Thursday, Oct. 19 - Civics - The Three Branches of Government

Objective: The federal and state governments both provide services to the people, but they have unique roles and responsibilities.

The men who created the Constitution did not trust governments with unlimited power, so they created three branches of government and the idea of checks and balances – each branch of the government is supposed to check the other branches and power is divided among them.


The Executive Branch

The executive branch enforces the laws passed by Congress. It is the president, the vice president and cabinet.

The president is the chief official of the executive branch, the head of the nation and the commander of the armed forces. The president is committed to run the executive office. Since 1789, the executive branch has evolved into 15 executive departments, 50 federal commissions and numerous agencies.

The Executive Office of the President assists the president with the day-to-day decisions. Staff advise on foreign policy, national security and other issues. Departments include agriculture, education, health, energy, commerce, etc. The heads of these departments make up the Cabinet. Federal commissions and agencies include the Federal Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Postal Service and the Peace Corps.

As commander in chief of the armed forces, the president can use the military to support foreign policy goals. As chief legislator, he proposes the budget and other legislation to congress.

The executive branch has the power to conduct war, sign treaties, nominate people for federal office, appoint judges and ambassadors and issue pardons. However, the president does not have unlimited power. For example, the Senate must approve or reject the president’s appointments.

The Constitution also gives the president power to veto or refuse a law drafted by congress. However, Congress can override a veto by passing the law with a 2/3 majority in both houses.


The Legislative Branch

Congress is the lawmaking body of the national government. It is bicameral – it has two houses – the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Senate has 100 members – two senators from each state. The House of Representatives has 435 members and the number of members from each state is determined by population. States divide their representation into districts and each district votes for the representatives.

The major duties of Congress are to past laws, represent what members think is best for their constituents, over see the workings of the federal government and help constituents solve problems with the federal government.

Congress has the power to tax and to spend the tax money. It can also regulate commerce between states and with other nations. Congress also shares military powers – the president must ask Congress to declare war and for the funds to fight the war. Congress also has the power to impeach (accuse a public official of misconduct) the president or federal judges.

Congress also makes the nations laws. For a bill to become law, it must pass in both the House and the Senate. A bill becomes law if signed by the President or if not signed within 10 days and Congress is in session. If Congress adjourns before the 10 days and the President has not signed the bill then it does not become law (known as a pocket veto). If the president rejects the law, Congress can override him with a 2/3 vote in both houses.


The Judicial Branch

The judiciary interprets the laws. It can decide conflicts between states or between individials in different states. This includes the Supreme Court and all federal courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court has 9 justices. The cases they hear greatly affect national policy, which is why the appointment of a justice creates so much national interest. The Supreme court can overturn acts of Congress and the president if it determines they violate the Constitution.

Congress and the president cannot throw out a ruling of the Supreme Court. They can rewrite a law the court said was unconstitutional or they can amend the constitution.

There is two ways to amend the Constitution.

An amendment can be passed by a 2/3 vote of both houses and then be ratified by ¾ of the state legislatures OR a constitutional convention can be called by Congress on petition of 2/3 of the 50 states. Then, ¾ of the states must pass the amendment.


State Government

Only states can set up town, city or county governments. State legislatures have the power to set up business corporations and regulate trade within a state. Only states can create a police force, establish schools and pass marriage laws. The Constitution does place federal law above state law.

The Constitution also allows the federal government and the states to make and enforce similar laws. For example, state regulate state elections and the federal government regulates presidential and congressional elections. State and the federal government can levy taxes. State have court systems to administer justice and a supreme court.

There are many similarities between the federal and state governments. States have constitutions and executive, legislative and judicial branches which also act as a system of checks and balances.

The state’s congressional branch can make the laws, borrow money and spend money. Nebraska is the only state with a one-house legislature. All the other states have two houses.

The governor is the chief executive of a state and the governors’ duties include proposing legislation, passing or vetoing legislation and they can ask for help fromm the national guard.

The purpose of a state’s judicial branch is to interpret and apply state laws – that includes trial courts, juvenile courts, municipal courts, etc.

The state government is more accessible to the average citizen. Citizens can write laws for the legislature to consider. They can also write referendums, which allows citizens to overturn laws.