The system of US government


The American Constitution is based on the doctrine of the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary. The respective government institutions — the Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court and other federal courts — were given limited and specific powers. A series of checks and balances, whereby each branch of government has certain authority over the others, were also included to make sure these powers were not abused. Government power was further limited by means of a dual system of government, in which the federal government was only given the powers and responsibilities to deal with problems facing the nation as a whole (foreign affairs, trade, control of the army and navy, etc.). The remaining responsibilities and duties of government were reserved to the individual State governments.

The System of Checks

Executive Branch

May check the Judicial Branch by
- Granting pardons to those who are convicted of federal crimes

May check Congress by
-Vetoing bills passed by Congress
-Sending messages to Congress
-Appealing to the people

Legislative Branch

May check the President by
-Impeaching the President
-Overriding a veto
-Refusing to approve presidential appointments
-Approving or failing to approve treaties

May check the Judicial Branch by
-Impeaching judges
-Changing the number of justices on the Supreme Court
-Proposing an amendment to the Constitution if the
-Supreme Court finds a law unconstitutional

The Judicial Branch

Supreme Court:
May check the President by
-Interpreting laws and treaties
-Ruling that laws and executive acts are unconstitutional

May check Congress by
-Interpreting laws and treaties
-Declaring laws unconstitutional


The President (any natural-born citizen over 34) is elected for a term of four years and can only be re-elected for one more term (according to the Twenty Second Amendment, adopted after Franklin D. Roosevelt's four successive terms).

The President was originally intended to be little more than a ceremonial Head of State, as well as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, but the Federal Government's increasing involvement in the Nation's economic life and its prominent role in international affairs, where secrecy and speed are often essential, has increased the importance of the Presidency over Congress.

The President now proposes a full legislative program to Congress, although the President, the Cabinet and staff are not, and cannot be, members of Congress. This means that the various bills must be introduced into the House of Representatives or Senate by their members. The President is consequently completely powerless when faced by an uncooperative Congress. Given also the difficulties in ensuring that the laws passed are effectively implemented by the federal bureaucracy, it has been said that the President's only real power is the power to persuade.

The President is assisted by the members of the Cabinet who administer 11 major departments: State, Defense, Justice, Treasury, Commerce, Labor, Health, Education and Welfare, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Agriculture and Transportation. Though they rank as the President's chief advisers, in recent decades members of President's administration have generally more influence on him.

The role of the Vice President is not very well defined by the Constitution, which gives him or her no other task than presiding over the debates in the Senate, where he may only vote in the case of a tie. Yet the Vice President takes over from the President in case of death, resignation, or sickness, which has already happened on eight occasions. To try and attract able men to this otherwise unimportant, mainly ceremonial post, Vice Presidents have recently been given more important tasks, especially in foreign affairs.

The residence of the Administration is the White House.

Inaugurations of Presidents and Vice Presidents take place on January 20 of every year following a national election. These ceremonies are held on a platform erected over the great steps on the East front of the Capitol Building. The oath of office is administered by the Chief Justice of the United States.


The symbol of government is the white marble dome of the Capitol which dominates the city of Washington, D. С The building has grown with the country: although George Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793, the dome was not finished until 1863, and many changes have since been made. Home to both House and Senate, the Capitol was once hailed as "the center and heart of America".


The legislative branch of national government, Congress, consists of two houses — the Senate and the House of Representatives, each with a different role, different powers and a different electoral procedure.

The two branches of Congress are responsible for enacting the nation's laws. Though these days most major bills originate in the White House, all must be approved, disapproved, or amended by both Houses, and no measure becomes law until it has been passed by a majority in each House. The President may then sign of veto the bill, but a two-thirds vote in each House can override a veto.

Although Congress can legislate, its most important task has become that of scrutinizing the policies and actions of the executive, and upholding the interests of States and districts. Indeed, since Representatives and Senators depend on the voters in their various States or constituencies for re-election, they tend to satisfy the particular interests of constituents and special groups rather than tackle the problems of the nation as a whole. Congress also controls the nation's finances and its permanent specialist staff helps Congress to consider and change the budget presented each year by the President.

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives is the dynamic institution of the federal government. The States are represented on a population basis and are divided into congressional districts or constituencies of roughly equal size (around 520,000 people). There are currently 435 members, who are elected every two years. All States must by law adopt the system of single-member constituencies with a simple majority vote. Vacancies arising from death, resignation, etc., are filled by by-elections.

The chairmen of the House of Representatives, the Speaker, is elected by the House and has important responsibilities, giving him considerable influence over the President. Moreover, should the President and Vice President die before the end of their terms, it is the Speaker who becomes President.

The Senate

The Senate is the conservative counterweight to the more populist House of Representatives. Each State has two senators who, since 1913 (the Seventeenth Amendment) have been chosen directly by the electorate in the way decided by the state legislature in each state. Senators are elected every six years, but the elections are staggered so that one-third of the Senate is elected every two years. A vacancy caused by death or resignation is filled until the next congressional elections by the nomination of the State Governor. There are currently 100 senators. The Senate has the special privilege of unlimited debate to safeguard the rights of minorities, but this can enable a small group of Senators to prevent the passage of a bill (filibustering).


The Supreme Court stands at the apex of the Nation's Federal Judiciary system and hears cases on appeal from lower courts — the Federal District Courts and the US Courts of Appeals.

There are eight Associate Justices and the Chief Justice in the Supreme Court, and Congress may alter this number. All these High Court judges are nominated for life by the President after being approved by the Senate.

Though the primary function of the Supreme Court is to decide matters of law, rather than fact, the High Court's power to declare acts of the President, Congress, State legislatures, and city councils unconstitutional can drastically alter the nation's practices, as when the Supreme Court branded school segregation unconstitutional in 1954. So, although not explicitly given the power to decide whether the actions of the branches of government violate the Constitution, this is the important role that the Supreme Court has developed in the legal system.

In the federal system there are 90 District Courts (presided over by a district judge), which hear criminal cases involving breaches of federal law and civil cases on federal matters (disputes between States, non-payment of federal taxes, etc.).

Appeals can be made to the United States Court of Appeals, where an appeal is heard by three judges, although in very important cases all nine appeal judges sit together. In the vast majority of cases this court's decision is final and sets a precedent for future cases, although this precedent is not always binding on the Supreme Court.


State Government

There is very little in the Constitution about State government — the Tenth Amendment (1791) merely says that those powers not specially delegated to the federal government are reserved for States. While the fifty State constitutions differ widely, they all include the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances, and share the underlying American belief that government should be kept to a minimum.

Each State has a Governor, a Legislature and a State Judiciary. This means that each State parallels the governmental forms of the Federal system.

The Governor is elected directly in a state-wide election. All the states except Nebraska have bicameral legislatures, normally called the Senate and House of Representatives.

The judicial systems of the States vary greatly in structure and procedures. Generally speaking, however, at the lowest level there are Courts, which deal with the majority of civil and criminal cases. Appeals go to the District Court of Appeals, while the State Supreme Court has the same role as the United States Supreme Court in the federal system.

All States have the right to levy taxes; and many services — such as education, health, welfare, and police — are supported either entirely or in large measure by State, rather than Federal, funds. The sovereignty of State governments has, however, been steadily eroded. Functions such as education, unemployment relief, public works, and the like — once considered entirely within State jurisdiction — are now matters of Federal concern as well.

County and City Governments

These governments are solely the creations of the States, and the powers of such jurisdictions vary greatly from one State to the next. In Connecticut, for example, there are no county governments, while next door in New York, some counties, such as Nassau, have significant powers of taxation.

The same is true for city governments, all of which derive their powers from the States. In some States the power of city governments to tax, to educate, and to operate broad-scale social services is great, while in other States the cities are virtually impotent in many areas. But, as befits American system, the balance can always be shifted.