Government 101: The United States Federal Government

A Look at the U.S. Government's Basic Structure and Functions

How would you create a government from scratch? The structure of the United States government is a perfect example that gives the people—rather than the "subjects"—the right to choose their leaders. In the process, they determined the course of the new nation.

The genius of the U.S. Constitution is no accident. America’s Founding Fathers had learned the hard way that any government—given too much power—would eventually oppress the people. Their experiences in England left them in fear of the concentrated political powers of a monarchy. They believed that harnessing the government was the key to lasting liberty. Indeed, the Constitution’s famed system of balanced separation of powers enforced through checks and balances was intended to preventing tyranny.

Founding Fathers Alexander Hamilton and James Madison summed it up, "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the ​governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

Due to this, the basic structure the Founders gave us in 1787 has shaped American history and served the nation well. It is a system of checks and balances, made up of three branches, and designed to ensure that no single entity has too much power.

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The Executive Branch

The White House - Washington DC, USA
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The Executive Branch of government is headed by the President of the United States. He also acts as the head of state in diplomatic relations and as Commander-in-Chief for all U.S. branches of the armed forces.

The President is responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws written by Congress. Further, he appoints the heads of the federal agencies, including the Cabinet, to ensure legislation is executed.

The Vice President is also part of the Executive Branch. He must be ready to assume the presidency should the need arise. As the next in line for succession, he might become President should the current one die or become incapacitated while in office or the unthinkable process of impeachment occurs.

As a key part of the Executive Branch, the 15 federal executive departments develop, enforce, and oversee the voluminous rules and regulations currently in force in the United States. As the administrative arms of the President of the United States, the executive departments make up the president’s advisory Cabinet. The heads of the executive departments—known as “Secretaries”—are appointed by the president and take office after confirmation by the United States Senate.

The heads of executive departments are included in the line of succession to the President, in the event of a vacancy in the presidency, after the Vice President, the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate.

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The Legislative Branch

Capitol Hill Against Sky
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Every society needs laws. In the United States, the power to make laws is given to Congress, which represents the legislative branch of government.

Congress is divided into two groups: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each is made up of members elected from each state. The Senate is comprised of two Senators per state and the House is based on population, totaling 435 members.

The structure of the two houses of Congress was the greatest debate during the Constitutional Convention. By dividing representatives both equally and based on size, the Founding Fathers were able to ensure that each state had a say in the federal government.

The legislative powers of the United States Congress are explicitly stated in the Constitution. Article I Section I of the U.S. Constitution, which states in part, “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives”. The 18 specifically enumerated powers of Congress are spelled out in Article I, Section 8. Besides the power to make laws, some of the most significant powers of Congress include:

  • Declare war
  • Levy taxes to be spent to benefit the general welfare and the common defense
  • Oversee the expenditure of public funds
  • Borrow money
  • Coin money
  • Regulate commerce with and between states, other nations, and Native American tribes
  • Impeach and try federal officers
  • Approve treaties negotiated by the executive branch
  • Approve presidential appointments

Along with the enumerated powers granted to it in Article I, Section 8, Congress exercises a flexible set of “implied powers,” which though not expressly granted to it by the Constitution are considered “necessary and proper” to properly apply its constitutionally granted powers.

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The Judicial Branch

US Supreme Court
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The laws of the United States are a complex tapestry that weaves through history. At times they are vague, sometimes they're very specific, and they can often be confusing. It's up to the federal judicial system to sort through this web of legislation and decide what is constitutional and what is not.

The judicial branch is made up of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). It is made up of nine members, with the highest-ranking given the title of Chief Justice of the United States.

The Supreme Court members are appointed by the current President when a vacancy becomes available. The Senate must approve a nominee by a majority vote. Each Justice serves a lifetime appointment, though they may resign or be impeached.

While SCOTUS is the highest court in the U.S., the judicial branch also includes lower courts. The entire federal court system is often called the "guardians of the Constitution" and is divided into twelve judicial districts, or "circuits." If a case is challenged beyond a district court, it moves to the Supreme Court for a final decision.

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Federalism in the United States

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The U.S. Constitution establishes a government based on "federalism." This is the sharing of power between the national and state (as well as local) governments.

This power-sharing form of government is the opposite of "centralized" governments, under which a national government maintains total power. In it, certain powers are given to states if it is not a matter of overarching concern to the nation.

The 10th Amendment to the Constitution outlines the structure of federalism in just 28 words: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

These governmental “powers” of federalism are thus classified as “enumerated” powers specifically granted to the U.S. Congress, “reserved” powers granted to the states, and “concurrent” powers shared by both the federal government and the states.

Some actions, such as printing money and declaring war, are exclusive to the federal government. Others, like conducting elections and issuing marriage licenses, are responsibilities of the individual states. Both levels can do things like establish courts and collect taxes.

The federalist system allows the states to work for their own people. It is designed to ensure state's rights and it does not come without controversies.

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Government 101: The United States Federal Government." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). Government 101: The United States Federal Government. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Government 101: The United States Federal Government." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).