Basic Structure of the US Government

Checks and Balances and the Three Branches

US Capitol 1900
The US Capitol Bulding in 1900. Getty Images

For all that it is and does, the United States federal government is based on a very simple system: Three functional branches with powers separated and limited by constitutionally declared checks and balances.

The executive, legislative and judicial branches represent the constitutional framework envisioned by the Founding Fathers for our nation's government. Together, they function to provide a system of lawmaking and enforcement based on checks and balances, and separation of powers intended to ensure that no individual or body of government ever becomes too powerful. For example:

  • Congress (legislative branch) can pass laws, but the president (executive branch) can veto them.
  • Congress can override the president's veto.
  • The Supreme Court (judicial branch) can declare a law approved by Congress and the president unconstitutional.
  • The president can appoint judges to the Supreme Court, but Congress must approve them.

Is the system perfect? Are powers ever abused? Of course, but as governments go, ours has been working quite well since Sept. 17, 1787. As Alexander Hamilton and James Madison remind us in Federalist 51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

Recognizing the inherent moral paradox posed by a society in which mere mortals govern other mere mortals, Hamilton and Madison went on to write, "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. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

The Executive Branch

The executive branch of the federal government ensures that the laws of the United States are obeyed. In carrying out this duty, the President of the United States is assisted by the Vice President, department heads – called Cabinet Secretaries – and the heads of the several independent agencies

The executive branch consists of the president, the vice president and 15 Cabinet-level executive departments.

The President

The President of the United States is the elected leader of the country. As the head of state, the president is the leader of the federal government, and Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. Elected according to the Electoral College process, the president serves a four-year term and is limited to serving no more than two terms.

The Vice President

The Vice President of the United States supports and advises the president. Under the process of presidential succession, the vice president becomes president if the president becomes unable to serve. The vice president can be elected and serve an unlimited number of four-year terms, even under multiple presidents.

The Cabinet

The members of the president’s cabinet serve as advisors to the president. The cabinet members include the vice president, heads or “secretaries” of the executive departments, and other high-ranking government officials. The heads of the executive departments are nominated by the president and must be confirmed by a simple majority vote of the Senate.

The Legislative Branch

The legislative branch, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate, has the sole constitutional authority to enact laws, declare war and conduct special investigations. In addition, the Senate has the right to confirm or reject many presidential appointments. 

The Senate

There are a total of 100 elected Senators—two from each of the 50 states. Senators may serve an unlimited number of six-year terms.

The House of Representatives

There are currently 435 elected Representatives, according to the constitutional process of apportionment, the 435 Representatives are divided among the 50 states in proportion to their total population as reported by the most recent decennial U.S. Census. In addition, there are non-voting delegates who represent the District of Columbia and the territories in the House of Representatives. Representatives may serve an unlimited number of two-year terms.

The Judicial Branch

Composed of federal judges and courts, the judicial branch interprets the laws enacted by Congress and when required, decides actual cases in which someone has been harmed.

Federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, are not elected. Instead, they are appointed by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate. Once confirmed, federal judges serve for life unless they resign, die, or are impeached.

The U.S. Supreme Court sits atop the judicial branch and federal court hierarchy and has the final say on all cases appealed to it by the lower courts.

There are currently nine members of the Supreme Court—a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. A quorum of six Justices is required to decide a case. In the event of tie vote by an even number of Justices, the decision of the lower court stands. 

The 13 U.S. District Courts of Appeals sit just below the Supreme Court and hear cases appealed to them by the 94 regional U.S. District Courts which handle most federal cases.

Before the Constitution 

The first functional design for the United States government, the Articles of Confederation, established only a single branch of government—a legislative branch—took effect in 1781. Within a few years, it became clear that this system was not meeting the needs of the people. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was responsible for all government duties—legislative, administrative, and judicial. Even more limiting, the Articles gave more power to the individual state governments than to the national government. The eventual Founders of today’s U.S. government believed the United States would require what they called an “energetic” government” equipped to protect Americans against internal and external threats; to secure trade and commerce; to maintain the economy, and protect the individual rights of the people.

In May 1787, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to determine a new structure for the national government. The new structure they agreed upon through the so-called Great Compromise, consisted of three branches instead of just one, and diffused power by delegating different responsibilities to each branch.

In addition to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches defined in the first three articles of the Constitution, the government includes hundreds of federal agencies and commissions charged with handling responsibilities as varied as managing America’s national security, protecting its environment, and advancing the general welfare of the American people.

Elections & Voting

Federal elections occur every two years, on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. All 435 members of the House of Representatives and about one-third of the 100-member Senate are up for reelection in any given mid-term election year. An election for president of the United States is held every four years in even-numbered years. In other U.S. federal elections, candidates are elected directly by the popular vote. But the president and vice president are not elected directly by citizens. Instead, they’re chosen by “electors” through a process called the Electoral College.

State & Local Government

Under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, all powers not granted to the federal government are reserved for the State governments and the people. As with the federal government, the state governments consist of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The states are required to comply with federal laws and prohibited from enacting laws that violate the U.S. Constitution.

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Longley, Robert. "Basic Structure of the US Government." ThoughtCo, Oct. 5, 2021, thoughtco.com/us-government-basics-3322390. Longley, Robert. (2021, October 5). Basic Structure of the US Government. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/us-government-basics-3322390 Longley, Robert. "Basic Structure of the US Government." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/us-government-basics-3322390 (accessed December 5, 2022).

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