsible for enforcing legislation that has been created by the legislative branch. With its power centralized in the office of the president, who serves as the head of state and commander-in-chief, this branch is responsible for both the general and daily implementation of these laws.
The President and Vice President
The president can appoint members of the Cabinet, nominate Supreme Court justices, and appoint the directors of federally controlled agencies such as the DEA and FBI. However, these appointments must be confirmed by the legislative branch in order for them to take effect. The president is also responsible for vetoing or signing bills into law and may only distribute executive orders for the purpose of interpreting existing legislation or as a means of directing the members of the Cabinet. As the commander-in-chief, the president issues orders to the various branches of the military, and they have the power to negotiate treaties and appoint ambassadors. The vice president’s primary role is to assume the duties of the presidency should the president become temporarily or permanently unable to do the job. The vice president also presides over the Senate and can vote when there is a tie.
The members of the president’s Cabinet serve as heads of their respective departments. They implement the laws set forth by Congress and aid their departments in administering them. There are 15 departments in all, and these are responsible for enforcing regulations on everything from commerce to the nation’s natural resources. They ensure that all regulations for their departments are being followed.
The Judicial Branch
With the job of interpreting the meaning and constitutionality of pieces of legislation, the judicial branch is a system of federal courts that at the lowest level begins at the 94 district courts. Above these local district courts are the 13 courts of appeal. Lastly, at the highest level, the Supreme Court and its nine appointed justices serve as the highest court in the land. As the arbiters determining the legality of pieces of legislation, the Supreme Court justices look to the Constitution, which is the highest law in the land, when hearing existing cases or when interpreting laws passed by the legislative branch. Both Supreme Court justices and judges of the courts of appeals and district courts serve for life and do not leave their posts unless they retire, die, or are impeached. This ensures that their decisions are not motivated by politics because they need to win an election.
- The Judicial Branch
- The Supreme Court and its Procedures
- The Supreme Court: How it Works
- The Judicial Branch
- Federal Courts’ Role and Structure
The Legislative Branch
The legislative branch is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Together, these two bodies form Congress. Congress is the only branch of the federal government that can enact laws, raise and appropriate funds, declare war, and impeach officials such as the president. Both chambers of Congress are directly elected by the people. While the population of each state determines its number of representatives, each state only gets two senators. Furthermore, while senators vote according to the wishes of all of the people in their state, representatives vote according to will of the people in their districts. Representatives serve two-year terms, while senators serve six-year terms.
In order for bills to be enacted, they must first be introduced to the House or Senate, where they start by being considered by committees. Anyone can draft pieces of legislation, but they must be brought before Congress by either a senator or a representative. Committees and subcommittees review the bill and decide if it is to be added onto to a current bill, kept as an individual bill, or be postponed so it may be considered at a later date. When it is approved by both the House and Senate, the bill is reviewed by the president, who either signs it into law or vetoes it. If the bill is vetoed, the bill returns to Congress, where it can then still become law after a two-thirds majority approves it.
- How a Bill Becomes Law
- Origins and Development of the Senate
- Learn About the House of Representatives
- The Legislative Branch
- The Legislative Process (video)
Government Agency Sites for Students
- USPTO Kids: Intellectual Property Is Everywhere!
- Energy Information Administration: Energy Basics
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
- NASA Kids’ Club
- Energy Star Kids
- U.S. Geological Survey
- EPA WaterSense for Kids
- USDA Nutrition Fun: MyPlate Kids’ Place
- National Park Service: Archeology for Kids
- Ready.gov: Be a Hero!
- FBI Games for Kids
- TreasuryDirect Kids
- Library of Congress Kids’ Resources
- How the Census Bureau Works
- Agricultural Research Service
- Junior Forest Ranger Program
- JetStream: Learn About Weather
- Social Security for Kids
- U.S. Mint Kids’ Pages
- Smokey Bear’s Website