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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.
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."
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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."
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 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
This material is intended for educational purposes
only. It is not a substitute for competent legal counsel. Seek appropriate
professional advice for answers to your specific questions.
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