Before we describe the branches of government, it’s necessary to explain the purpose behind why these were created. To answer this question one must understand the purpose of the United States Constitution, which is to limit the power of government.
By establishing three branches of government, independent of one another and with the ability to check the power of the other, no individual, group, or faction would be able to wield too much power.
The Executive Branch
The purpose of the executive branch is to make sure the laws of the United States are carried out.
Article II, section 1 of the Constitution states, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years,” in effect establishing the executive branch of the United States government and the office of the president of the United States.
Although the president and vice president are the only two officials named in Article II, the president’s cabinet and federal agencies are also part of the executive branch.
Article II, section 2 states that the president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States.”
The president’s cabinet consists of the following offices:
- The Secretary of State
- The Secretary of Defense
- The Secretary of the Treasury
- The Attorney General
- Secretary of the Interior
- Secretary of Agriculture
- Secretary of Commerce
- Secretary of Labor
- Secretary of Commerce
- Secretary of Labor
- Secretary of Health and Human Services
- Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
- Secretary of Transportation
- Secretary of Education
- Secretary of Energy
- Secretary of Veterans Affairs
- Secretary of Homeland Security
The executive branch is authorized to do the following:
- The president is commander-in-chief of the United States military.
- The president can grant pardons.
- With the consent of 2/3 of the Senate, the president can approve treaties.
- The president, with the consent of Congress, may appoint ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, and Supreme Court Justices.
The Legislative Branch
The purpose of the legislative branch is to make laws.
Article I, section 1 of the Constitution states, "All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives."
There are two senators from each state, elected every six years. The number of representatives per state in the House of Representatives is based on population. Representatives are up for election every two years. The legislature has the following powers:
- Lay and collect taxes and duties to pay debts, provide for the common defence, and general welfare of the United States.
- Borrow money on the credit of the United States.
- Regulate commerce with foreign nations and between states.
- Establish uniform laws of naturalization and bankruptcy.
- Coin money.
- Establish post offices and post roads.
- Promote science and art.
- Establish lower courts.
- Declare war.
- Raise and support armies and navies.
- Suppress insurrections and repel invasions.
- Make necessary and proper laws to carry out the purpose of the Constitution.
Congress cannot, according to the Constitution, do the following:
- Suspend writs of habeus corpus.
- Pass any ex post facto laws or bills of attainder.
- Favor one state over another.
- Draw money from the Treasury arbitrarily.
- Grant titles of nobility.
The Judicial Branch
The purpose of the judicial branch is to make sure laws are carried out properly and that laws abide by the Constitution.
Article III, section 1 of the Constitution states, "The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior."
The Constitution sets forth the following in regards to the judicial branch:
- The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in cases involving ambassadors and those in which a state is a party.
- The Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction in all other cases.
- The trial of all crimes shall be trial by jury.
- All criminal trials must take place in the state committed.
- A conviction for treason can only occur if at least two witnesses testify to the same overt act or if the accused makes an open confession in court.
One’s understanding of the judicial branch is incomplete without understanding judicial review, the authority of the judiciary to declare a law unconstitutional.
Although judicial review is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, many scholars argue that the structure of the federal government and the three branches of government imply and establish the need for judicial review.
Other scholars argue that judicial review upsets the system of checks and balances by giving too much power to one branch of government.
Marbury v. Madison
Justice John Marshall established judicial review in 1803, declaring Thomas Jefferson’s refusal to grant William Marbury’s receiving his justice of the peace appointment, granted by prior president John Adams.
Purposes of Judicial Review
According to the Judicial Review Website, the three functions of judicial review are:
- to strike down erroneous decisions by lower courts.
- to monitor the performance of lower courts.
- to examine controversial laws.
Now that you have a general understanding of the three branches of government, you'll be better equipped to make sense of your world.
Images courtesy of wikimedia commons
This post is part of the series: U.S. Constitutional Concepts Explained
- Laws Regarding Overriding the Presidential Veto
- The Three Branches of US Government
- History of Electoral Votes and How They Work