After having been subjects of the king of England, colonial Americans were looking for a new type of government that wouldn’t allow a king to make all of the decisions. They wanted their voices to be heard, and they didn’t want one person or even one part of the government to have too much power. When it came time to write the Constitution, three branches of government were created, each with their own responsibility to the American people and each with some amount of power over the others, so that no branch is more powerful than the rest. Many times, the branches of government need to work together in order to get things done. While this process isn’t always easy, it does ensure that the citizens of the United States get a say in what happens in their country. All states have a similar type of government modeled after the three branches of the federal government.
The Legislative Branch
The job of the legislative branch is to make laws. Congress, the main body of the legislative branch, is made up of two different parts. The first is the House of Representatives, which consists of 435 people elected to represent the people who live in their district. The number of representatives that a state has depends on its population. The other part of Congress is the Senate. Each state has two senators who represent the state and its citizens’ best interests. Each part of Congress must work together to come up with laws that will apply to all citizens of the United States. In order to balance out the power of Congress, the president can veto a law that has been passed, and the judicial branch can overturn a law that is unconstitutional.
- Our Government: The Legislative Branch
- Learning Adventure: The Legislative Branch
- The Legislative Branch: Congress (PDF)
- About the Legislative Branch
- What Is the Legislative Branch?
- What Does Congress Do?
- How Laws Are Made: “I’m Just a Bill” (video)
- What Calling Congress Achieves
- National Constitution Center: The Legislative Branch (video)
- Legislative Branch Quiz (PDF)
The Executive Branch
The president of the United States is the head of the executive branch, followed by the vice president. The people get to vote on who will be president, but the Electoral College actually determines which candidate is the winner. This means that even if more Americans vote for one person, if the Electoral College votes a different way, the other candidate wins. This has happened twice: in 2000, when Al Gore won by around a half-million votes but George W. Bush won the Electoral College vote, and in 2016, when Donald Trump got more electoral votes even though Hillary Clinton got nearly 3 million more votes at the polls.
The executive branch has the job of enforcing the laws that Congress creates. This branch also includes the president’s Cabinet, made up of representatives from each of the federal agencies. While the executive branch can appoint justices to the Supreme Court, the Senate, part of the legislative branch, must approve those nominations. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court can check the executive branch by ruling that the president’s actions are unconstitutional.
- About the Executive Branch
- The Role of the President in the Legislative Process
- Salary Information for the Executive Branch (PDF)
- Executive Branch
- What’s What in the Executive Branch?
- List of the Presidents of the United States in Chronological Order
- Presidential Vetoes
- Functions of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government (PDF)
- The Branches of Power Game
- Separation of Powers
The Judicial Branch
The judicial branch doesn’t have an easy job: Their job is to interpret the laws that are made and make sure that they follow the Constitution. The head of this branch is the Supreme Court, and it is led by a chief justice. The justices decide which cases they are going to hear and then make their decision. From there, justices will write opinions that explain why they made their decision. If a justice doesn’t agree with the court’s ruling, they can write their own opinion, explaining why they didn’t agree. The judicial branch also includes multiple federal courts that deal with criminal cases and even some civil cases, depending on the circumstances.
- Judicial Learning Center: Article III of the Constitution and the Courts
- Supreme Court Landmarks
- Constitutional Convention Lays Out Framework for Judiciary
- The Court as an Institution
- When Roosevelt Clashed With the Supreme Court and Lost
- The Powers of the Judicial Branch (PDF)
- History of the Supreme Court
- The Role of Federal Judges: Their Duty to Enforce the Constitutional Rights of Individuals
- The Power of the Federal Courts
- Separation of Powers and Judicial Independence