Breaking it Down: The Branches of the U.S. Government


Breaking it Down: The Branches of the U.S. Government


Give Me the Bullets:

  • The United States government was formed in 1789
  • It’s divided into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial
  • The legislative is governed by Congress, and their main job is to uphold the U.S. Constitution
  • The executive is the President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States and the Cabinet
  • The judicial branch is made up of the courts, including the Supreme Court

 The Basics

The U.S. government is a complicated thing (yes, even more complicated than their election process). Every branch has power, but not too much power, so they need buy-in from all levels to make any real changes. Congress can create laws, but they need support from the President (who can veto any law with his executive power), but if Congress gets a two-thirds majority vote, they can override that veto. (This only happened once during Obama’s presidency, and it was for the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which became law on September 28, 2016.)
The Supreme Court also has the power to overturn any laws that Congress passes, if the Court deems them “unconstitutional.” Basically, in order to get sh*&t done in the American government, all branches need to get along, which almost never happens. Go figure.

Speaking of the Supreme Court…

The same power balance comes into play with the Supreme Court. The President can nominate a judge for the Supreme Court (if/when there’s a vacancy), but the Senate has to approve this nomination.

The United States Congress is made up of two groups: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

These two groups work together to create new laws and amend existing laws.

The Senate

The Senate gets a say on pretty much everything, from what’s happening on American soil to any issues overseas. There are 100 Senators: two per state and they serve staggered six-year terms. Because the terms are staggered, one-third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years. (Fun fact: Senators weren’t voted in by the public until 1913.)
Becoming a U.S. Senator is no easy feat: you must be at least 30 years old; you must have been a resident of the United States for the previous nine years; and you have to live in the state you’re representing at the time of the election.
A party becomes the majority party when they control most of the seats in the Senate. Because the VP is considered the president of the Senate, if the parties are tied, the VP gets the tie-breaking vote.
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And the House of Representatives?

The House of Representatives is also made up of state officials, but unlike the Senate, the number of seats each state gets is based on population (for example, California gets 53 and Nebraska gets three). There are 435 voting representatives and six non-voting representatives (the non-voters can weigh in on issues and vote on committees but can’t vote on the floor).
The House pretty much does the same thing as the Senate, with three major differences: i) the House has the power to initiate revenue bills (tax changes) ii) they can impeach government officials (who are then tried in the Senate) and iii) if none of the candidates reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, this House elects the president. The House’s head honcho (a.k.a. Speaker of the House) is elected by the House of Representatives, which means whoever has more officials (Democrats vs. Republicans) usually gets their man—or woman—the job. If you hear someone being called a “congressman” or “congresswoman,” it means they’re part of this crew.
As of November 8, 2016, there are 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats in the House of Representatives. It’s been hard for Obama to get a whole lot done over the past eight years since his party holds the minority (and as we’ve learned, the prez can’t really do much without the support of Congress).
ICYMI: Paul Ryan (a Republican) is the Speaker of the House and is expected to retain this position in Trump’s administration. Nancy Pelosi (a Democrat) is the Minority Leader of the House and is also expected to keep her role.
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How Much Power Does the President Really Have?

The good news? Not that much. With Trump about to take over, this is the question on everyone’s mind. While POTUS is the commander of the Armed Forces and does have some executive powers, almost all the President’s decisions, suggestions and nominations have to be approved by Congress. (Even those jackals Trump has offered cabinet positions to won’t get the gig if Congress doesn’t approve their appointments.) One of the most popular terms thrown around when it comes to a POTUS and his power is “executive order.” In theory, this is a policy change or decision that the President can make on his own, but it is subject to review by the judicial system and can be reversed if they believe the order goes against the Constitution.
Obama has signed 260 executive orders over the past eight years, fewer than both former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. One of his most famous executive orders was signed in 2014, which protects LGBT employees from federal workplace discrimination.

Why is Everyone Talking About the Supreme Court?

Let’s be straight, the buck really stops with the Supreme Court of the United States. Their job is to interpret the Constitution, and rule on any issues American society takes with it. It’s the highest court in the country, and historically, has made some pretty big decisions ranging from legalizing abortion to desegregating public schools. Justices preside over the court, including one Chief Justice and eight associate justices; four tend to vote conservative, four tend to vote liberal. Generally, conservative judges tend to read the Constitution more literally, whereas a liberal judge aims to apply the Constitution in context to modern society. Each one is nominated by the President for a life term, and must be confirmed by the Senate. There’s currently one vacancy, but the mostly Republican Congress has been blocking Obama’s nomination, hoping someone who’s more their style would win the presidency in 2016. And now, since Trump’s about to take over, the public’s pretty worried about who he’ll appoint­—and it’s not only the one vacancy they’re worried about. With two justices over the age of 80 (we see you Ruth Bader Ginsburg), he’ll probably be responsible for filling two more spots over the next four years (provided he makes it that long).

For more info on the U.S. Government: