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Encyclopedia > United States government

The government of the United States, established by the United States Constitution, is a federal republic of 50 states, a few territories and some protectorates. The national government consists of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The head of the executive branch is the President of the United States. The legislative branch consists of the United States Congress, while the Supreme Court of the United States is the head of the judicial branch.

While based on a balance of powers, state rights and democratic values, the government of the United States today is widely considered the most powerful in the world, with its foreign and defense policies impacting nearly every nation and region of the world.

The government's federal legal system is based on statutory law, while most state and territorial law is based on English common law, with the exception of Louisiana and Puerto Rico. The United States accepts compulsory ICJ jurisdiction, with many reservations.


Legislative branch

Article I of the Constitution grants all legislative powers of the federal government to the Congress, which is divided into two chambers, a Senate and a House of Representatives. The Senate is composed of two members from each state as provided by the Constitution. Its current membership is 100. Membership in the House is based on each state's population, and its size is therefore not specified in the Constitution. Its current membership is fixed by statute at 435. Members of the House and Senate are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisiana, which has runoffs.

The Constitution does not specifically call for the establishment of U.S. Congressional committees. As the nation grew, however, so did the need for investigating pending legislation more thoroughly. The 108th Congress (2003-2004) had 19 standing committees in the House and 17 in the Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both houses overseeing the Library of Congress, printing, taxation, and the economy. In addition, each house can name special, or select, committees to study specific problems. Because of an increase in workload, the standing committees have also spawned some 150 subcommittees.

The Congress has the responsibility to monitor and influence aspects of the executive branch. Congressional oversight prevents waste and fraud, protects civil liberties and individual rights, ensures executive compliance with the law, gathers information for making laws and educating the public, and evaluates executive performance. It applies to cabinet departments, executive agencies, regulatory commissions, and the presidency. Congress's oversight function takes many forms:

  • Committee inquiries and hearings;
  • Formal consultations with and reports from the president;
  • Senate advice and consent for presidential nominations and for treaties;
  • House impeachment proceedings and subsequent Senate trials;
  • House and Senate proceedings under the 25th Amendment in the event that the president becomes disabled, or the office of the vice president falls vacant;
  • Informal meetings between legislators and executive officials;
  • Congressional membership on governmental commissions;
  • Studies by congressional committees and support agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, and the Office of Technology Assessment, all of which are arms of Congress.

Executive branch

Article II of the Constitution establishes the Executive branch of Government. The President is the head of government, chief of state, and commander-in-chief of the military. The current President and Vice President are George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, since January 20, 2001.

The office of president of the United States is one of the most powerful offices of its kind in the world. The president, the Constitution says, must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." To carry out this responsibility, he presides over the executive branch of the federal government, a vast organization numbering about 4 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel. In addition, the president has important legislative and judicial powers. Within the executive branch itself, the president has broad powers to manage national affairs and the workings of the federal government.

The Executive Departments

The day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws is in the hands of the various executive departments, created by Congress to deal with specific areas of national and international affairs. The heads of the 15 departments, chosen by the president and approved by the Senate, form a council of advisers generally known as the president's "Cabinet." In addition to departments, there is a number of staff organizations grouped into the Executive Office of the President. These include the White House staff, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. There is also a number of independent agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Judicial branch

Article III of the Constitution states the basis for the federal court system: "The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." The Federal judiciary consists of the Supreme Court of the United States, whose nine justices are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and various "lower" or "inferior courts," among which are the United States courts of appeals, the United States district courts, and the United States bankruptcy courts.

The Federal Court System

With this guide, the first Congress divided the nation into districts and created federal courts for each district. From that beginning has evolved the present structure: the Supreme Court, 13 courts of appeals, 94 district courts, and two courts of special jurisdiction. Congress today retains the power to create and abolish federal courts, as well as to determine the number of judges in the federal judiciary system. It cannot, however, abolish the Supreme Court.

There are three levels of federal courts with general jurisdiction meaning that these courts handle criminal cases and civil law suits between individuals. The other courts, such as the bankruptcy courts and the tax court, are specialized courts handling only certain kinds of cases.

The United States district courts are the "trial courts" where cases are filed and decided. The United States courts of appeals are "appellate courts" that hear appeals of cases decided by the district courts. The Supreme Court of the United States hears appeals from the decisions of the courts of appeals.

The judicial power extends to cases arising under the Constitution, an act of Congress, or a treaty of the United States; cases affecting ambassadors, ministers, and consuls of foreign countries in the United States; controversies in which the U.S. government is a party; controversies between states (or their citizens) and foreign nations (or their citizens or subjects); and bankruptcy cases. The Eleventh Amendment removed from federal jurisdiction cases in which citizens of one state were the plaintiffs and the government of another state was the defendant. It did not disturb federal jurisdiction in cases in which a state government is a plaintiff and a citizen of another state the defendant.

The power of the federal courts extends both to civil actions for damages and other redress, and to criminal cases arising under federal law. Article III has resulted in a complex set of relationships between state and federal courts. Ordinarily, federal courts do not hear cases arising under the laws of individual states. However, some cases over which federal courts have jurisdiction may also be heard and decided by state courts. Both court systems thus have exclusive jurisdiction in some areas and concurrent jurisdiction in others.

The Constitution safeguards judicial independence by providing that federal judges shall hold office "during good behavior" - in practice, until they die, retire, or resign, although a judge who commits an offense while in office may be impeached in the same way as the president or other officials of the federal government. U.S. judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Another Constitutional provision prohibits Congress from reducing the pay of judges.

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