Federal government of the United States

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This article describes the government of the United States. For political issues, see politics of the United States.

The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1789 by a constitutional convention, sets down the basic framework of American government in its seven articles. The constitution replaced the confederate system of the Articles of Confederation (in force from 1781 to 1788). The Constitution is currently on display at the National Archives.
The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1789 by a constitutional convention, sets down the basic framework of American government in its seven articles. The constitution replaced the confederate system of the Articles of Confederation (in force from 1781 to 1788). The Constitution is currently on display at the National Archives.

The government of the United States, established by the U.S. Constitution, is a federal republic of 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and many insular areas, the largest of which are Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Guam. The laws of the United States are contained in federal legislation, collected in the U.S. Code; regulations adopted by administrative agencies empowered to do so by legislation; and judicial and agency decisions interpreting the statutes and regulations. The federal government consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

Because of the size and broad powers and capabilities of the United States federal government, it typically is referred to as the most powerful such government in the world and the sole remaining superpower. Given their great powers in the world and nation, the President of the United States and his White House-based aides and Cabinet officials often are referred to as the most powerful people in the world.


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.


Main article: President of the United States

The President of the United States is both the head of state and head of government, as well as the commander-in-chief of the military. 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 president may veto legislation passed by Congress; he may be impeached by a majority in the House and removed from office by a two-thirds majority in the Senate for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The president may not dissolve Congress or call special elections, but does have the power to pardon criminals convicted of federal offences (though not crimes against a state), give executive orders, and (with the consent of the Senate) appoint Supreme Court justices and federal judges.

Vice President

Main article: Vice President of the United States
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Cabinet and executive departments

The day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws is in the hands of the various federal 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 with the "advice and consent" of the U.S. 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.

United States Federal Executive Departments Flag of the United States
State | Treasury | Defense | Justice | Interior | Agriculture | Commerce | Labor | Health and Human Services | Housing and Urban Development | Transportation | Energy | Education | Veterans Affairs | Homeland Security

(Past departments: War | Navy | Post Office | Commerce and Labor | Health, Education, and Welfare)

White House staff

In addition, the President is advised and supported by several hundred White House political appointees, often referred to as the country's "best and brightest" because of the White House's history of attracting extremely capable and intelligent such appointees. All of these political employees serve at the pleasure of the President, which means they typically leave the White House when administrations change.

Judicial branch

Main article: United States federal courts

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 and the United States district courts.

With this guide, the first Congress divided the nation into judicial 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 bankruptcy courts are branches of the district courts, but technically are not considered part of the "Article III" judiciary because their judges are not appointed to serve during good behavior. Similarly, the tax court is not an Article III court.

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, and some direct appeals from administrative agencies. The Supreme Court of the United States hears appeals from the decisions of the courts of appeals or state supreme courts (on constitutional matters), as well as having original jurisdiction over a very small number of cases.

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". Usually they serve until they die, retire, or resign. 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 any judge—Congress could enact a new lower salary applying to future judges, but not to those already serving.

See also






Some agencies are legislative, some are executive, some are judicial.

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