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The U.S. government: Separation of powers

Can you name the three branches of the U.S. government? If you can’t, you’re not alone. In a recent survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 26 percent of people surveyed could name all three branches of government. We have put together a short refresher on the three branches of the U.S. government.

The Executive Branch

Who?

The Executive Branch is made up of the President of the United States, the Vice President, advisors to the President and other government department and agencies, such as the Department of Defense, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Social Security Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

What do they do?

  • The President enforces the laws that are created in the Legislative Branch.
    • The President can sign legislation into law and has the power to veto bills enacted by Congress (although Congress can override a veto with a two-thirds vote of both houses).
  • The Vice President oversees the Senate and can cast tie-breaking votes.
    • The Vice President is also responsible for temporarily replacing the President if something happens to the current one, such as their death or impeachment.
  • The cabinet and executive departments carry out the day-to-day functions of the government, such as enforcing laws created by legislation.

How are they elected?

  • The President and Vice President elections are not directly elected by the people but by “electors” for each state, these electors are also known as the Electoral College.
    • The number of Electoral College votes a state earns is based on the number of Representatives and Senators of each state.
    • The presidency and vice presidency is up for election every four years and is limited to two four-year terms.
  • Members of the President’s Cabinet are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
    • Cabinet members can be dismissed by the President at any time. Traditionally they resign when a new President takes office.

The Legislative Branch

Who?

The Legislative Branch is made up of Congress. Congress is broken into two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives. There are 100 senators, two from each state. The House of Representatives is currently made up of 435 representatives. Each state’s population determines the number of representatives. Some states have only one representative where others can have up to fifty. California, for example, has 53 representatives and Montana has only one.

What do they do?

Congress meets to make all laws, declare war, regulate interstate and foreign commerce, and to control taxing and spending policies. They also have the power to veto or reject the President’s bills and investigate suspected abuse of power conducted by the other branches.

How are they elected?

All congress members are elected by the eligible voters in the state they represent. Members of the House of Representatives are up for election every four years and Senators are up for election every six years.

The Judicial Branch

Who?

The Judicial Branch consists of the U.S. court system, the Supreme Court and other federal courts. The Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the United States and is made up of nine justices.

What do they do?

The Judicial Branch interprets laws, apply laws to cases and make sure that current laws are not violating the Constitution. A case needs to be tried and appealed in a Trial Court (both sides present case to a judge and jury) and Appellate Court (court reviews case without new testimony and there is no jury) before it can be presented and challenged in the Supreme Court.

How are they appointed?

The President nominates Supreme Court judges and then the nominees are confirmed by the Senate. The Justices retain their position until death, retirement or conviction. The only way that a Supreme Court judge can be removed is by impeachment from the House of Representatives.

Why does the U.S. have three branches of government?

The government is broken into three branches, Executive, Legislative and Judicial, to create a separation of power. This system is known as the system of “checks and balances” and is designed to help ensure that no single branch usurps too much power. While each branch can act independently, they are also responsible for monitoring one another to safeguard human rights.

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