Three Branches of Government
Three Branches of Government
To ensure a separation of powers, the U.S. Federal Government is made up of three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. To ensure the government is effective and citizens’ rights are protected, each branch has its own powers and responsibilities, including working with the other branches.
The Legislative Branch of Government(Article 1 Section 8)
The legislative branch is made up of the House and Senate, known collectively as the Congress. Among other powers, the legislative branch makes all laws, declares war, regulates interstate and foreign commerce and controls taxing and spending policies.
Powers Granted to Congress
Taxation – The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
Credit – To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;
Commerce – To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian Tribes;
Naturalization, Bankruptcy – To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
Money – To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
Counterfeiting – To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
Post Office – To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
Patents, Copyrights – To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
Federal Courts – To constitute Tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court;
International Law – To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;
War – To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
Army – To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
Navy – To provide and maintain a Navy;
Regulation of Armed Forces – To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
Militia – To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
Regulation for Militia – To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
District of Columbia – To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;
Elastic Clause – To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.
But what does it mean??
Article I, Section 8, specifies the powers of Congress in great detail. These powers are limited to those listed and those that are “necessary and proper” to carry them out. All other lawmaking powers are left to the states. The First Congress, concerned that the limited nature of the federal government was not clear enough in the original Constitution, later adopted Amendment X, which reserves to the states or to the people all the powers not specifically granted to the federal government. The most important of the specific powers that the Constitution enumerates is the power to set taxes, tariffs and other means of raising federal revenue, and to authorize the expenditure of all federal funds. In addition to the tax powers in Article I, Amendment XVI authorized Congress to establish a national income tax. The power to appropriate federal funds is known as the “power of the purse.” It gives Congress great authority over the executive branch, which must appeal to Congress for all of its funding. The federal government borrows money by issuing bonds. This creates a national debt, which the United States is obligated to repay. Since the turn of the 20th century, federal legislation has dealt with many matters that had previously been managed by the states. In passing these laws, Congress often relies on power granted by the commerce clause, which allows Congress to regulate business activities “among the states.” The commerce clause gives Congress broad power to regulate many aspects of our economy and to pass environmental or consumer protections because so much of business today, either in manufacturing or distribution, crosses state lines. But the commerce clause powers are not unlimited. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has expressed greater concern for states’ rights. It has issued a series of rulings that limit the power of Congress to pass legislation under the commerce clause or other powers contained in Article I, Section 8. For example, these rulings have found unconstitutional federal laws aimed at protecting battered women or protecting schools from gun violence on the grounds that these types of police matters are properly managed by the states. In addition, Congress has the power to coin money, create the postal service, army, navy and lower federal courts, and to declare war. Congress also has the responsibility of determining naturalization, how immigrants become citizens. Such laws must apply uniformly and cannot be modified by the states.
Powers Denied Congress (Article 1 Section 9) Slave Trade – The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person. Habeas Corpus – The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it. Illegal Punishment – No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed. Direct Taxes – No capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid,[unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken. (modified by Amendment) Export Taxes – No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State. No Favorites – No Preference shall be given by any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another: nor shall Vessels bound to, or from, one State, be obliged to enter, clear, or pay Duties in another. Public Money – No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time. Titles of Nobility – No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.
But what does it mean??
Article I, Section 9 specifically prohibits Congress from legislating in certain areas. In the first clause, the Constitution bars Congress from banning the importation of slaves before 1808. In the second and third clauses, the Constitution specifically guarantees rights to those accused of crimes. It provides that the privilege of a writ of habeas corpus, which allows a prisoner to challenge his or her imprisonment in court, cannot be suspended except in extreme circumstances such as rebellion or invasion, where the public is in danger. Suspension of the writ of habeas corpus has occurred only a few times in history. For example, President Lincoln suspended the writ during the Civil War. In 1871, it was suspended in nine counties in South Carolina to combat the Ku Klux Klan. Similarly, the Constitution specifically prohibits bills of attainder — laws that are directed against a specific person or group of persons, making them automatically guilty of serious crimes, such as treason, without a normal court proceeding. The ban is intended to prevent Congress from bypassing the courts and denying criminal defendants the protections guaranteed by other parts of the Constitution. In addition, the Constitution prohibits “ex post facto” laws — criminal laws that make an action illegal after someone has already taken it. This protection guarantees that individuals are warned ahead of time that their actions are illegal. The provision in the fourth clause prohibiting states from imposing direct taxes was changed by Amendment XVI, which gives Congress the power to impose a federal income tax. To ensure equality among the states, the Constitution prohibits states from imposing taxes on goods coming into their state from another state and from favoring the ports of one state over the ports of others. Article I, Section 9, also requires that Congress produce a regular accounting of the monies the federal government spends. Rejecting the monarchy of England, the Constitution also specifically prohibits Congress from granting a title of nobility to any person and prohibits public officials from accepting a title of nobility, office, or gift from any foreign country or monarch without congressional approval.
Powers Denied the States (Article1 Section 10)
Restrictions – No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility. Import and Export Taxes – No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection Laws: and the net Produce of all Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States; and all such Laws shall be subject to the Revision and Control of the Congress. Peacetime and War Restrains – No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, lay any Duty of Tonnage, keep Troops, or Ships of War in time of Peace, enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.
But what does it mean???
Article I, Section 10, limits the power of the states. States may not enter into a treaty with a foreign nation; that power is given to the president, with the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate present. States cannot make their own money, nor can they grant any title of nobility. As is Congress, states are prohibited from passing laws that assign guilt to a specific person or group without court proceedings (bills of attainder), that make something illegal retroactively(ex post facto laws) or that interfere with legal contracts. No state, without approval from Congress, may collect taxes on imports or exports, build an army or keep warships in times of peace, nor otherwise engage in war unless invaded or in imminent danger.
The Executive Branch
The executive branch consists of the President, his or her advisors and various departments and agencies. This branch is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land.
Roles of the President
- Commander in Chief
- Chief Executive
- Chief Diplomat and Chief of State
- Legislative Leader
- Head of a Political Party
Powers of the President (Articles II Section 2)
Military Powers – The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment. Treaties, Appointments – He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein other- wise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
Vacancies – The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
Presidential Duties (Articles II Section 3)
He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.
But what does it mean??
During his or her term, the president must report to Congress about how things are going in the country. Every president from Jefferson to Taft fulfilled this duty with a written statement submitted to Congress. But in 1913, Woodrow Wilson resumed George Washington’s practice of directly addressing a joint session of Congress. This “State of the Union” speech, a tradition that continues to this day, usually occurs in January or February each year. The president also has the power, in extreme cases, to call both the House of Representatives and the Senate together for a special session. The president is given the power to meet with representatives from other nations on behalf of the United States and to otherwise run the country by enforcing the laws and directing officers and staff.
Impeachment (Article II Section 4)
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors
But what does it mean??
The Constitution provides that the president, vice president, and other federal officers can be removed from office upon impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate of treason, bribery, or other serious crimes. The process was begun only three times in U.S. history against a president — against Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon (although he resigned before Congress could formally act) and Bill Clinton. The impeachment process begins in the House of Representatives with a vote to impeach. Then the president (or other accused government official) stands trial for the accusations in the Senate. The Chief Justice of the United States presides at an impeachment trial of the president. In all impeachment trials, members of the House serve as prosecutors and the full Senate sits as the jury. The accused official must be convicted by a two-thirds vote of the Senate to be removed from office.
The Judicial Branch
The judicial branch interprets the laws. This branch includes the Supreme Court, the highest court in the nation, and other federal courts.
Federal Courts and Judges (Article III Section 1)
The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
But what does it mean???
Article III establishes the federal court system. The first section creates the U.S. Supreme Court as the federal system’s highest court. The Supreme Court has final say on matters of federal law that come before it. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court has nine justices who are appointed by the president with the approval of the Senate. Congress has the power to create and organize the lower federal courts. Today, there are lower federal courts in every state. A case is filed and tried in the federal district courts and in some specialty courts, such as admiralty or bankruptcy courts. The trial courts look at the facts of the case and decide guilt or innocence or which side is right in an argument or dispute. The courts of appeal hear appeals of the losing parties. The appellate courts look at whether the trial was fair, whether the process followed the rules, and whether the law was correctly applied. To ensure that they are insulated from political influence, federal judges are appointed for life as long as they are on “good behavior.” This generally means for as long as they want the job or until they are impeached for committing a serious crime. In addition, the Constitution specifies that Congress cannot cut a judge’s pay. This prevents members of Congress from punishing a judge when they do not like one of his or her decisions.
The Court’s Authority (Article III Section 2)
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;—[between a State and Citizens of another State;-]8 between citizens of different States;—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States [and between a State, or the Citizens thereof;—and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.]9 In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the Supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all other Cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make. The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed. 8. Modified by Amendment XI. 9. Modified by Amendment XI.
But what does it mean???
The federal courts will decide arguments over how to interpret the Constitution, all laws passed by Congress, and our nation’s rights and responsibilities in agreements with other nations. In addition, federal courts can hear disputes that may arise between states, between citizens of different states, and between states and the federal government. In 1803, in the case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Marshall, interpreted Article III and Article VI to give the federal courts final say over the meaning of the federal Constitution and federal laws and the power to order state and federal officials to comply with its rulings. The federal courts can make decisions only on cases that are brought to them by a person who is actually affected by the law. Federal courts are not allowed to create cases on their own, even if they believe a law is unconstitutional, nor are they allowed to rule on hypothetical scenarios. Almost all federal cases start in federal district courts, where motions are decided and trials held. The cases are then heard on appeal by the federal courts of appeal and then by the Supreme Court if four justices of the nine-member court decide to hear the case. Congress can limit the power of the appeals courts by changing the rules about which cases can be appealed. State cases that involve an issue of federal law can also be heard by the Supreme Court after the highest court in the state rules (or refuses to rule) in the case. The Supreme Court accepts only a small number of cases for review, typically around 80 cases each year. In a small number of lawsuits — those involving ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, or where a state is a party — the Supreme Court is the first court to hear the case. The federal courts also have final say over guilt or innocence in federal criminal cases. A defendant in a criminal case, except impeachment, has a right to have his or her case heard by a jury in the state where the crime occurred.
Treason (Article III Section 3)
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court. The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.
But what does it mean???
Treason is the only crime specifically defined in the Constitution. According to Article III, Section 3, a person is guilty of treason if he or she goes to war against the United States or gives “aid or comfort” to an enemy. He or she does not have to physically pick up a weapon and fight in combat against U.S. troops. Actively helping the enemy by passing along classified information or supplying weapons, for example, can lead to charges of treason. Vocal opposition to a U.S. war effort through protest and demonstration, however, is protected by the free speech clause in the First Amendment. A conviction of treason must be based either on an admission of guilt in open court or on the testimony of two witnesses. Congress may set the punishment, but it must be directed only at the guilty person and not at his or her friends or family if they were not involved in the crime.
Checks and Balances
Our checks and balances system is based on the thoughts of 18th century French thinker Baron de Montesquieu. He wrote that “Power should be a check to power”. That quote describes our system of checks and balances system and ensures that no branch of government becomes too violent. Each branch of government can exercise checks, or controls, over the other branches.