American Government

As every political science major knows, the federal government of the United States contains three separate and unique branches of power: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The responsibilities, powers, and interrelationships of these three branches are described in the Constitution signed in 1789.

American Government and Political Science Refresher

The president of the United States, selected indirectly by American citizens through the Electoral College, heads the executive branch. The president nominates cabinet members (who are approved by Congress) and has authority over the cabinet, employees of the executive branch, and the military. The president is elected for a four- year term and can serve for no more than two terms. Among the responsibilities the president assumes is ensuring that laws are properly executed, defending the Constitution, and signing or vetoing new laws that have been passed by Congress. Should the president veto a proposed law, it is returned Congress, where a two-thirds vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate is required to override a presidential veto. A two-thirds Congressional majority vote is also required for the president to forge treaties with other countries. In the event a president is charged with high crimes and misdemeanors, a House of Representatives majority vote can impeach; a two-thirds Senate vote is required to remove the president from office. While both the power to pardon criminals and to appoint justices to the Supreme Court with Senate approval is granted to the president, he or she does not have the power to dissolve Congress. Should the president be unable to lead, the second in command is the vice president, who is also constitutionally mandated as president of the Senate and is given one vote in the event of Senate ties. The highest ranking cabinet member and third in line of succession is the secretary of state, who is chief foreign policy advisor and responsible for negotiating treaties and managing embassies.

The legislative branch, which is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives, has authority in taxation, printing and regulating money, establishing roads and post offices, assigning patents, declaring war, providing militia with weaponry, and creating laws. The larger of the two houses is the House of Representatives, whose members are elected for two-year terms and represent congressional districts, the number of which is determined by state population. Representatives are not limited in the number of terms they may serve. Each of the fifty states selects two senators by vote to represent them for terms of six years. To maintain stability, every two years sees the end of term for a third of the Senate members. The Senate is charged with seconding presidential appointees and approving or denying bills sent up from the House. Congress is also given the power to oversee protection of civil liberties, executive legal compliance, and other areas requiring oversight through committee hearings and formal presidential consultations. It is also within the power of Congress to establish or eliminate federal courts, but not the Supreme Court.

The judicial branch is charged with interpreting and enforcing laws through court cases. The Supreme Court is the number one federal court in the nation. Supreme Court justices are chosen by presidential nomination and Senate approval and are given lifetime appointments. Beneath the Supreme Court are appeals and district courts. The Supreme Court is led by the chief justice; judges hear cases that relate directly to the federal system, current U.S. Constitution interpretations, and arguments between states. It is within the power of the judges who sit on the Supreme Court to nullify any law previously made by Congress; doing so establishes a future precedent.

Last Updated: 05/22/2014

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