About the Organization of the U.S. Government

The U.S. federal government is divided into three branches: the executive, the judicial, and the legislative.

Infographic: 3 Branches of the U.S. Government

Learn the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government and see a lesson plan for teachers.

3 Branches of U.S. Government infographic

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Constitution

The Founding Fathers, the framers of the Constitution, wanted to form a government that did not allow one person to have too much control. With this in mind, they wrote the Constitution to provide for a separation of powers, or three separate branches of government.

Each has its own responsibilities and at the same time, they work together to make the country run smoothly and to assure that the rights of citizens are not ignored or disallowed. This is done through checks and balances. A branch may use its powers to check the powers of the other two in order to maintain a balance of power among the three branches of government.

Legislative - Makes Laws

Congress is composed of two parts: the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Senate
The Senate has 100 elected senators total; 2 senators per state. Each senator serves a 6-year term.

House of Representatives
The House has 435 voting representatives; the number of representatives from each state is based on the state's population. Each representative serves a 2-year term and may be re-elected.

Executive - Carries Out Laws

The executive branch is composed of the President, Vice President, and Cabinet members.

President
The President is the head of state, head of the U.S. government and the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military.

Vice President
The Vice President not only supports the President but also acts as the presiding officer of the Senate.

Cabinet
The Cabinet members are nominated by the President and must be approved by the Senate (with at least 51 votes). They serve as the President's advisors and heads of various departments and agencies.

Judicial - Evaluates Laws

The judicial branch of government is made up of the court system.

Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. The 9 justices are nominated by the President and must be approved by the Senate (with at least 51 votes).

Other Federal Courts
There are lower Federal courts but they were not created by the Constitution. Congress established them around the country to handle federal business as the country grew, using power granted by the Constitution.

You can download or order a kids version of our 3 Branches poster.

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How the U.S. Government Is Organized

The Constitution of the United States divides the federal government into three branches to ensure a central government in which no individual or group gains too much control:

  • Legislative – Makes laws (Congress)
  • Executive – Carries out laws (President, Vice President, Cabinet)
  • Judicial – Evaluates laws (Supreme Court and other courts)

Each branch of government can change acts of the other branches as follows:

  • The President can veto laws passed by Congress.
  • Congress confirms or rejects the President's appointments and can remove the President from office in exceptional circumstances.
  • The Justices of the Supreme Court, who can overturn unconstitutional laws, are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

The U.S. federal government seeks to act in the best interests of its citizens through this system of checks and balances.

Legislative Branch

The legislative Branch enacts legislation, confirms or rejects Presidential appointments, and has the authority to declare war.

This branch includes Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives) and several agencies that provide support services to Congress. American citizens have the right to vote for Senators and Representatives through free, confidential ballots.

  • Senate – There are two elected Senators per state, totaling 100 Senators. A Senate term is six years and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual can serve.
  • House of Representatives – There are 435 elected Representatives, which are divided among the 50 states in proportion to their total population. There are additional non-voting delegates who represent the District of Columbia and the territories. A Representative serves a two-year term, and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual can serve.

Executive Branch

The executive branch carries out and enforces laws. It includes the President, Vice President, the Cabinet, executive departments, independent agencies, and other boards, commissions, and committees.

American citizens have the right to vote for the President and Vice President through free, confidential ballots.

Key roles of the executive branch include:

  • President – The President leads the country. He/she is the head of state, leader of the federal government, and Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. The President serves a four-year term and can be elected no more than two times.
  • Vice President – The Vice President supports the President. If the President is unable to serve, the Vice President becomes President. The Vice President can be elected and serve an unlimited number of four-year terms as Vice President, even under a different president.
  • The Cabinet – Cabinet members serve as advisors to the President. They include the Vice President and the heads of executive departments. Cabinet members are nominated by the President and must be approved by the Senate (with at least 51 votes).

Judicial Branch

The judicial branch interprets the meaning of laws, applies laws to individual cases, and decides if laws violate the Constitution. It's comprised of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. 

  • Supreme Court – The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. The Justices of the Supreme Court are nominated by the President and must be approved by the Senate.

    • The court is comprised of nine members — a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. A minimum or quorum of six justices is required to decide a case.
    • If there is an even number of Justices and a case results in a tie, the lower court's decision stands.
    • There is no fixed term for Justices. They serve until their death, retirement, or removal in exceptional circumstances.
  • Other federal courts – The Constitution grants Congress the authority to establish other federal courts.

Judge/Justice Confirmation Process

Appointments for Supreme Court justices and other federal judgeships follow the same basic process:

  • The President nominates a person to fill a vacant judgeship.

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the nominee and votes on whether to forward the nomination to the full Senate.

  • If the nomination moves forward, the Senate can debate the nomination. Debate must end before the Senate can vote on whether to confirm the nominee. A Senator will request unanimous consent to end the debate, but any Senator can refuse.

  • Without unanimous consent, the Senate must pass a cloture motion to end the debate. The cloture motion requires a simple majority—51 votes—to pass.

  • Once the debate ends and the Senate votes on confirmation, just 51 votes are needed to confirm the nominee for Supreme Court justice or any other federal judgeship.

 

 

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Last Updated: September 27, 2017