Branches of the US Government & Checks and Balances
By Joan Whetzel
When our nation's founders wrote the Constitution, they split the national government into three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. They used the first three articles of the Constitution to assign a list of duties and responsibilities for each branch that resulted in a system of checks and balances. The checks and balances are supposed to keep any one branch of government from seizing all the power.
Article II of the US Constitution describes the make-up of the Executive branch as well as its duties and responsibilities. The Executive branch consists of the President, Vice President, and the President's Cabinet and is responsible for enforcing the laws created and passed by the Legislative branch.
The President and Vice President are elected to office for a maximum of two full terms of 4-years each. However, if a Vice President takes over part of a President's term (due to death or because he/she left office for some other reason), the Vice President can fill that partial term plus two 4-year terms - as long as the partial term is less than 2-years - for a total of 10 years. The President is responsible for negotiating treaties, acting as the Head of State, and acting as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. The Vice President is first in line to take over the Presidency, should the President leave office for any reason. He or she is also responsible for heading up the Senate and passing the deciding vote in the Senate, in case of a tie.
Cabinet Members are selected by the President and must pass Senate hearings to be confirmed into office. They maintain their position as long as that President is in office, or until they choose to leave of their own accord. The Cabinet members are responsible for heading up the major departments of the Government and advising the President about any issues dealing with their government department's area of expertise. The members of the cabinet are as follows:
- The Secretary of State
- The Secretary of the Treasury
- The Secretary of Defense
- The Attorney General (Justice Department)
- The Secretary of the Interior
- The Secretary of Agriculture
- The Secretary of Commerce
- The Secretary of Labor
- The Secretary of Health and Human Services
- The Secretary of Homeland Security
- The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
- The Secretary of Transportation
- The Secretary of Education
- The Secretary of Energy
- The Secretary of Veterans' Affairs
The Legislative Branch along with its duties and responsibilities are described in Article I of the US Constitution. The Legislative branch, also called Congress, consists of the Senate (100 Senators, 2 from each state) and the House of Representatives (435 Representatives, the number for each state and D.C. varies depending on the population).
Congress passes federal laws. The House of Representatives generates the ideas (or bills) that they feel should be turned into law. The Senate votes down laws that don’t pass muster or confirms them and passes them along to the President, who either signs them into law (thereby enforcing the law) or vetoes them and sends them back to Congress. The Senate is responsible for ratifying all treaties by a 2/3 agreement, approving the President's nomination for Cabinet members and federal judges - including the Supreme Court Justices.
The Judicial branch of the government includes the Supreme Court and its 9 Justices. The Justices of the Supreme Court is charged with interpreting the meaning of the laws according to the US Constitution. They only hear cases that relate to Constitutional issues, making rulings about whether an issue or action is constitutional or unconstitutional (whether it is permitted under the constitution). The US Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States with Supreme Court branches in each state that hear cases involving federal issues.
The Supreme Court justices hold office for life or until the retire. They are nominated by the President currently holding office and approved by the Senate. Of the nine justices, eight are associate judges and one is appointed as chief justice. The Supreme Court is the court of last resort, meaning that whatever they decide cannot be overturned.
Checks and Balances
The system of Checks and Balances was designed to limit the power of each branch and agency of government and support a balanced interrelationship between all the government agencies and social institutions controlled by the government. The system is set up so that legitimate power and ideas are allowed to flow easily while preventing abuses of power, government corruption and oppression, cruelty, or coercion.
The separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government was proposed by Charles Montesquieu, and 18th century French political thinker. He also coined the phrase "checks and balances" to describe a system that placed limits on the amount of power and that each branch of government could exert.
Truman Library. Three Branches of Government.
Fact Monster. Three Branches of Government.
New World Encyclopedia. Checks and Balances.
US Government Archives. The United States Government.