The U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1788, created the basic framework for the federal government. To prevent any individual or group from acquiring too much power and thereby threatening the people's basic liberties, the Constitution separated the government into three branches:
For a greater understanding of how the U.S. government is organized and functions, check out the media materials below.
The executive branch, which is led by the president, was established by Article II of the Constitution. The president serves for 4 years and is limited to 2 terms. In contrast to members of Congress, who are elected directly by the voters, the president is elected via the Electoral College, which is described later in this guide.
The president is the nation's chief executive. In this capacity the president signs bills into law, after which the executive branch administers and enforces them. Alternatively, the president can veto bills. The president also functions as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Finally, Article II empowers the president to appoint ambassadors, nominate federal judges, and sign treaties, with "the Advice and Consent of the Senate."
The president is supported by the Cabinet, which is comprised of 15 department heads plus the vice president. Well-known departments include the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Department of Justice. The most recently created department is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was established in 2003 following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
To learn more about the nature and history of the executive branch, click on the links below.
The U.S. Congress was established by Article I of the Constitution. The Constitution awarded the Congress the exclusive power to draft and pass laws and to declare war. The Congress is a bicameral institution, meaning it is composed of two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Members of both houses are elected by voters in each state.
Representation in the House is based on state population. Members serve for 2 years. There are currently 435 members. State delegations range from 53 for California to 1 for several small states such as Vermont and Alaska.
The Senate is comprised of 2 members from each state who serve for 6 years. In addition to general legislative powers, senators ratify treaties, approve presidential nominations for various government positions, and conduct trials for presidents who have been impeached by the House. The Constitution originally provided for senators to be elected by the state legislatures. In 1913, however, the nation ratified the 17th Amendment, which established that senators be elected directly by popular vote.
For more detailed information on the Congress, click on the links below. You can also watch a video that explains how a bill becomes a law.
The federal judicial system was established by Article III of the Constitution, which created the Supreme Court and empowered Congress to create "inferior Courts." Today the federal court system is comprised of three levels: 94 U.S. District Courts, 13 U.S. Courts of Appeal, and the Supreme Court. Federal judges are nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. They then serve until death or retirement.
The federal courts are the only judicial entities that have the power to determine whether laws are constitutional. The ultimate judicial power resides with the Supreme Court. The other federal courts must abide by Supreme Court rulings. The Supreme Court generally consists of 9 judges, one of whom, the chief justice, is the presiding member. Many--but not all--Supreme Court justices previously served on the lower federal courts.
The current Supreme Court has functioned with 8 justices since the unexpected death of Antonin Scalia in February 2016. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland of the Court of Appeals to replace him, but Senate Republicans refuse to consider any candidate until after the 2016 elections.
Click on the links below to learn more about the federal courts.
The federal bureaucracy consists of the 15 Cabinet departments plus more than 2,000 agencies, which together employ more than 2.7 million people. Its role is to carry out the functions of the federal government. The Cabinet departments are elements of the executive branch, and they ultimately report to the president. Other agencies generally are created by acts of Congress, and they enjoy various degrees of independence. Given the vast size and scope of the current bureaucracy, it is sometimes referred to as the "fourth branch" of the government.
Click on the links below to learn more about the federal bureaucracy.
The original vision of the U.S. government did not include political parties. Parties are not mentioned in the Constitution, and George Washington cautioned against "the common & continual mischiefs of the spirit of Party."
Nevertheless, two major political parties had emerged by the end of the Washington presidency, focused around two prominent members of the original Cabinet: Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The two-party system has continued to dominate U.S. politics throughout most of our history.
Since the 1850s, the dominant parties have been the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. Over the years the parties' philosophies and bases of support have shifted in many ways. Today, the Democratic Party tends to be more liberal, focusing on issues such as the rights of women and minorities, greater spending on social welfare and education, and government regulations to protect the environment. In contrast, the Republican Party is more conservative, advocating less economic regulation, greater privatization, and lower taxes.
Click on the links below for more detailed information on the history and current configuration of U.S. political parties. In addition, the next page contains boxes highlighting the 2016 Democratic and Republican party platforms.