United States Government/The Three Branches
The United States Constitution divides government into three separate and distinct branches: the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. The concept of separate branches with distinct powers is known as separation of powers. That doctrine arose from the writings of several European philosophers. The Englishman John Locke first pioneered the idea, but he only suggested a separation between the executive and legislative. The Frenchman Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, added the judicial branch.
Each branch is theoretically equal to each of the others. The branches check each others powers and use a system known as checks and balances. Thus, no branch can gain too much power and influence, thus reducing the opportunity for tyrannical government.
The Preamble to the American Constitution sets out these aims in the general statement:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America".
The Congress is the Legislative Branch. Its main function is to make laws. It also oversees the execution of these laws, and checks various executive and judicial powers. The Congress is bicameral - it is composed of two houses. One house is the House of Representatives and the other is the Senate.
The House of Representatives is currently composed of four hundred and thirty-five members. Each of the fifty states is allocated one or more representatives based on its population which is calculated on a decennial basis (once in ten years) . Each state is guaranteed at least one representative. A state that is allocated more than one representative divides itself, as state procedures dictate, into a number of districts equal to the number of representatives to which it is entitled. The people of each district vote to elect one representative to Congress (States that have only one representative allocated choose at-large representatives - the state votes as one entire district). The District of Columbia and a number of U.S. territories have been permitted to elect delegates to the House of Representatives. These delegates may participate in debates, and sit and vote in committee, but are not allowed to vote in the full House. Every House member faces re-election in an even-numbered year and is elected to a two-year term. The House is presided over by a Speaker, who is directly elected by the members of the House.
The Senate is the upper house of the legislative branch of the United States and possesses one hundred members which is considerably less than the four hundred and thirty-five members of the House of Representatives. Each state chooses two senators, regardless of that state's population. The Constitution originally dictated that a state's senators were to be chosen by the state's legislature; after the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were elected directly by the state's population. In contrast to the House's two-year terms, Senators are elected to a six-year stint in office. In addition, only one-third of the Senate stands for election during an even year. These differences between the two houses were deliberately put into place by the Founding Fathers; the Senate was intended to be a more stable, austere body, whereas the House would be more responsive to the people's will.
The Vice-President is President of the Senate, but he/she only votes if there is a tie. The Senate also chooses a President Pro Tempore to preside in the Vice-President's absence (though, in practice, most of the time, senators from the majority take turns presiding for short periods).
The Senate and the House are both required to approve legislation before it becomes a law. The two houses are equal in legislative power, but revenue bills (bills relating to taxation) may only originate in the House. However, as with any other bill, the Senate's approval is still required, and the Senate may amend such bills.
The Senate holds additional powers relating to treaties and the appointments of executive and judicial officials. This power is known as "advice and consent." The Senate's advice and consent is required for the President to appoint judges and many executive officers, and also to ratify treaties. To grant advice and consent on treaties, two-thirds of the Senators must concur (agree).
While most votes require a simple majority to pass, it sometimes takes three-fifths of senators to bring a bill to a vote. This is because Senate rules hold that a bill cannot be voted on as long as it is being debated--and there is no limit on how long a senator may debate a bill. Senators sometimes use this rule to filibuster a bill--that is, continue debating a bill endlessly so that it cannot be voted on. The only way to end a filibuster is for three-fifths of all Senators to vote for a cloture resolution, which ends all debate and brings the bill up for voting. Use of the filibuster tends to be controversial. Whichever party is in the majority tends to call its use "obstructionism," while the other side sees it as an important check on the majority.
The House has the sole power to impeach federal executive and judicial officers. According to the Constitution, officers may be impeached for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Senate has the sole power to try all such impeachments, a two-thirds vote being required for conviction. The Constitution requires that any individual convicted by the Senate to be removed from office. The Senate also has the power to bar that individual from further federal office. The Senate may not impose any further punishment, although the parties are still subject to trial in the courts. As the Vice-President (being next-in-line to the Presidency) would have an obvious conflict of interest in presiding at a trial of the President, in such cases, the Chief Justice presides. Interestingly, no similar provision prevents the Vice-President from presiding at his or her own trial.
The President, Vice President, and other executive officials make up the Executive Branch. The main function of this branch is to execute the laws created by Congress. The President and the Vice-President are chosen by the Electoral College, a body of people elected for the purpose of electing the President. One may wait to consider the Electoral College in further detail.
The President appoints several Secretaries to head executive departments. An executive department is a body covering a broad topic of law- examples include the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice. The several secretaries (in the case of the Justice Department, the Attorney General) serve as advisors to the President and also as the chief officers of their own departments. This group of advisors is collectively known as the President's cabinet. The President nominates these Secretaries, as well as other important federal officials, and the Senate advise and consents to them .
The Supreme Court and the lower courts compose the Judicial Branch. The judiciary must interpret the laws of the United States. In the course of such interpretations, the courts may find that a law violates the constitution. If so, the court declares the law unconstitutional. Thus, the judiciary also has a role in determining the law of the land.
The judges of federal courts are nominated by the President and advised and consented to by the Senate. The number of judges and the exact structure of the courts is set by law, and not by the Constitution.
The Legislative Process: How A Bill Becomes A Law
After both houses of Congress pass a bill, perhaps observing the different rules and procedures in each house, but with the exact same final text, the bill is submitted to the President. Immediately, a ten-day clock for the president to act in starts to tick. Sundays are excluded in this calculation.
Once he receives the bill, the President has many options. The outcome of the process depends on the route taken by him.
- Signature- If the President signs a bill, it immediately takes effect as law.
- Veto- The President may, if he pleases, return a bill to the house in which it originated. That house may then consider the President's objections. If it wishes to pass the law in any event, it must repass the bill with a two-thirds majority. If the same occurs, then the other house considers the bill, perhaps repassing it with the same two-thirds majority. If both houses pass the bill with the requisite majority, then the bill becomes law despite the President's veto. If one or both houses fail to provide an adequate majority, then the bill fails
- No Action- The President may decide to take no action at all on a bill. If, for ten days, the President has neither signed nor returned the bill, the bill becomes law without a signature.
- Pocket veto- The pocket veto is an absolute veto- Congress may not override it by any majority (though it may choose to repass the bill). The pocket veto occurs near the end of a Congressional session. If the bill is with the President, and he has not signed it or returned it, and the ten-day limit has not expired, and Congress adjourns for the year (that is, it decides to meet no longer for the rest of the year), then the President may pocket veto the bill.
Checks and Balances
In order to prevent any branch of government from becoming too powerful, the Framers of the Constitution created a system of checks and balances. Each branch of government has checks on the others, while it is itself also checked. The complex system can be outlined as follows:
Checks of the Legislative
Checks on the Executive
- Power to override vetoes
- Power to confirm the President's appointment of a Vice President when a vacancy in the Vice Presidency occurs
- Power to tax and allocate tax revenues for executive activities
- Oversight and investigation of executive activities
- (Senate) Power to approve treaties
- (Senate) Power to approve Presidential nominees
- (House) Impeachment, or accusation of a federal official for bribery, treason, or another high crime
- (Senate) Trial of Impeachment
Checks on the Judicial
- Power to set size and structure of courts
- (Senate) Power to approve Presidential nominees for judgeships
- (House) Impeachment
- (Senate) Trial of Impeachment
- Approval of both houses required for passage of a law
Checks of the Executive
Checks on the Legislative
- Power to veto
- Power to pocket veto
- Power to call a special session of Congress when Congress is not already meeting
- Vice President presides over Senate meetings as President of the Senate
- Congress cannot reduce the salary of the President while he continues in office
Checks on the Judicial
- Power to nominate judges
- Power to fully or partially pardon convicted criminals
Checks of the Judicial
Checks on the Legislative
- Power to declare bills unconstitutional
- Congress cannot reduce the salary of a judge while he continues in office
- The Chief Justice presides over an Impeachment Trial of a President
Checks on the Executive
- Power to declare executive acts unconstitutional