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Civics in Action
August 2020

The Three Branches of Government

 

 

By Rebecca Zissou

Our nation’s founders wanted to create a country in which no single person or group could hold too much power. As a result, they set up three main branches of government in the U.S. Constitution. Here’s how each branch operates—and how the three work together to govern our nation.

The U.S. Constitution established three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. Here’s how each branch operates—and how the three work together to govern our nation. (As you read, look for the ways these branches are designed to check each other’s powers!)

The Legislative Branch

The Legislative Branch

The legislative branch is Congress, which is made up of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Its main job is to make our nation’s laws.

The legislative branch is Congress, which is made up of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Its main job is to make our nation’s laws. Congress writes, debates, and passes bills (proposals for new laws). Bills passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by the president become law.

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The Senate

The Senate

Each state has two senators, which means there are 100 senators total. These senators are elected to six-year terms.

Each state has two senators who are elected to six-year terms, which means there are 100 senators total. The Senate checks the power of the executive branch by approving or rejecting top-level nominations that the president makes, such as Supreme Court justices.

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The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives

The number of representatives per state is based on each state’s population. Currently, there are 435 representatives. These representatives are elected to two-year terms. 

The number of representatives per state is based on each state’s population. Currently, there are 435 representatives who are elected to two-year terms. Bills that deal with raising revenue, or money, for the federal budget begin in the House.

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The Executive Branch

The Executive Branch

The executive branch is led by the president. It enforces federal, or national, laws. The president often draws on the advice of the vice president and a group of advisers called the Cabinet.

The executive branch, led by the president, enforces federal laws. The president often draws on the advice of the vice president and Cabinet members.

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The President

The President

The president is elected to a four-year term and can be elected only twice. He or she can sign (pass into law) or veto (reject) bills passed by Congress. It is also the president’s job to nominate Supreme Court justices and federal judges.

The president is elected to a four-year term. He or she submits a proposed federal budget to Congress and is commander in chief of the U.S. military. He or she also nominates Supreme Court justices, federal judges, and other officials. The president can sign (pass into law) or veto (reject) bills passed by Congress.

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The Vice President

The Vice President

The vice president is elected to a four-year term on the same ticket as the president. If the president dies or leaves office, the vice president takes over.

The vice president is elected to a four-year term on the same ticket as the president and takes over the top spot if the president dies or leaves office. He or she also presides over the Senate, casting the deciding vote in the event of a tie.

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The Cabinet

The Cabinet

These people are appointed, or chosen, by the president—but the Senate must approve them. Most cabinet members oversee federal departments, such as Education and Defense.

These people are appointed by the president to serve as advisers, but the Senate must approve them. Most cabinet members oversee federal departments, such as Defense, Justice, and Education.

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The Judicial Branch

The Judicial Branch

The judicial branch is the federal court system. It is headed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the nation. The Supreme Court has the power to overturn laws that do not agree with the U.S. Constitution.

The judicial branch is the federal court system, and its main job is to evaluate the nation’s laws. It is headed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the nation.

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The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has nine members, called justices. Justices are chosen by the president, but the Senate must approve them. They serve until death, retirement, or their removal. 

The Supreme Court’s nine members, called justices, serve until death, retirement, or their removal. They review cases to determine whether laws enacted by Congress or the states violate the Constitution—and overturn laws that do. They also hear appeals (requests for new rulings) of decisions made by lower federal courts. The Supreme Court’s decisions can’t be appealed.

Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Other Federal Courts

Other Federal Courts

There are more than 100 federal courts throughout the U.S. At the lowest level are 94 U.S. District Courts that cover different regions of the country. Above the District Courts are the 13 Courts of Appeals. These courts study decisions by the lower courts and either accept or reject them.

There are 94 U.S. District Courts, where federal cases are tried. There are also 13 Courts of Appeals, which hear cases on appeal from District Courts.

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