Federal government of the United States

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The federal government of the United States has three branches of government: the legislature, executive, and judiciary.

Executive branch[change | change source]

The north side of the White House, home and work place of the U.S. president

The executive branch is the part of the government that enforces the law. Members of the U.S. Electoral College elect a President who is the leader of the executive branch, as well as the leader of the Armed Forces. The President decides whether or not the bills that the Legislative branch passes will become laws, and the President may veto any bill. The President may also make "executive orders" to ensure that people follow the law. (Two of the most famous executive orders were President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and President Dwight D. Eisenhower's order to send 1,200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division to allow the Little Rock Nine into a school that refused to admit African Americans students.) The President is in charge of many departments that control much of the day-to-day business of government. For example, Department of Commerce makes rules about trade and business. The President chooses the heads of these departments, and also nominates judges at the federal (nation-wide) level. However, the Senate, part of the legislative branch, must agree with all of the people the President chooses. The President may serve two 4-year terms, making 8 years in all.

Judicial Branch[change | change source]

The Supreme Court building

The Judiciary branch is made up of federal courts—Supreme, appellate (appeals), and district. The Judicial branch interprets the laws.

The duties of the judicial branch include:

Interpreting federal laws; Settling legal disputes; Punishing violators of the law; Hearing civil cases; Protecting individual rights granted by the constitution; Determining the guilt or innocence of those accused of violating federal criminal laws; Acting as a check upon the legislative and executive branches of government.

Most cases brought before the Supreme Court are appeals that have been tried in the district or appellate courts. Once a decision has been made by the Supreme Court, that is the final decision.

Of the nine Supreme Court justices, one is selected to be the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice assigns justices to write opinions and decisions of the Court.

Legislative branch[change | change source]

The west side of the United States Capitol, which is home to the United States Congress

The legislative branch is the part of the government that makes laws. The legislative branch is called Congress. Congress is divided into two "houses".

One house is the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives is made up of Representatives, who are each elected by voters from their own state. The number of Representatives a state has is based on how many people live there: the more people a state has, the more representatives it gets. Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts a census, or count, of the population of the United States. States gain or lose Representatives based on their total population as shown by the census. Representatives serve two-year terms. The total number of representatives today is 435. The leader of the House of Representatives is the Speaker of the House, who is also the person who would become president if the President and Vice President were unable.

The other house is the Senate. In the Senate, each state is represented equally, by two Senators. Because there are 50 states, there are 100 senators. Before the President makes treaties or appoints officials, the Senate must approve them. Senators serve six-year terms. The Vice President of the United States serves as president of the Senate, but may only cast votes in order to break a tie vote. In practice, the Vice President is usually absent from the Senate, and a Senator is selected to serve as president pro tempore, or temporary president, of the Senate.

Representatives and Senators propose laws, called "bills", in their respective houses. A bill may be voted upon by the entire house right away or may first go to a small group of members of that house, known as a committee, which may recommend a bill for a vote by the whole house. If one house votes to pass a bill, the bill then gets sent to the other house; if both houses vote for it, it is then sent to the President, who may sign the bill into law or veto it. If the President vetoes the bill, it is sent back to Congress. If Congress votes again and passes the bill with at least a two-thirds majority, the bill becomes law and cannot be vetoed by the President.

Under the American system of federalism, Congress may not make laws that directly control the states; instead, Congress may use the promise of federal funds or extenuating circumstances, such as national emergencies, to encourage the states to follow federal law. This system is both complex and unique.