We give people the rights to assign others who ensure that we are protected from other outside entities and, on a daily basis that the U.S. government is going to protect our rights as individuals. This means we can hold meetings and express opinions, choose the friends and organizations we want to belong to and protect our family and property, among other entitlements.
We want the right to vote for what we believe in and we want to be able to ask the government to change laws we feel are unfair. The U.S. Constitution, an important, historical document that describes and places limits on the power of the national government, provides these rights. In another respect, the Constitution gives the national government the power to raise an army (a military force) to defend us, the ability to collect taxes and the authority to make economic rules.
Three Great Powers
Within the federal government are the three great powers: the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches. The Legislative branch is administered by our United States Congress, which enacts laws setting forth the various federal crimes and punishments. The Executive branch of the federal government is responsible for enforcing federal laws, prosecuting cases and supervising punishments. The Judicial branch is made up of the federal courts, which help to interpret the laws by deciding particular cases.
The Executive Branch
The Chief Executive officer of the United States of American is the president. He (or she) is known around the world as the leader and head of the U.S. government.
The Constitution spelled out powers for him such as being the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and other special military services). In this respect, he is able to create treaties with other countries. Treaties can also be about the sale of goods between countries.
Every year, the president addresses Congress and the nation to advise how we are doing. This is referred to as the State of the Union address and it is always broadcasted on TV, radio and other media so the people can stay informed.
The President can also form special committees to perform special jobs for the common good. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for example makes sure our food meets certain qualities and remains safe for consumption.
You know that men and women are elected by voting to go to Congress and represent the people. Congress is made up of two coequal chambers: The U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. There are 100 Senators, two from each state, and 435 Congressmen. They make up the Legislative branch and have the responsibility of making and passing laws so the nation runs smoothly and fairly. Congress also has the powers of the purse, as the ability to spend and tax.
Judges and justices serve on the Supreme Court—the highest court in the land—and in special federal district courts. The president can appoint a justice, but the Senate must approve each appointment.
The Constitution says that the Judicial branch can do things the other two branches cannot, such as interpret the law to make sure that what Congress proposes is in agreement with the Constitution.
Federal courts hear cases when the U.S. Government sues someone or is being sued. They also decide cases when there is a disagreement between two states, such as one state claiming another is polluting their air.
If people do not like a decision made in a district court, they can appeal their case to one of the 12 courts of appeals. If they are still unsatisfied with that decision, the case can be argued for consideration with the “court of last resort," the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
Separation of Powers
The three branches, Legislative, Executive and Judicial, have what is called the principle of separation of powers. This means that each branch of government must rely on the other for approval, so that no one power can make decisions without the other.
Just to illustrate this tit-for-tat concept, the Legislative branch makes laws, the Executive branch enforces those laws and the Judicial branch interprets those laws. If Congress writes a law, the Supreme Court can declare it unconstitutional. Congress can also rewrite legislation to circumvent the Court’s decisions and the Senate confirms the judges and determines the number of judges appointed.
In other words, they all have a way to oversee, alter and compromise the other chambers’ powers, so no one branch can be a bully. They may use the “bully pulpit" (a conspicuous place to speak out) in order to make a point, but they cannot force an unpopular idea without the aid and compromise of the others.
The President of the United States has powers such as the ability to can nominate federal judges, refuse to enforce the Court’s decisions and grant pardons. Congress can override a presidential veto of its legislation or remove and impeach a president and the Senate confirms presidential appointments. the Supreme Court can declare presidential actions unconstitutional. That is separation of powers!
Purpose of the Separation of Powers
The Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution wanted to create a document that made sure the government did not have too much power. They felt that if they spread the power among three separate branches of government, they would work together to govern the country so no one branch would have more control than the others would. This is a system commonly referred to as checks and balances.
Did You Know?
- If the president dies, the vice president takes the position.
- Congress is the only branch of the government with the power to suggest amendments or formal changes to the Constitution.
- A Supreme Court justice is appointed for life.
- Campbell, Andrea. Legal Ease: A Guide to Criminal Law, Evidence and Procedure 3rd edition. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publishers, 2012. Book.
- Feinberg, Barbara Silberdick. The National Government. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993. Book.
- U.S. House of Representatives: Power Of The Purse
- Image Source: Great Seal of the United States – By U.S. Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- U.S. Constitution Online: Check And Balances Spelled Out
- Founding Fathers: Delegates to the Constitutional Convention
- Library of Congress: Primary Historical Documents In American History
- Giesecke, Ernestine. National Government. Chicago, IL: Heinemann Library, 2010. Book.
- Union County College: Make Up Of Congress
- Federal Register: Food And Drug Administration
- About the Supreme Court
- Cornell University Law School: U.S. Constitution And Its Meaning