A Brief Explanation of the United States Government
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In the United States, the federal, state, and local governments operate independently but have similar organizational structures.
As outlined in the Constitution, the U.S. government consists of legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Each branch oversees a particular function of national leadership, as outlined in the Constitution. This division of responsibility is intended to regulate power between sectors, ensuring that no one branch holds too much power.
In brief, the legislative branch — including Congress (the Senate and the House of Representatives) — creates laws; the executive branch, headed by the president, vice president, and their cabinet, carries out laws; and the judicial branch interprets and enforces laws through the court system, including the Supreme Court and federal courts.
This guide provides an overview of how these three branches work together to run the U.S. government and how they are reflected in state and local governments.
How Is the Government Organized?
The U.S. government is divided into three branches, each offering roles for aspiring politicians. The legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government create, enforce, and interpret national laws, respectively.
The Constitution designed the three branches of government as a collaborative checks-and-balances system, with each providing oversight for the others, thereby avoiding abuses of power by any one branch. As such, each branch can influence the decisions made by the other branches. In practice, the balance of powers has shifted back and forth over the years.
Here is a brief breakdown of what roles are included in each branch:
Congress, which is divided into the Senate and the House of Representatives, each containing elected officials from all 50 states.
The president, vice president, and their cabinet, along with over 4 million others, including members of federal agencies and the armed forces.
The court system, including the Supreme Court — which is the highest court in the U.S. and only reviews Constitutional issues — and lower federal courts.
The Constitution envisioned America as a democratic republic, voted upon by citizens and shaped by a federal government system. Among the most critical features of U.S. democracy is each American's right to vote. Every branch of government at all levels includes elected officials.
Aside from the presidential election every four years, election cycles vary. Congressional elections occur every two years, with different seats up for election each time, and state and local races take place annually. Congress also holds regular legislative sessions biannually and may call special or extraordinary legislative sessions as needed.
The Constitution outlines a set of rules for creating multi-level, interdisciplinary functions of government, and years of building upon those rules has created the system we use today. Though governing the U.S. requires collaboration between local, state, and federal agencies, the federal government is the primary representative of the country, encompassing the nation's most prominent leaders, judges, and legislators.
The federal government comprises executive figureheads, including the president, vice president, and major departments of the executive cabinet; the legislature; and the federal court system. Federal government also includes national agencies, like the U.S. Postal Service, the Social Security Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The president works directly with his closest advisors, discussing critical and timely issues affecting the country, like national security, the national budget, and the economy. Members of the executive cabinet also act as advisors to the president. The president appoints the head of each of the 15 main executive departments, which are:
- The Department of Agriculture
- The Department of Commerce
- The Department of Defense
- The Department of Education
- The Department of Energy
- The Department of Health and Human Services
- The Department of Homeland Security
- The Department of Housing and Urban Development
- The Department of the Interior
- The Department of Justice
- The Department of Labor
- The Department of State
- The Department of Transportation
- The Department of the Treasury
- The Department of Veterans Affairs
The legislative branch also plays a pivotal role in the federal government. Congress has two parts: the Senate, which is made up of 100 Senators — 2 from each state — and the House of Representatives, which is made up of 435 Representatives, divided up among the states according to population. Congress has the power to create and change national laws, and all Congress members are elected officials.
The federal court system includes three levels: district courts, circuit courts, and the Supreme Court. These courts try cases involving violations of the Constitution or citizens' rights, including federal felonies and discrimination cases.
Federal cases originate in district court. Each state operates at least one district court, with a total of 94 nationwide. From there, cases can move up to a circuit court, of which there are 13 across the United States. Circuit courts hear appeals on cases tried in district court.
The final step for federal cases is the Supreme Court, which only hears 1% of the cases it receives. The Supreme Court can also return cases to a district or circuit court for further assessment. Supreme Court candidates are nominated by a U.S. president and must be approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and confirmed by a simple majority of Senators. Once appointed, Supreme Court justices serve a life term.
State governments are smaller governmental agencies representing each of the 50 states and the U.S. territories. Each state is headed by a governor, who functions like a president but on the state or territory level. In the case of the District of Columbia, the mayor holds this position.
The executive branch of a state government includes the governor, lieutenant governor, state attorney general, secretary of state, and other senior officials. Each governor guides state operations to serve their constituents. Like the president, governors are elected.
On the judicial side, each state operates its own Supreme Court, consisting of 5-9 justices. State Supreme Courts do not hear trial cases; they preside over appeals from the lower appellate or trial courts. Some justices are elected by state citizens, while the state governor appoints others. Terms and appointment methods vary by state. Justices may serve a term length ranging from six years to life (no mandate).
The exact composition of the lower-level courts varies by state. Currently, 40 states have at least one court of appeals, called an intermediate appellate court. All states have at least one court of last resort (state Supreme Court), and some, like Oklahoma and Texas, have separate Supreme Courts for civil and criminal appeals.
State governments are largely made up of elected officials, called representatives. Representatives are elected to make choices on behalf of their constituents through the legislative process. Similar to the federal government, each state legislature includes the upper house or State Senate, which is made up of one state senator for each county or district, and a lower house or State House of Representatives, which distributes representatives for each district or county based on population.
Local government describes leadership at the county and city level. Within those geographic boundaries, these politicians handle issues like civic planning, education, social welfare programs, and public safety. Local governments comprise four main sectors: counties, municipalities, school districts, and special districts, which are districts drawn along specialty borders, like fire lines, flood maps, or building regulation types.
Most large cities in the U.S. have a robust local government that includes county commissioners, mayors, and city managers. Municipalities of 5,000 citizens or fewer typically do not elect a mayor and instead rely on the executive leadership of county officials.
City councils oversee local legislature. Supervised by the mayor, councils oversee budgeting for civic functions and projects; develop and pass city ordinances; and provide recreational, educational, and social services. The legislative branch of local government can enact laws and policies, typically by passing resolutions or ordinances, provided those laws comply with state mandates.
The judicial branch of local government is the municipal court system. Municipal courts hear cases for low-level violations, including traffic tickets, disorderly conduct, and juvenile offenses. Cases that violate state laws can escalate to higher-level districts, circuit courts, or the state Supreme Court. Many large cities also operate courts of limited jurisdiction for things like divorces, small claims, or estate law.
The issue of tribes' right to self-governance affects the lives of millions of Native American people across the U.S. Currently, the federal government recognizes over 570 tribes across 36 states as independent tribal governments. All of these tribal governments possess "tribal sovereignty," which is the power to govern themselves separately from local, state, and federal government entities.
Because each tribal nation has its own sovereignty, each tribe has its own government, set of laws, and constitution. Many tribal governments bear similarities to the U.S. government; for instance, the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation government functions through three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial.
Tribal governments have the power to plan and develop their own infrastructure, free from interference from outside governments. They can also organize their own educational, workforce development, law enforcement, and healthcare systems with the interests of their own members in mind. For example, many tribal governments have welfare programs that provide financial assistance to tribal elders, mirroring social security programs used in countries around the world.
Local, state, and federal governments rarely interfere with tribal government matters, aside from providing some forms of assistance to tribal citizens. Unfortunately, some of the legal complexities surrounding tribal government's relationship with U.S. government entities can make it more difficult for tribal members to access federal programs.
Disputes about tribal sovereignty have arisen around unceded territories, unhonored treaties, and private companies operating on tribal land. For example, in 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Creek Nation in a case about disputed treaty territory in Oklahoma.
U.S. Territory Government
In addition to the states and tribal governments, the U.S. also holds a number of territories, which have unique rights and powers. There are 14 recognized territories, all of them islands, atolls, and reefs located in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Out of these 14, only five — American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — are permanently inhabited. With the exception of American Samoa, all of the permanently inhabited territories have their own organized governments.
U.S. territories differ from states and tribal governments in that the U.S. does not recognize them as sovereign entities. The territories are also not incorporated by the U.S., which somewhat limits the powers of the governments of these territories.
Permanently inhabited territories have the right to self-govern and elect a governor and legislature. Each territorial government follows the U.S. model of a three-branch system of government. Puerto Rico's legislature, for example, consists of a legislative assembly, senate, and house of representatives. However, the territorial governments do not get equal representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Instead, they elect a non-voting member to the House who cannot vote on the floor during regular meetings.
Citizens of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands receive U.S. citizenship upon birth. Those born on American Samoa or the nearby Swains Island receive U.S. national status: They can travel freely in the U.S. without a visa, but must work to achieve naturalized citizen status.
Frequently Asked Questions
While each plays a critical role in government, the legislative branch holds the power to make most high-level decisions, including removing a president from office and amending the Constitution. However, the executive branch can veto legislative decisions, and the judicial branch can rule those decisions unconstitutional, so there is a balance of powers.
The federal (national) government is the highest tier of the U.S. government.
As established by the Constitution, the government is intended to protect the rights of citizens, including their right to freedom, opportunity, and the pursuit of prosperity in the United States.
Establishing a career in government or politics requires a combination of skills. Most politicians hold at least a bachelor's degree in political science, business, or law and maintain affiliations with political parties. It is common to start in a volunteer role within local government.
Image Credit: Hill Street Studios | Getty Images
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