The U.S. federal government was formed in the eighteenth century and is considered to be the first modern national federation in the world.[1] Even so, the details of American federalism have been debated since the establishment and ordination of the Constitution, with some parties arguing for expansive national powers, while others have interpreted the Constitution's enumeration of the national government's powers literally.

Since the U.S. Civil War, the powers of the Federal Government have generally expanded greatly, although there have been periods when states' rights proponents have succeeded in limiting federal power through legislative action, executive prerogative or by constitutional interpretation of the courts.[2][3]

The seat of the Federal Government is in Washington, D.C. This has led to "Washington" commonly being used as a metonym for the federal government.

The Legislative Branch[]

Seal of the United States Congress.svg

Congress is the legislative branch of the Federal Government. It is bicameral, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives consists of 435 voting members, each of whom represents a congressional district and serves for a two-year term. In addition to the 435 voting members, there are five non-voting members, consisting of four delegates and one resident commissioner. There is one delegate each from the District of Columbia, Guam, Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, and the resident commissioner is from Puerto Rico.[4] House seats are apportioned among the states by population; in contrast, each state has two senators, regardless of population. There are a total of 100 senators (as there are currently 50 states), who serve six-year terms (one third of the Senate stands for election every two years). Each congressional chamber (House or Senate) has particular exclusive powers—the Senate must give "advice and consent" to many important Presidential appointments, and the House must introduce any bills for the purpose of raising revenue. The consent of both chambers is required to pass any legislation, which then may only become law by being signed by the President; if the President vetoes such legislation, however, both houses of Congress must then re-pass the legislation, but by a two-thirds majority of each chamber, in order to make such legislation law without the need for the President's signature. The powers of Congress are limited to those enumerated in the Constitution; all other powers are reserved to the states and the people. The Constitution also includes the "Necessary and Proper Clause", which grants Congress the power to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers." Members of the House and Senate are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisiana and Washington, which have runoffs.

Article I, Section 2, paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives each chamber the power to "determine the rules of its proceedings." From this provision were created congressional committees, which do the work of drafting legislation and conducting congressional investigations into national matters. The 108th Congress (2003–2005) had 19 standing committees in the House and 17 in the Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both houses overseeing the Library of Congress, printing, taxation, and the economy. In addition, each house may name special, or select, committees to study specific problems. Today, much of the congressional workload is borne by subcommittees, of which there are some 150.

Powers of Congress[]

The United States Capitol is the seat of government for Congress.

The Constitution grants numerous powers to Congress. Enumerated in Article I, Section 8, these include the powers to levy and collect taxes; to coin money and regulate its value; provide for punishment for counterfeiting; establish post offices and roads, promote progress of science by issuing patents, create federal courts inferior to the Supreme Court, define and punish piracies and felonies, declare war, raise and support armies, provide and maintain a navy, make rules for the regulation of land and naval forces, provide for, arm, and discipline the militia, exercise exclusive legislation in the District of Columbia, and to make laws necessary to properly execute these powers.

Congressional oversight[]

Congressional oversight is intended to prevent waste and fraud, protect civil liberties and individual rights, ensure executive compliance with the law, gather information for making laws and educating the public, and evaluate executive performance.[5]

It applies to cabinet departments, executive agencies, regulatory commissions, and the presidency. Congress's oversight function takes many forms:

  • Committee inquiries and hearings
  • Formal consultations with and reports from the President
  • Senate advice and consent for presidential nominations and for treaties
  • House impeachment proceedings and subsequent Senate trials
  • House and Senate proceedings under the 25th Amendment in the event that the President becomes disabled or the office of the Vice President falls vacant.
  • Informal meetings between legislators and executive officials
  • Congressional membership: each state is allocated a number of seats based on its representation (or ostensible representation, in the case of D.C.) in the House of Representatives. Each state is allocated two Senators regardless of its population. As of January 2010, the District of Columbia elects a non-voting representative to the House of Representatives along with American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Executive branch[]

The executive power in the Federal Government is vested in the President of the United States,[6] although power is often delegated to the Cabinet members and other officials.[7][8] The President and Vice President are elected as running mates by the Electoral College, for which each state, as well as the District of Columbia, is allocated a number of seats based on its representation (or ostensible representation, in the case of D.C.) in both houses of Congress.[6][9] The President is limited to a maximum of two[10] four-year terms[6].


Seal of the President of the United States.svg

The executive branch consists of the President and delegates. The President is both the head of state and government, as well as the military commander-in-chief and chief diplomat. The President, according to the Constitution, must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed", and "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution". The President presides over the executive branch of the Federal Government, a vast organization numbering about 4 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel. The forty-fourth and current president is Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States.

The President may sign legislation passed by Congress into law or may veto it, preventing it from becoming law unless two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to override the veto. The President may, with the consent of two-thirds of the Senate, make treaties with foreign nations. The President may be impeached by a majority in the House and removed from office by a two-thirds majority in the Senate for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors". The President may not dissolve Congress or call special elections but does have the power to pardon, or release, criminals convicted of offenses against the Federal Government (except in cases of impeachment), enact executive orders, and (with the consent of the Senate) appoint Supreme Court justices and federal judges.

Vice President[]

Seal of the Vice President of the United States.svg

The Vice President is the second-highest executive official of the government. As first in the U.S. presidential line of succession, the Vice President becomes President upon the death, resignation, or removal of the President, which has happened nine times in U.S. history. Under the Constitution, the Vice President is President of the Senate. By virtue of this role, he or she is the nominal head of the Senate. In that capacity, the Vice President is allowed to vote in the Senate, but only when necessary to break a tied vote. Pursuant to the Twelfth Amendment, the Vice President presides over the joint session of Congress when it convenes to count the vote of the Electoral College. While the Vice President's only constitutionally prescribed functions, aside from presidential succession, relate to his role as President of the Senate, the office is now commonly viewed as a member of the executive branch of the Federal Government. The U.S. Constitution does not expressly assign the office to any one branch, causing scholars to dispute whether it belongs to the executive branch, the legislative branch, or both.[11][12]

Secretary of State[]

Department of state.svg

The Secretary of State is the Chief Executive Officer of the United States Department of State, the most senior of all federal executive departments. The Secretary of State is the third-highest official of the executive branch of the Federal Government of the United States, after the President and Vice President. The Secretary is a member of the President's Cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in the presidential line of succession and order of precedence. The Secretary has many duties and responsibilities. The Secretary serves as the President's chief adviser on U.S. foreign policy and as such negotiates, interprets, and terminates treaties and agreements, personally participates in or directs U.S. representatives to international conferences, organizations, and agencies, conducts negotiations relating to U.S. foreign affairs, and is responsible for the administration and management of foreign embassies and consulate offices. Foreign trade missions and intelligence assets report directly to the Secretary of State. The Secretary is also responsible for overall direction, coordination, and supervision of interdepartmental activities of the U.S. Government overseas. The Secretary answers directly to the President of the United States.

Attorney General of the United States[]


The office of Attorney General was established by Congress by the Judiciary Act of 1789. The original duties of this officer were "to prosecute and conduct all suits in the Supreme Court in which the United States shall be concerned, and to give his advice and opinion upon questions of law when required by the President of the United States, or when requested by the heads of any of the departments."[13] Only in 1870 was the Department of Justice established to support the Attorney General in the discharge of his responsibilities. The United States Attorney General is now the head of the United States Department of Justice (see 28 U.S.C. § 503) concerned with legal affairs and is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States Government. The Attorney General is considered to be the chief lawyer of the People of the United States of America, not only the U.S. government, nor simply of the Executive Branch. The Attorney General serves as a member of the President's Cabinet, but is the only department head who is not given the title Secretary.

To assist the Attorney General in carrying out justice in the 94 jurisdictions of the United States district court system; he/she is in charge of the United States Marshal Service, including each U.S. Marshal of the 94 Districts; and the 93 United States Attorneys encompassing 94 offices (as Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands has a single U.S. Attorney for both districts). In the Supreme Court of the United States, the Solicitor General of the United States carries out the duties first entrusted to the office. To carry out the general duties of enforcement of laws concerning federal crimes and to investigate the commission of crimes where United States Citizens, officials, property or interests are concerned, domestically or abroad, the Federal Bureau of Investigation acts on the Attorney General's behalf.

The Attorney General is nominated by the President of the United States and takes office after confirmation by the United States Senate. He or she serves at the pleasure of the President and can be removed by the President at any time; the Attorney General is also subject to impeachment by the House of Representatives and trial in the Senate for "treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors."

Cabinet, executive departments, and agencies[]

The day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws is in the hands of the various federal executive departments, created by Congress to deal with specific areas of national and international affairs. The heads of the 15 departments, chosen by the President and approved with the "advice and consent" of the U.S. Senate, form a council of advisers generally known as the President's "Cabinet". In addition to departments, there are a number of staff organizations grouped into the Executive Office of the President. These include the White House staff, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The employees in these United States government agencies are called federal civil servants.

There are also independent agencies such as the United States Postal Service, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Agency for International Development. In addition, there are government-owned corporations such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the National Railroad Passenger Corporation.

Judicial branch[]

Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal court system as proscribed by Congressional law. The court deals with matters pertaining to the Federal Government, disputes between states, and interpretation of the United States Constitution, and can declare legislation or executive action made at any level of the government as unconstitutional, nullifying the law and creating precedent for future law and decisions. (It should be noted that the United States Constitution does not state explicitly that the judicial branch has the power to declare Congressional laws or executive branch actions as unconstitutional, but only asserted by Chief Justice Marshall during his tenure. There have been instances in the past where such declarations have been ignored by the other two branches.) Below the Supreme Court are the courts of appeals, and below them in turn are the district courts, which are the general trial courts for federal law.

Separate from, but not entirely independent of, this federal court system are the individual court systems of each state, each dealing with its own laws and having its own court rules and procedures.

The supreme court of each state is the final authority on the interpretation of that state's laws and constitution. A case may be appealed from a state court to the U.S. Supreme Court only if there is a federal question (an issue arising under the U.S. Constitution, or laws/treaties of the United States). The relationship between federal and state laws is extremely complex and confusing as a result of the unique nature of American federalism. For example, a state supreme court is bound only by the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of federal law, but is not bound by interpretation of federal law by the federal court of appeals for the circuit in which the state sits, or even the federal district courts located in the state. Conversely, a federal district court hearing a matter involving only a question of state law (usually through diversity jurisdiction) must apply the substantive law of the state in which the court sits, as if the federal court were a court of that state (but at the same time, the case is heard under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure instead of local rules, which may be quite different). Together the laws of the federal and state governments form U.S. law.

The federal judiciary consists of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose justices are appointed for life by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and various "lower" or "inferior courts," among which are the courts of appeals and district courts.

The first Congress divided the nation into judicial districts and created federal courts for each district. From that beginning has evolved the present structure: the Supreme Court, 13 courts of appeals, 94 district courts, and two courts of special jurisdiction. Congress retains the power to create and abolish federal courts, as well as to determine the number of judges in the federal judiciary system. It cannot, however, abolish the Supreme Court.

There are three levels of federal courts with general jurisdiction, meaning that these courts handle criminal cases and civil law suits between individuals. The other courts, such as the bankruptcy courts and the tax court, are specialized courts handling only certain kinds of cases. The bankruptcy courts are branches of the district courts, but technically are not considered part of the "Article III" judiciary because their judges do not have lifetime tenure. Similarly, the tax court is not an Article III court.

The U.S. district courts are the "trial courts" where cases are filed and decided. The United States courts of appeals are "appellate courts" that hear appeals of cases decided by the district courts, and some direct appeals from administrative agencies. The Supreme Court hears appeals from the decisions of the courts of appeals or state supreme courts (on constitutional matters), as well as having original jurisdiction over a very small number of cases.

The judicial power extends to cases arising under the Constitution, an Act of Congress, or a U.S. treaty; cases affecting ambassadors, ministers, and consuls of foreign countries in the U.S.; controversies in which the U.S. government is a party; controversies between states (or their citizens) and foreign nations (or their citizens or subjects); and bankruptcy cases. The Eleventh Amendment removed from federal jurisdiction cases in which citizens of one state were the plaintiffs and the government of another state was the defendant. It did not disturb federal jurisdiction in cases in which a state government is a plaintiff and a citizen of another state the defendant.

The power of the federal courts extends both to civil actions for damages and other redress, and to criminal cases arising under federal law. Article III has resulted in a complex set of relationships between state and federal courts. Federal courts can sometimes hear cases arising under state law pursuant to diversity jurisdiction, state courts can decide certain matters involving federal law, and a handful of federal claims are primarily reserved to the state courts (for example, those arising from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991). Both court systems thus have exclusive jurisdiction in some areas and concurrent jurisdiction in others.

The Constitution safeguards judicial independence by providing that federal judges shall hold office "during good behaviour"; in practice, this usually means they serve until they die, retire, or resign. A judge who commits an offence while in office may be impeached in the same way as the President or other officials of the Federal Government. U.S. judges are appointed by the President, subject to confirmation by the Senate. Another Constitutional provision prohibits Congress from reducing the pay of any judge. Congress is able to set a lower salary for all future judges that take office after the reduction, but may not decrease the rate of pay for judges already in office.

Elections and voting[]

Suffrage, commonly known as the ability to vote, has changed significantly over time. In the early years of the United States, voting was considered a matter for state governments, and was commonly restricted to white men who owned land. Direct elections were mostly held only for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures, although what specific bodies were elected by the electorate varied from state to state. Under this original system, both senators representing each state in the U.S. Senate were chosen by a majority vote of the state legislature. Since the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, members of both houses of Congress have been directly elected.

Today, partially due to the Twenty-sixth Amendment, U.S. citizens have almost universal suffrage from the age of 18, regardless of race, gender, or wealth, and both Houses of Congress are directly elected. The only exception to this is the disenfranchisement of convicted felons, and in some states former felons as well.

Currently, the national representation of territories and the federal district of Washington, D.C., in Congress is limited: residents of the District of Columbia are subject to federal laws and federal taxes, but their only congressional representative is a non-voting delegate. Residents of U.S. territories have varying rights; for example, only some residents of Puerto Rico pay federal income taxes (though all residents must pay all other federal taxes, including import/export taxes, federal commodity taxes, and federal payroll taxes, including Social Security and Medicare).[14]

State, tribal and local governments[]

United States, showing states, divided into counties (parishes in Louisiana; boroughs in Alaska). Note that Alaska and Hawaii are shown at different scales, and that the Aleutian Islands and the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are omitted from this map.

The state governments tend to have the greatest influence over most Americans' daily lives. The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the Federal Government from exercising any power not delegated to it by the States in the Constitution; as a result, states handle the majority of issues most relevant to individuals within their jurisdiction. Because state governments lack the power to print currency, they must raise revenue either through taxes or bonds (both of which are politically unpopular due to the extensive national levies provided by the federal personal income tax ). As a result, state governments tend to impose severe budget cuts at any time the economy is faltering, which are strongly felt by the public for which they are responsible.[15]

Each state has its own written constitution, government, and code of laws. There are sometimes great differences in law and procedure between individual states, concerning issues such as property, crime, health, and education. The highest elected official of each state is the Governor. Each state also has an elected state legislature (bicameralism is a feature of every state except Nebraska), whose members represent the voters of the state. Each state maintains its own state court system. In some states, supreme and lower court justices are elected by the people; in others, they are appointed, as they are in the federal system.

As a result of the Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia, Indian tribes are considered "domestic dependent nations" that operate as sovereign governments subject to federal authority but, generally and where possible, outside of the influence of state governments. Hundreds of laws, executive orders, and court cases have modified the governmental status of tribes vis-à-vis individual states, but the two have continued to be recognised as separate bodies. Tribal capacity to operate robust governments varies, from a simple council used to manage all aspects of tribal affairs, to large and complex bureaucracies with several branches of government. Tribes are empowered to form their own governments, with power resting in elected tribal councils, elected tribal chairpersons, or religiously appointed leaders (as is the case with pueblos). Tribal citizenship (and voting rights) is generally restricted to individuals of native descent, but tribes are free to set whatever membership requirements they wish.

The institutions that are responsible for local government within states are typically town, city, or county boards, water management districts, fire management districts, library districts, and other similar governmental units which make laws that affect their particular area. These laws concern issues such as traffic, the sale of alcohol, and the keeping of animals. The highest elected official of a town or city is usually the mayor. In New England, towns operate in a direct democratic fashion, and in some states, such as Rhode Island and Connecticut, counties have little or no power, existing only as geographic distinctions. In other areas, county governments have more power, such as to collect taxes and maintain law enforcement agencies.

See also[]

Portal.svg Government of the United States
At Wikiversity, you can learn about:
School of Political Science
At Wikiversity, you can learn about:
Topic:American government
  • Cabinet
  • Executive order
  • Federal Executive Departments
  • President's Executive Office
  • Bankruptcy courts
  • Courts of appeals
  • District courts
  • Federal courts
  • Federal judicial circuit
  • Federal judicial district
  • Supreme Court
  • Constitution
  • Governmental designations for places
  • U.S. Code
  • U.S. Law
Most agencies are executive, but a few are legislative or judicial.
  • Federal agencies
  • Independent agencies
States and territories
Web site and works


  1. ^ 'The U.S. federal government was formed in the eighteenth century and is considered to be the first modern national federation in the world' [1] Retrieved on 31 August 2010
  2. ^ 'The Influence of State Politics in Expanding Federal Power,' Henry Jones Ford, 'Proceedings of the American Political Science Association, Vol. 5, Fifth Annual Meeting (1908)' Retrieved on 17 March 2010
  3. ^ Judge Rules Favorably in Pennsylvania BRAC Suit (Associated Press, 26 August)
  4. ^ US House Official Website Retrieved on 17 August 2008
  5. ^ Kaiser, Frederick M. (2006-01-03). "Congressional Oversight". Congressional Research Service. Retrieved 2008-07-30. 
  6. ^ a b c Article II, Constitution of the United States of America
  7. ^ 3 U.S.C. § 301303
  8. ^ Barack, Obama (2009-04-27). "Delegation of Certain Authority Under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008". United States. Retrieved 2009-07-01. 
  9. ^ Amendment XXIII to the United States Constitution
  10. ^ Amendment XXII to the United States Constitution
  11. ^ Goldstein, Joel K. (1995). "The New Constitutional Vice Presidency". Wake Forest Law Review 30 (505). 
  12. ^ Reynolds, Glenn Harlan (2007). "Is Dick Cheney Unconstitutional?". Northwestern University Law Review Colloquy 102 (110). 
  13. ^ Judiciary Act of 1789, section 35.
  14. ^ Contrary to common misconception, residents of Puerto Rico do pay U.S. federal taxes: customs taxes (which are subsequently returned to the Puerto Rico Treasury) (See Department of the Interior, Office of Insular Affairs.), import/export taxes (See, federal commodity taxes (See, social security taxes (See, etc. Residents pay federal payroll taxes, such as Social Security (See and Medicare (See, as well as Commonwealth of Puerto Rico income taxes (See and All federal employees (See, those who do business with the federal government (See, Puerto Rico-based corporations that intend to send funds to the U.S. (See Page 9, line 1.), and some others (For example, Puerto Rican residents that are members of the U.S. military, See and Puerto Rico residents who earned income from sources outside Puerto Rico, See pp 14-15.) also pay federal income taxes. In addition, because the cutoff point for income taxation is lower than that of the U.S. IRS code, and because the per-capita income in Puerto Rico is much lower than the average per-capita income on the mainland, more Puerto Rico residents pay income taxes to the local taxation authority than if the IRS code were applied to the island. This occurs because "the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico government has a wider set of responsibilities than do U.S. State and local governments" (See As residents of Puerto Rico pay into Social Security, Puerto Ricans are eligible for Social Security benefits upon retirement, but are excluded from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico residents, unlike residents of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and residents of the 50 States, do not receive the SSI. See, and the island actually receives less than 15% of the Medicaid funding it would normally receive if it were a U.S. state. However, Medicare providers receive less-than-full state-like reimbursements for services rendered to beneficiaries in Puerto Rico, even though the latter paid fully into the system (See p. 252). It has also been estimated (See that, because the population of the Island is greater than that of 50% of the States, if it were a state, Puerto Rico would have six to eight seats in the House, in addition to the two seats in the Senate.(See, and [Note that for the later, the official US Congress database website, you will need to resubmit a query. The document in question is called "House Report 110-597 - Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007." These are the steps to follow: > Committee Reports > 110 > drop down "Word/Phrase" and pick "Report Number" > type "597" next to Report Number. This will provide the document "House Report 110-597 - Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007", then from the Table of Contents choose "Background and need for legislation".]). Another misconception is that the import/export taxes collected by the U.S. on products manufactured in Puerto Rico are all returned to the Puerto Rico Treasury. This is not the case. Such import/export taxes are returned only for rum products, and even then the US Treasury keeps a portion of those taxes (See the "House Report 110-597 - Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2007" mentioned above.
  15. ^ "A brief overview of state fiscal conditions and the effects of federal policies on state budgets" (PDF). Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 2004-05-12. Retrieved 2008-07-30. 

External links[]

Template:U.S. political divisions governments

This page uses content from the English language Wikipedia. The original content was at Federal government of the United States. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with this Familypedia wiki, the content of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons License.