United States Government

From Grolier Online The New Book of Knowledge

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The government of the United States is a massive and complex organization. Its purpose is to improve and protect the lives of American citizens, both at home and overseas. Because its functions are so numerous and varied, the government operates on several different levels--national, state, and local. At each of these levels the government makes certain demands on its citizens. But this is only to promote the general welfare of the society as a whole.

For example, the government requires its citizens to pay taxes. But in return it provides them with valuable services, such as free public education and police-patrolled streets. The government guarantees its citizens certain rights, such as the freedom to practice their chosen religion. But it restricts them from engaging in other activities, such as driving over the speed limit or paying an employee less than the minimum wage. The government also protects its citizens from foreign threats. But to do so it reserves the right to draft young men into military service whenever it is considered necessary.

The American System of Government

Many terms describe the United States government. First of all, it is a democracy. This means the people rule. It is also a representative government. The people elect leaders who will represent their viewpoint when making government decisions. It is also a republic. This means that the chief of state (the president) is elected by the people. This is unlike a monarchy, where the throne is inherited through a family dynasty. The United States government is also a constitutional government. It operates according to a set of laws and principles that are outlined in a constitution. And finally, it is an example of the federal system of government. This means that the national government shares responsibilities with the state and municipal governments.

Allowing for this division of powers in the Constitution was purely an American invention. Section 8 of Article I of the Constitution specifically lists the duties of the national government. These are called delegated powers. The Constitution also gives the states authority in certain matters. These are called residual powers. Duties shared by both the state governments and the national government are called concurrent powers.

Who Works for the Government?

When most people think of the American government, they think of the president of the United States. In fact, he may be the most recognized leader in the entire world. However, the government is made up of millions of people. Among them are diplomats, soldiers, federal law enforcement officers, congressmen and congresswomen, senators, the president, and the Supreme Court justices. The government also employs office workers, tax collectors, scientists, and people in hundreds of other professions.

Many United States government employees are elected to their positions by the people they represent. Many others belong to the civil service, a permanent corps of government workers. Still others are appointed to their positions by elected officials. Or they may belong to the United States Armed Forces. Most of these employees work in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital. But many are stationed in thousands of other locations, across the United States and around the world.

How the Federal Government is Organized

During the summer of 1787, 55 delegates gathered in Philadelphia to draft a new constitution for the United States. The country had recently won its independence from England. The founders wanted to create a national government that would be strong enough to defend the country and be able to negotiate trade agreements with foreign nations. But at the same time, they did not want to make the government so powerful that it could take control away from the people.

Therefore, to limit the government's authority, the founders came up with the concept of separation of powers. This system limits the power of government by dividing authority among three separate, but equally powerful, branches. The legislative branch writes the laws; the executive branch carries out the laws; and the judicial branch reviews the way laws are applied.

This separation is achieved symbolically in the Constitution itself. (Each branch is described in a separate article.) Symbolism is also evident in the physical headquarters of each branch in Washington, D.C.--the legislative in the Capitol; the executive in the White House; and the judicial in the Supreme Court Building. The Constitution also states that no individual may hold office in more than one branch at a time. The one exception is the vice president, who serves in both the executive and the legislative branches.

The separation of powers also allows for a system of checks and balances within the government. Each branch is given certain control over the other two. This balances the power and keeps the potential for abuse of power in check.

It is important to remember, however, that although power may be balanced within the government, it does not come from the government. The most important provision the Constitution makes is that the government must derive its power from the people. In fact, the very first words of the Constitution are, "We the People of the United States…," a phrase the founders chose very carefully. It is the people who give the power to the government and limit what it can do. The people elect government officials to direct the government's activities. And the people can elect new officials to replace those whose policies have become unpopular. The American system is thus divided, limited, and democratically controlled. \

The Legislative Branch (The Congress)

The framers of the Constitution gave more space to the legislature (lawmaking) branch of the government than to the other two branches combined. Article I of the Constitution specifies that there shall be two separate legislative bodies--a House of Representatives and a Senate. Together they are called the Congress. The two bodies of Congress work together to make the laws and regulations for the country.

The task of reviewing and passing legislation is extremely complex. Congress has built up a staff of more than 10,000 assistants to help perform these jobs more thoroughly. Each senator and representative has a personal staff. Some work on legislation in Washington, D.C., while others work with constituents from the member's home state or district who might request help from their members of Congress. The Congress also has a number of agencies designed to assist in various aspects of the legislative process. One of the best known is the Library of Congress. It houses the nation's most complete collection of books and also provides research services for congressional offices. Another well-known agency is the Congressional Budget Office. It provides assistance to those in Congress who evaluate the amount of money government should spend each year.

The number of ideas for legislative action introduced into the Congress is truly astounding. In a typical two-year session, more than 10,000 bills are submitted for consideration. The House and Senate cannot possibly deal with this many matters. So over the years they have arrived at a system that divides the labor among smaller groups called standing committees. Each committee focuses on a specific set of issues.

While the committees of the two houses of Congress handle much of the same legislation, some differences do exist. The Constitution states that all legislation that raises money for the government through taxation must originate in the House of Representatives (Article I, Section 7). This provision is a holdover from the time when senators were not directly elected and citizens rejected the practice of "taxation without representation". This was one of the primary grievances that led to the American Revolution. On the other hand, the Constitution requires that treaties made by the president with other nations can only take effect with the "advice and consent", or approval, of the Senate (Article II, Section 2). Due to these constitutional conditions, House members are often thought to be more expert on fiscal, or financial, matters, while senators are deemed more knowledgeable of foreign affairs.

The main powers of Congress are to raise money for use by the government and to decide in broad terms how to spend it. Congress does its work by considering bills (or proposed laws) that have been introduced by its members. There are three major categories of bills considered by Congress. Most bills are authorization bills. They create and set goals for government programs. Appropriations bills are requests for money to fund these programs. And revenue bills are designed to raise money through taxation, and other means.

The president also has a hand in the lawmaking process. Each year the executive branch presents a budget to the Congress. It outlines the funds the president and the executive departments would like to spend. Congress considers the president's plan but usually changes it in many ways.

The Congress has many other important powers. It may officially declare war on another country. It may raise and pay for armed forces. It establishes federal courts of law. It regulates trade with other countries. It may also impeach, or bring charges against, any member of the executive branch suspected of committing a crime.

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives ("the House") has 435 voting members. Its members are called representatives (or congressmen and congresswomen). The members serve 2-year terms. Elections are held in November of even-numbered years, and the representatives take office the following January.

Representatives represent the people who live in a congressional district. Each of the 435 districts has about the same number of people. The states with the smallest populations have one representative (called "representatives-at-large"). The state with the biggest population (California) has 53. The number of representatives each state elects is refigured every ten years. It is based on a national census (counting) of the population.

The members of the House of Representatives choose their own leader, called the Speaker of the House. The Speaker belongs to the majority party. This is the political party to which more than half--the majority--of representatives belong. The Speaker plays an active role in setting the legislative agenda. The agenda determines which bills will be voted on and in what order. The Speaker is assisted by the House majority leader. The House majority leader, in turn, is assisted by the House majority whip. All three are elected to their posts by a simple majority (at least one more than half) of all the members of the majority party. Members of the minority party also elect a House minority leader and a House minority whip.

The Senate

The Senate is the smaller of the two houses of Congress. Each state has two senators, regardless of the size of its population. The first Senate had 26 members representing the 13 states. Today there are 100 senators representing 50 states. Each senator is elected to a 6-year term. Every two years, one third of the total members (33 or 34) comes up for election.

The vice president of the United States serves as the president of the Senate. His principal power is deciding an issue in case of a tie vote. On occasion he rules on questions of procedure. But for the most part his role is ceremonial. (Senators also select a president pro tempore, or temporary president, to serve in the vice president's absence. Traditionally they select the majority party member who has served the longest time in the Senate.) Actual leadership in the Senate is exercised by the Senate majority leader and the Senate minority leader. (For more information, including the names of the current U.S. representatives and senators, see the article United States, Congress of the.)

The Executive Branch (The President and His Advisors)

The executive branch of the government is described in Article II of the Constitution. Much of it explains a presidential election procedure that was later changed by the Twelfth Amendment. Today presidential candidates are elected to 4-year terms through a complicated system known as the electoral college. To win an election, a candidate must receive a majority of electoral votes cast by the states. If no candidate wins such a majority, the House of Representatives decides who will become president. The Senate decides who will become vice president.

The President's Many Roles

The president is the chief executive, or chief administrator, of the United States. His job is to manage all of the people who work in the executive branch and to make sure the laws of the nation are enforced. He also holds the title chief of state. This means he is the foremost representative of the nation. As such, he performs ceremonial duties and meets with the leaders of foreign nations.

In addition to his executive responsibilities, the president has certain legislative and judicial powers. More than any other person, he is responsible for legislation. He may suggest legislation to Congress that he feels will improve the "state of the union." He might work closely with congressional leaders to see that his ideas are carefully considered. The president may also veto (reject) legislation that he feels should not become law.

The president also holds certain judicial powers. He recommends candidates for the position of attorney general, who heads up the executive Department of Justice. He nominates Supreme Court justices (judges), federal court justices, and U.S. district attorneys whenever there are vacancies. And, except in cases involving impeachment of a government official, he has the power to pardon criminals.

In addition to these duties, the president is also the commander in chief of the United States Armed Forces. The fact that the U.S. armed forces are led by the president, who is a civilian and not a military officer, is an important aspect of the American government. It guarantees democratic control over this enormously powerful organization within the government.

As head of the diplomatic corps, the president can make treaties with foreign countries. He can also appoint U.S. ambassadors and receive visits from foreign ambassadors and heads of state.

Although his job is an enormous one, the president is assisted by a large number of close associates. He appoints key advisers to head up the various executive departments, bureaus, offices, and agencies.

All together, approximately 3 million civilians and 2 million military personnel work in the executive branch. They are called the president's administration. Every year the offices in which they work issue rules and guidelines. Together they fill up more than 50,000 pages in a series of books called The Federal Register.

For more information, refer to the articles Presidency of the United States and Vice Presidency of the United States.

The Judicial Branch (The Federal Court System)

Article III of the Constitution describes the responsibilities of the judicial branch of the United States government. But Article III says little more than that the nation's judicial power should be in the hands of a Supreme Court and any such lower courts the Congress may decide to create.

The Supreme Court

The highest court in the nation is the United States Supreme Court. It is made up of one chief justice and eight associate justices (judges). They are appointed by presidents with the approval of the Senate. Supreme Court justices may serve for life or until they wish to retire.

The Supreme Court has many important powers. One is the ability to declare laws unconstitutional, or invalid. This is known as the power of judicial review. It allows the Supreme Court to check the power of the other two branches of the federal government as well as that of the state's governments.

The Lower Federal Courts

If the government or a citizen has a case that involves a federal law, the case goes to a federal district court. (This is called a court of original jurisdiction because it is the first to try such cases.) There are 89 district courts in the 50 states, plus one each for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Territorial Courts have also been established for Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

In addition to the district courts, Congress has established four special courts of original jurisdiction. They are the U.S. Tax Court, the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, and the U.S. Claims Court. All of these courts sit in Washington, D.C.

Those who lose a case in a district court or in one of the specialized courts may take their case to a higher court to appeal the court's decision. The same is true for those who feel they have not been treated fairly. Such cases are brought before a United States Court of Appeals, also known as a circuit court. These courts have appellate jurisdiction. This means they have the authority to hear cases that have already been decided by a lower court. There are 13 U.S. courts of appeals around the country.

The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in very few cases, and these are specified in the Constitution. For the most part the Supreme Court hears cases that come on appeal from one of the circuit courts or from the high courts of the fifty states. Citizens do not have the right to have their appeals heard by the Supreme Court. In fact, in recent years the Supreme Court has decided to review only about 200 of the approximate 5,000 cases it is asked to consider every year.

The Supreme Court examines cases when the justices feel that important principles of law are in question. Frequently these cases arise when different circuit court justices have interpreted the Constitution in different ways. They also arise when a state court has acted in a way that might be considered in violation of the federal Constitution. For more information, see the articles Supreme Court of the United States and Courts.

A Government of the People

In the United States, every citizen over the age of 18 can have a voice in the government. All he or she has to do is vote. The United States government is faced with a wide variety of complex problems. Often people cannot agree on possible solutions. But officers of the United States government are free to disagree with each other, and so are the nation's citizens. Some may think the government interferes too much in people's lives. Others believe the government should pass as many laws as it can to keep society in check. This right to disagree with one another, and especially the citizens' right to disagree with the government, is one of the most precious rights guaranteed to Americans by their Constitution.

L. Sandy Maisel
Professor of Government
Colby College


How to cite this article:
MLA (Modern Language Association) style:

Maisel, L. Sandy. "United States, Government of the." The New Book of Knowledge®. 2008. Grolier Online. 21 July 2008 http://nbk.grolier.com/cgi-bin/article?assetid=a2030380-h.
Chicago Manual of Style:

Maisel, L. Sandy. "United States, Government of the." The New Book of Knowledge®. Grolier Online http://nbk.grolier.com/cgi-bin/article?assetid=a2030380-h (accessed July 21, 2008).
APA (American Psychological Association) style:

Maisel, L. S. (2008). United States, Government of the. The New Book of Knowledge®. Retrieved July 21, 2008, from Grolier Online http://nbk.grolier.com/cgi-bin/article?assetid=a2030380-h

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