The Three Branches of US Government

U.S. Capitol building
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The United States has three branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. Each of these branches has a distinct and essential role in the function of the government, and they were established in Articles 1 (legislative), 2 (executive) and 3 (judicial) of the U.S. Constitution.

The belief that a just, fair, and functional government required that power be divided between various branches long preceded the Constitutional Convention of 1789.

In his analysis of the Ancient Roman government, Greek statesman and historian Polybius identified it as a “mixed” regime with three branches—the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the democracy in the form of the people.

Centuries later, this concept would go on to influence ideas about similar separations of powers being crucial to a well-functioning government expressed by enlightened philosophers such as Charles de Montesquieu, William Blackstone, and John Locke. In his famous 1748 work “The Spirit of the Laws,” Montesquieu argued that the best way to prevent despotism or totalitarianism was through a separation of powers, with different bodies of government exercising legislative, executive, and judicial power, with all these bodies subject to the rule of law. 

Based on the ideas of Polybius, Montesquieu, Blackstone, and Locke, the framers of the U.S. Constitution divided the powers and responsibilities of the new federal government among the three branches we have today. 

The Executive Branch

The executive branch consists of the president, vice president and 15 Cabinet-level departments such as State, Defense, Interior, Transportation, and Education. The primary power of the executive branch rests with the president, who chooses his vice president, and his Cabinet members who head the respective departments. A crucial function of the executive branch is to ensure that laws are carried out and enforced to facilitate such day-to-day responsibilities of the federal government as collecting taxes, safeguarding the homeland and representing the United States' political and economic interests around the world.

The President

The president leads American people and the federal government. He or she also acts as the head of state, and as Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. The president is responsible for formulating the nation’s foreign and domestic policy and for developing the annual federal operating budget with the approval of Congress.

The president is freely elected by the people through the Electoral College system. The president serves a four-year term in office and can be elected no more than twice.

The Vice President

The vice president assists and advises the president, and must be ready at all times to assume the presidency in the event of the president’s death, resignation, or temporary incapacitation. The Vice President also serves as the President of the United States Senate, where he or she casts the deciding vote in the case of a tie.

The vice president is elected along with the president as a “running mate” and can be elected and serve an unlimited number of four-year under multiple presidents.

The Cabinet

The President’s Cabinet serves as advisors to the president. They include the vice president, the heads of the 15 executive departments, and other high-ranking government officials. Each Cabinet member also holds a spot in the presidential line of succession. After the Vice President, Speaker of the House, and President pro tempore of the Senate, the line of succession continues with the Cabinet offices in the order in which the departments were created.

With the exception of the vice president, Cabinet members are nominated by the president and must be approved by a simple majority of the Senate.

The Legislative Branch

The legislative branch consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives, collectively known as the Congress. There are 100 senators; each state has two. Each state has a different number of representatives, with the number determined by the state's population, through a process known as "apportionment." At present, there are 435 members of the House. The legislative branch, as a whole, is charged with passing the nation's laws and allocating funds for the running of the federal government and providing assistance to the 50 U.S. states.

The Constitution grants the House of Representatives several exclusive powers, including the power to initiate spending and tax-related revenue bills, impeach federal officials, and elect the President of the United States in the case of an electoral college tie.

The Senate is granted the sole power to try federal officials impeached by the House of Representatives, the power to confirm presidential appointments that require consent and to ratify treaties with foreign governments. However, the House must also approve appointments to the office of Vice President and all treaties that involves foreign trade, since they involve revenue.

Both the House and Senate must approve all legislation—bills and resolutions—before they can be sent to the president for his or her signature and final enactment. Both the House and the Senate must pass the identical bill by a simple majority vote. While the president has the power to veto (reject) a bill, the House and Senate have the power to override that veto by passing the bill again in each chamber with at least two-thirds “super majority” of the members of each body voting in favor.

The Judicial Branch

The judicial branch consists of the United States Supreme Court and lower federal courts. Under the Supreme Court's constitutional jurisdiction, its primary function is to hear cases that challenge the constitutionality of legislation or require interpretation of that legislation. The U.S. Supreme Court has nine Justices, who are nominated by the president and must be confirmed by a simple majority vote of the Senate. Once appointed, Supreme Court justices serve until they retire, resign, die or are impeached.

The lower federal courts also decide cases dealing with the constitutionality of laws, as well as cases involving the laws and treaties of the U.S. ambassadors and public ministers, disputes between two or more states, admiralty law, also known as maritime law, and bankruptcy cases. Decisions of the lower federal courts can be and often are appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Checks and Balances

Why are there three separate and distinct branches of government, each with a different function? The framers of the Constitution did not wish to return to the totalitarian system of governance imposed on colonial America by the British government.

To ensure that no single person or entity had a monopoly on power, the Founding Fathers designed and instituted a system of checks and balances. The president's power is checked by the Congress, which can refuse to confirm his appointees, for example, and has the power to impeach or remove, a president. Congress may pass laws, but the president has the power to veto them (Congress, in turn, may override a veto). And the Supreme Court can rule on the constitutionality of a law, but Congress, with approval from two-thirds of the states, may amend the Constitution.

Updated by Robert Longley

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Trethan, Phaedra. "The Three Branches of US Government." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Trethan, Phaedra. (2023, April 5). The Three Branches of US Government. Retrieved from Trethan, Phaedra. "The Three Branches of US Government." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).