Basic Structure of the US Government

Checks and Balances and the Three Branches

US Capitol 1900
The US Capitol Bulding in 1900. Getty Images

For all that it is and does, the United States federal government is based on a very simple system: Three functional branches with powers separated and limited by constitutionally declared checks and balances.

The executive, legislative and judicial branches represent the constitutional framework envisioned by the Founding Fathers for our nation's government. Together, they function to provide a system of lawmaking and enforcement based on checks and balances, and separation of powers intended to ensure that no individual or body of government ever becomes too powerful. For example:

  • Congress (legislative branch) can pass laws, but the president (executive branch) can veto them.
  • Congress can override the president's veto.
  • The Supreme Court (judicial branch) can declare a law approved by Congress and the president unconstitutional.
  • The president can appoint judges to the Supreme Court, but Congress must approve them.

Is the system perfect? Are powers ever abused? Of course, but as governments go, ours has been working quite well since Sept. 17, 1787. As Alexander Hamilton and James Madison remind us in Federalist 51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

Recognizing the inherent moral paradox posed by a society in which mere mortals govern other mere mortals, Hamilton and Madison went on to write, "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place

The Executive Branch

The executive branch of the federal government ensures that the laws of the United States are obeyed. In carrying out this duty, the President of the United States is assisted by the Vice President, department heads – called Cabinet Secretaries – and the heads of the several independent agencies

The executive branch consists of the president, the vice president and 15 Cabinet-level executive departments.

The Legislative Branch

The legislative branch, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate, has the sole constitutional authority to enact laws, declare war and conduct special investigations. In addition, the Senate has the right to confirm or reject many presidential appointments. 

The Judicial Branch

Composed of federal judges and courts, the judicial branch interprets the laws enacted by Congress and when required, decides actual cases in which someone has been harmed.

Federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, are not elected. Instead, they are appointed by the president and must be confirmed by the Senate. Once confirmed, federal judges serve for life unless they resign, die, or are impeached.

The Supreme Court sits atop the judicial branch and federal court hierarchy and has the final say on all cases appealed to it by the lower courts. The 13 U.S. District Courts of Appeals sit just below the Supreme Court and hear cases appealed to them by the 94 regional U.S. District Courts which handle most federal cases.