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Overview of American Government

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Overview of U.S. Government

The purpose of this web page is to briefly describe the basic operation of our government. The discussion focuses on the Constitution and the three branches of government -- legislative, executive and judicial. As set forth in the Constitution, each branch of government has a specific role with distinct responsibilities and authorities; but each branch also is limited as to what it can do. In addtion, the three branches of government serve as a "check and balance" for one another to assure no one person or group of persons acquires too much power within our government.

The focus of this description is on our federal government, but many of the principles also apply to our state governments. This description begins with an overview of a fourth component of our government -- the Constitution and our citizens.

U.S. Constitution

The Constitution can be described as an agreement among the "people" to create, authorize, and limit government. The critical role of the citizens is obvious from the first words of the Preamble -- "We the people."

“We the people” clearly announces that our government is formed by the citizens (the people) of the United States. When read in its entirety, the Preamble states that the citizens of our nation formed our government by establishing the Constitution. The Preamble also sets forth the reasons we established government. These reasons could be considered the goals or objectives for our government.

The role of the citizen continues with our right and duty to vote, as well as with the process for amending the Constitution (i.e., states approve whether the Constitution should be amended or changed).

The formal process of amending the Constitution begins with Congress; it proposes the amendment. But it is then up to the states (either through the state's legislature or through a convention of citizens chosen to represent the citizens of the state) to individually decide whether it approves the proposed change. If enough states approve the change (75%), the Constitution is amended.

The U.S. Constitution, as agreed upon by those who formed our nation and which we still adhere to today, establishes three branches of government and their respective responsibilities and authorities.


The legislative branch of our government -- Congress at the federal level -- is obligated to consider and debate policy issues and determine whether a law is needed to address the issue.

Congress is organized as two chambers – the House of Representatives and the Senate -- and is comprised of persons elected by the people to be their respresentatives. For example, the members of Congress are elected by the people living in the geographic region the Congressional member represents, either the entire state or, in our more populated states, a district within the state.

The task of the legislative branch of government is to consider what policies we want for our nation. Legislators receive input from interested persons, deliberate alternative policies, and then vote whether to enact a statute intended to achieve the desired policy or outcome. Often the statutes describe a program the government will pursue. For example, government programs or initiatives include providing an educational system; providing a military; providing for research; and assisting in providing housing, food, health care and other necessities for those who cannot provide these for themselves. Government programs also address issues relating to the environment, transportation, energy, and of course, taxation. There are many other government programs in addition to the few mentioned here.

Click here to read about the process Congress follows in enacting a statute.

Citizens can participate in the legislative process of deciding "what our laws should say" by interacting with the elected officials and providing input when the legislative branch asks for public comment. The Library of Congress maintains a web site with information about federal legislation being considered at this time.

The legislature is limited to addressing the type of issues and devising the type of policies specified in the Constitution. Within these limitations (which in some perspective, are not very limiting), there are some important fundamental principles. For example, the Constitution prohibits government from establishing a religion, preventing communication, or taking private property without compensating the owner. Many of these basic principles have been documented in the Bill of Rights, that is, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Government authority comes from the people; if the people have not authorized the government to perform a certain task or address a certain issue, the government does not have the legal authority to do so. Similarly, individual rights are not derived from the government; they arise from the fact that each of us is a person. Sometimes, through government, we collectively specify what those rights are, but even those rights are not derived from the government. Bottom line -- the government can do no more than what the people have authorized it to do in the Constitution (note Amendments IX and X to the U.S. Constitution).

The legislative branch is not authorized or obligated to implement or interpret the laws. These are the responsibilities and authorities of the other two branches of government.

If there is a dispute over how a statute should be interpreted, the issue is resolved by the parties (such as a citizen) asking a court (the judicial system) to interpret the statute; the process of interpreting a law does not involve "let's ask Congress to explain what it meant or intended."

A court will consider documents prepared by Congress at the time the statute was enacted (i.e., legislative history) to determine what Congress intended to accomplish by enacting the statute. However, the court will not ask a current member of Congress to explain the statute that is being interpreted.

Congress may, however, change a statute after it has been interpreted by a court, especially if the court decides that the statute expresses an intent that is significantly different than what the current Congress wants the statute/policy to accomplish.


The executive branch (e.g., the president and the numerous government agencies at the federal level) is responsible for executing or implementing the programs, and enforcing the laws the legislature has enacted. Accordingly, the title "executive branch" accurately describes its primary responsibility of executing the directives of the legislative branch.

The executive branch fulfills its responsibility through the operation of numerous government agencies and employees.

The president cannot execute all these programs by himself (some day – herself). The president appoints others to assist in this enormous task. The immediate subordinates of the president are the members of the president’s cabinet; offices such as the secretary of treasury, secretary of state, secretary of defense, secretary of human services, secretary of education, and secretary of agriculture. These secretaries direct the operation of executive agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, Department of State, Department of Defense, Department of Interior, Department of Commerce, and Department of Education. These agencies are staffed by the many federal employees we often hear about.

The executive branch is not authorized to decide what the law should be, whether the law should be enforced, or how many dollars should be spent. According to the Constitution, those decisions can only be made by Congress. The executive branch must execute the laws as Congress specified in the statute.

The President cannot create a program Congress has not authorized, but the President can urge (lobby) Congress to adopt particular programs; however, that is as far as the President can go in developing legislation.

Congress does not have the time or expertise to determine the details of how every program should be implemented. Instead, determining those details is left to the executive branch. These details are set forth by the executive branch as agency regulations or rules.

Government agencies specify details on how policies and programs will be implemented by promulgating regulations. Citizens can be involved in the process of promulgating regulations by providing feedback to the agency as the agency proceeds through the mandated process of public notice of a proposed rule and opportunity for public comment. See http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic-bld61/component/main.

The executive branch must be certain the regulations align with the direction Congress specified in the statute, as well as align with the authorities and limitation of the Constitution. Restated, the executive branch can do no more or no less than Congress has authorized in the statutes. Similarly, the executive branch must be certain that its actions do not conflict with the limitations and responsibilities the people have set forth for government in the Constitution.

The excecutive branch serves as a "check and balance" or limit on the legislative branch with the president's power to veto legislation.

The legislative branch also provides a balance for the executive branch by being able to override a veto, as well as directing which programs the executive branch must implement, and confirming persons appointed by the President.


The role of the judicial branch of government is to resolve disputes. The court system provides a more civilized means to resolve our differences than resorting to the use of force.

Our society is too complex to have a single court. Instead, we have courts located in our states and districts within our more populated states.

The courts are where people go if they have a dispute with someone else. We prefer using an objective “trier” to resolve disputes because the alternative probably is "going behind the shed and seeing who returns.” We do not want to use violence to resolve our disagreements -- that takes away from the society we are seeking. An objective judicial system is considered a more “civilized” way to resolve disputes.

The court will listen to each party explain the dispute, and then determine a solution. Sometimes a judge makes that determination; other times we rely on a jury to determine the solution. Even in trials with a jury, a judge is present to assure that the process (the trial) is conducted according to our laws and that the decision of the jury is consistent with our laws. These laws can be statutes that the legislative branch has enacted, or previous court decisions (which we refer to as precedence or common law). The courts also are responsible for interpreting ambiguities or uncertainties in the law.

A trial court receives information from the parties involved in a dispute, determines what happened, and decides how the dispute should be resolved. A jury often is the decision maker; the judge assures the trial process is fair and that the law is applied correctly (after the jury has made its decision).

A criminal trial is society, through government, bringing legal action against someone accused of wrongdoing. If found guilty, the wrongdoer will be imprisoned, fined (dollars paid to government), or both.

In a civil trial, an individual has a dispute with another individual; e.g., a dispute over a contract or property damage (tort). If the jury finds that one party has "damaged" the other party, the party causing the damage will generally be ordered by the court to pay an amount to the damaged party to compensate for the damage. If the payment is not made, the court may order the sheriff to seize property of the person who is required to make payment and use that property to compensate the party entitled to be paid.

A civil case can also be used to resolve disputes over the interpretation of law; e.g., a person thinks the executive branch is not implementing the statute as the legislature intended. A trial is an opportunity for the person to present reasons to a court as to why the action of the executive branch is improper. If the trial court agrees, the executive agency will be ordered to apply the statute to fulfill the legislature's intent. This interaction among the branches of government is another example of our system of "check and balance."

Our legal system provides an opportunity, after a trial, for the parties to the lawsuit to have another court (no jury, just justices) review legal issues that arose during the trial. These are the appellate courts. On appeal, for example, the questions might include was the correct procedure followed to assure a fair trial for both parties, and did the judge correctly apply the law in resolving the dispute. Answering the second type of question generally involves interpreting the law.

A role for the Supreme Court is to resolve conflicting interpretations or decisions among the various appellate courts. Another responsibility of the Supreme Court is to resolve disputes between states.

Our legal system is premised on the notion that our laws are known, and are not a surprise to our citizens. Likewise, court decisions should be consistent and predictable. Accordingly, the legal interpretations of the appellate and Supreme Courts are used to guide future decisions and are referred to as the "common law."

To achieve these objectives, judicial interpretations are documented as court decisions or opinions. Accordingly, a step in the judicial decision making process is for the litigating parties and the court to research previous opinions to identify what has been decided (how the law has been interpreted) when similar legal questions have arisen in the past. The practice of reviewing previous decisions to assure consistency in the law is sometimes referred to as "relying on precedence."

The judicial branch provides a "check and balance" by deciding -- when called upon through litigation -- whether the Congressional statute conflicts with the Constitution. Likewise, the judicial branch is available to determine whether the executive branch is complying with the Congressional statute and the Constitution.

The judicial branch is not authorized to determine what the law should be (that is for the legislative branch) nor to implement the law (that is the responsibility of the executive branch).

Although empowered with considerable discretion with which to interpret law, the courts are limited to interpreting the law to fulfill the intent of the legislature that created the law. Even if the justices do not agree with the program the legislature created, as long as the legislation does not violate the Constitution, the court will interpret and enforce the law as the legislature intended. The court does not have the authority to override the legislature.


The well-defined roles, responsibilities, and limitations for each branch of government prevents any branch of government (or group of persons) from determining what the law should be, and then implementing and interpreting the law. The three-branch structure for government is based on the idea that it is unlikely that one group of people will ever be able to seize control of all three branches of government at one time. However, it is the responsibility of the citizens to watch that this does not occur. The citizen's right to elect different officials and call for the impeachment of the president and judges is just as important in the system of "check and balance" within our government as the defined roles of the three branches.

Last updated September 19, 2006

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