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Form of the U.S. Government

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Structure of the U.S. Government

The United States government is divided into three separate branches of power. Established by the United States Constitution, these branches are:

  • Legislative Branch
  • Executive Branch
  • Judicial Branch

The Legislative Branch is established by Article I of the Constitution. This is the branch that is responsible for creating federal law and changing federal law when appropriate. 

Two entities make up the legislative branch: the Senate and the House of Representatives. 

The House of Representatives consists of Representatives from each state, elected by the people of each state. Each state is allotted a specific number of Representatives based on the population of the state, and each Representative is elected for a two-year term. No one may become a Representative unless he or she is: 

  • twenty-five years old,
  • has been a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and
  • lives in the state for which he or she will become a Representative.

There are one hundred Senators in the United States Senate; each state is represented by two Senators. Each Senator is elected to a six-year term, and the year in which each term expires rotates, so that every two years, one-third of the Senate is elected (or re-elected).

EXAMPLE: Jones, Smith and Peters are elected to the United States Senate in 1998, 2000 and 2002, respectively. Jones’ term will expire in 2004, Smith’s term will expire in 2006, and Peters’ term will expire in 2008.

No one may become a Senator unless he or she is:

  • thirty years old,
  • has been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and
  • lives in the state for which he or she will become a Senator.

Article II of the Constitution establishes the Executive Branch. Headed by the President of the United States, this branch enforces the laws created by the legislature. 

To become President of the United States, one must:

  • be a natural born citizen of the United States,
  • be at least thirty-five years old, and
  • have been a resident of the United States for fourteen years. 

The President has the power to appoint the administrators of certain federal agencies. For example, President George W. Bush appointed Christine Todd Whitman to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Because she later resigned, President Bush had to appoint a replacement. 

The President also has the power to appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are established by law. Such appointments, however, must be done by and with, the "advice and consent" of the Senate. This means that the Senate must approve the appointments by a majority vote.

The Judicial Branch of the federal government is established by Article III of the Constitution. The role of the judicial branch is to interpret the laws created by Congress and to apply the laws to the facts of the cases before it.

The federal judiciary is often asked to determine whether laws promulgated by Congress are constitutional and whether action taken by the Executive Branch is constitutional and complies with the federal laws. This “separation of powers” helps ensure that one branch will not become tyrannical and wield ultimate power. The judiciary will also be asked to apply the law to specific facts presented, even if there is no question of constitutionality.

State governments are organized similarly and consist of legislative, executive and judicial bodies.

For a synopsis of the Constitution and how the federal government is structured, please refer to the following charts:

Part of the ConstitutionContent
Article I
Establishes Congress and sets out the rules for the legislative branch of the federal government
Article II
Establishes the office of the Presidency and lays out the rules and powers relevant to the Executive branch of the government
Article III
Establishes the Supreme Court and sets out the rules for the federal judicial system
Article IV
Lays out the rules relevant to the interaction between the states and sets forth the rules for admitting new states to the union
Article V
Sets forth the process by which the Constitution can be amended
Article VI
Reaffirms the supremacy of the Constitution and federal law
Article VII
Established the procedure for ratification of the Constitution
Amendments 1-10: The Bill of Rights
All passed in 1791, these guarantee personal liberties, such as the right to fair trial and freedom of speech
The other Amendments (11-27)
Passed throughout the past 200 years, these Amendments address a host of different issues, such as the election system, civil rights and tax rules

Checks and balances between the branches of the federal government

Who are they?
The President, the Cabinet, administrative agencies, federal prosecutors, etc.

Congress (House of Representatives and Senate)

Supreme Court and lower federal courts
Main function
Carries out the law
Makes laws
Interprets the Constitution and the law
Example of another power
Commander-in-chief of the army
Confirms treaties
Writes the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure
Checks that it possesses
  • Vetoes legislation
  • Appoints judges
  • Overrides vetoes
  • Impeachment of judges and executive officers
  • Confirms judges
Can declare actions or law unconstitutional
Checks against
  • Impeachment
  • Veto can be overridden
  • Action can be declared unconstitutional
  • Laws can be declared unconstitutional
  • Laws can be vetoed
  • Impeachment by Congress
  • Appointed by President

The Structure of Congress

House of Representatives
Number of members
How elected
Individual districts from around the country; based on population
2 from each state
2 years
6 years
Special rules
  • Tax bills must originate here
  • Impeachments happen here
  • Confirms treaties
  • Confirms judicial appointments
  • Conducts impeachment trials