The Federal Government of the United States is the central current reigning United States governmental body, established by the United States Constitution. The federal government has three branches: the legislative, executive, and judicial. Through a system of separation of powers and the system of "checks and balances," each of these branches has some authority to act on its own, some authority to regulate the other two branches, and has some of its own authority, in turn, regulated by the other branches. The policies of the federal government have a broad impact on both the domestic and foreign affairs of the United States. In addition, the powers of the federal government as a whole are limited by the Constitution, which, per the Tenth Amendment, gives all power not directed to the National government, to the State level, or to the people.
See main article: United States Congress.
The United States Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government. It is bicameral, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives consists of 435 voting members, each of whom represents a congressional district and serves for a two-year term. In addition to the 435 voting members there are five non-voting members, consisting of four delegates and one resident commissioner. There is one delegate each from the District of Columbia, Guam, Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, and the resident commissioner is from Puerto Rico.  House seats are apportioned among the states by population; in contrast, each state has two Senators, regardless of population. There are a total of 100 senators (as there are currently 50 states), who serve six-year terms (one third of the Senate stands for election every two years). Each congressional chamber (House or Senate) has particular exclusive powers—the Senate must give "advice and consent" to many important Presidential appointments, and the House must introduce any bills for the purpose of raising revenue. However, the consent of both chambers is required to make any law. The powers of Congress are limited to those enumerated in the Constitution; all other powers are reserved to the states and the people. The Constitution also includes the "Necessary and Proper Clause", which grants Congress the power to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers."Members of the House and Senate are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisiana and Washington, which have runoffs.
The Constitution does not specifically call for the establishment of Congressional committees. As the nation grew, however, so did the need for investigating pending legislation more thoroughly. The 108th Congress (2003-2005) had 19 standing committees in the House and 17 in the Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both houses overseeing the Library of Congress, printing, taxation, and the economy. In addition, each house can name special, or select, committees to study specific problems. Because of an increase in workload, the standing committees have also spawned some 150 subcommittees.
See main article: Article One of the United States Constitution.
The Constitution grants numerous powers to Congress. These include the powers to levy and collect taxes, provide for common defense and promote the pursuit of liberty; to coin money and regulate its value; provide for punishment for counterfeiting; establish post offices and roads, promote progress of science, create courts inferior to the Supreme Court, define and punish piracies and felonies, declare war, raise and support armies, provide and maintain a navy, make rules for the regulation of land and naval forces, provide for, arm, and discipline the militia, exercise exclusive legislation in the District of Columbia, and make laws necessary and proper to execute the powers of Congress.
See main article: Congressional oversight.
Congressional oversight is intended to prevent waste and fraud, protect civil liberties and individual rights, ensure executive compliance with the law, gather information for making laws and educating the public, and evaluate executive performance.
It applies to cabinet departments, executive agencies, regulatory commissions, and the presidency.Congress's oversight function takes many forms:
All executive power in the federal government is vested in the President of the United States, although power is often delegated to the Cabinet members and other officials. The President and Vice President are elected as 'running mates' for a maximum of two four-year terms by the Electoral College, for which each state, as well as the District of Columbia, is allocated a number of seats based on its representation (or ostensible representation, in the case of D.C.) in both houses of Congress.
See main article: President of the United States.
The Executive branch consists of the President and delegates. The President is both the head of state and government, as well as the military commander-in-chief (only when called into actual military services), chief diplomat and chief of party. The President, according to the Constitution, must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." The President presides over the executive branch of the federal government, a vast organization numbering about 4 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel. The current president is Barack Obama.
The President may sign legislation passed by Congress into law, or may veto it, preventing it from becoming law unless two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to override the veto. The President may, with the consent of two-thirds of the Senate, make treaties with foreign nations. The President may be impeached by a majority in the House and removed from office by a two-thirds majority in the Senate for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The President may not dissolve Congress or call special elections, but does have the power to pardon, or release, criminals convicted of offenses against the federal government (except in cases of impeachment), enact executive orders, and (with the consent of the Senate) appoint Supreme Court justices and federal judges.
See main article: Vice President of the United States.
The Vice President is the second-highest executive official of the government. At first in the United States presidential line of succession, the Vice President becomes President upon the death, resignation, or removal of the President, which has happened nine times in U.S. history. His only other constitutional duty is to serve as President of the Senate and break any tie votes in the Senate.
The relationship between the President and the Congress reflects that between the English monarchy and parliament at the time of the framing of the United States Constitution. While the President can directly propose legislation (for instance, the federal budget), he must rely on supporters in Congress to support and promote his legislative agenda. After identical copies of a particular bill have been approved by a majority of both houses of Congress, the President's signature is required to make these bills law; in this respect, the President has the power to veto congressional legislation. Congress can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority vote from both houses. The ultimate power of Congress over the President is that of impeachment or removal of the elected President through a House vote, a Senate trial, and a Senate vote (by two-thirds majority in favor). Nearly every president is threatened with the idea of impeachment, but only two Presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) have ever been successfully impeached, and neither was convicted by the Senate. Richard Nixon was not impeached in connection with the Watergate scandal, although the House Judiciary Committee had approved articles of impeachment against Nixon at the time he resigned.
The President makes around 2,000 executive appointments, including members of the Cabinet and ambassadors, which must be approved by the Senate; the President can also issue executive orders and pardons, and has other Constitutional duties, among them the requirement to give a State of the Union Address to Congress from time to time (usually once a year). (The Constitution does not specify that the State of the Union address be delivered in person; it can be in the form of a letter, as was the practice during most of the 19th century.) Although the President's constitutional role may appear to be constrained, in practice, the office carries enormous prestige that typically eclipses the power of Congress. The Vice President is first in the line of succession, and is the President of the Senate ex officio, with the ability to cast a tie-breaking vote. The members of the President's Cabinet are responsible for administering the various departments of state, including the Department of Defense, the Justice Department, and the State Department. These departments and department heads have considerable regulatory and political power, and it is they who are responsible for executing federal laws and regulations.
See main article: United States Cabinet.
See main article: List of United States federal agencies.
The day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws is in the hands of the various federal executive departments, created by Congress to deal with specific areas of national and international affairs. The heads of the 15 departments, chosen by the President and approved with the "advice and consent" of the U.S. Senate, form a council of advisers generally known as the President's "Cabinet". In addition to departments, there are a number of staff organizations grouped into the Executive Office of the President. These include the White House staff, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
There are also independent agencies such as the United States Postal Service, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Agency for International Development. In addition, there are government-owned corporations such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the National Railroad Passenger Corporation.
By law, each agency must submit an annual Section 300 report to the President's Office of Management & Budget.
This is part of a larger set of more extensive annual requirements called Circular A-11. Section 300 specifically covers planning, budgeting, acquisition, and management of capital assets. The details on how agencies collect and share information and how they are upgrading and improving their information technology decisions are becoming increasingly important. Within Section 300 there is a special exhibit called Exhibit 53 which gives extensive details on agency information technology investments. These investments make up most of the information technology investments from the annual budgets. For the fiscal year 2008's budget, that spending exceeds $66.4 billion.
See main article: United States federal courts.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal court system. The court deals with matters pertaining to the federal government, disputes between states, and interpretation of the United States Constitution, and can declare legislation or executive action made at any level of the government as unconstitutional, nullifying the law and creating precedent for future law and decisions. Below the Supreme Court are the courts of appeals, and below them in turn are the district courts, which are the general trial courts for federal law.
Separate from, but not entirely independent of, this federal court system are the individual court systems of each state, each dealing with its own laws and having its own judicial rules and procedures.
The supreme court of each state is the final authority on the interpretation of that state's laws and constitution. A case may be appealed from a state court to the U.S. Supreme Court only if there is a federal question (an issue arising under the U.S. Constitution, or laws/treaties of the United States). The relationship between federal and state laws is quite complex; together, they form the U.S. law.
The federal judiciary consists of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose justices are appointed for life by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and various "lower" or "inferior courts," among which are the courts of appeals and district courts.
The first Congress divided the nation into judicial districts and created federal courts for each district. From that beginning has evolved the present structure: the Supreme Court, 13 courts of appeals, 94 district courts, and two courts of special jurisdiction. Congress retains the power to create and abolish federal courts, as well as to determine the number of judges in the federal judiciary system. It cannot, however, abolish the Supreme Court.
There are three levels of federal courts with general jurisdiction, meaning that these courts handle criminal cases and civil law suits between individuals. The other courts, such as the bankruptcy courts and the tax court, are specialized courts handling only certain kinds of cases. The bankruptcy courts are branches of the district courts, but technically are not considered part of the "Article III" judiciary because their judges do not have lifetime tenure. Similarly, the tax court is not an Article III court.
The U.S. district courts are the "trial courts" where cases are filed and decided. The United States courts of appeals are "appellate courts" that hear appeals of cases decided by the district courts, and some direct appeals from administrative agencies. The Supreme Court hears appeals from the decisions of the courts of appeals or state supreme courts (on constitutional matters), as well as having original jurisdiction over a very small number of cases.
The judicial power extends to cases arising under the Constitution, an Act of Congress, or a U.S. treaty; cases affecting ambassadors, ministers, and consuls of foreign countries in the U.S.; controversies in which the U.S. government is a party; controversies between states (or their citizens) and foreign nations (or their citizens or subjects); and bankruptcy cases. The Eleventh Amendment removed from federal jurisdiction cases in which citizens of one state were the plaintiffs and the government of another state was the defendant. It did not disturb federal jurisdiction in cases in which a state government is a plaintiff and a citizen of another state the defendant.
The power of the federal courts extends both to civil actions for damages and other redress, and to criminal cases arising under federal law. Article III has resulted in a complex set of relationships between state and federal courts. Ordinarily, federal courts do not hear cases arising under the laws of individual states. However, some cases over which federal courts have jurisdiction may also be heard and decided by state courts. Both court systems thus have exclusive jurisdiction in some areas and concurrent jurisdiction in others.
The Constitution safeguards judicial independence by providing that federal judges shall hold office "during good behaviour"; in practice, this usually means they serve until they die, retire, or resign. A judge who commits an offence whilst in office may be impeached in the same way as the President or other officials of the federal government. U.S. judges are appointed by the President, subject to confirmation by the Senate. Another Constitutional provision prohibits Congress from reducing the pay of any judge. Congress is able to set a lower salary for all future judges that take office after the reduction, but may not decrease the rate of pay for judges already in office.
See main article: Elections in the United States.
Suffrage, commonly known as the ability to vote, has changed significantly over time. In the early years of the United States, voting was considered a matter for state governments, and was commonly restricted to white men who owned land. Direct elections were mostly held only for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures, although what specific bodies were elected by the electorate varied from state to state. Under this original system, both senators representing each state in the U.S. Senate were chosen by a majority vote of the state legislature. Since the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, members of both houses of Congress have been directly elected.
Today, partially due to the Twenty-sixth Amendment, U.S. citizens have almost universal suffrage from the age of 18, regardless of race, gender, or wealth, and both Houses of Congress are directly elected. The only exception to this is the disenfranchisement of convicted felons, and in some states former felons as well.
Currently, the national representation of territories and the federal district of Washington, D.C., in Congress is limited: residents of the District of Columbia are subject to federal laws and federal taxes, but their only congressional representative is a non-voting delegate. Residents of U.S. territories have varying rights; for example, residents of Puerto Rico do not pay federal taxes (on local income), but cannot vote for President and have no voting representatives in Congress.
See main article: U.S. state and Local government in the United States. The state governments tend to have the greatest influence over most Americans' daily lives because they handle the issues most relevant for an individual in that state. The state also goes through budget cuts at any time the economy is faltering, which the collective public they are responsible for feel most.
Each state has its own written constitution, government, and code of laws. There are sometimes great differences in law and procedure between individual states, concerning issues such as property, crime, health, and education. The highest elected official of each state is the Governor. Each state also has an elected state legislature (bicameralism is a feature of every state except Nebraska), whose members represent the voters of the state. Each state maintains its own state court system. In some states, supreme and lower court justices are elected by the people; in others, they are appointed, as they are in the federal system.
As a result of the Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia, Indian tribes are considered "domestic dependent nations" that operate as sovereign governments subject to federal authority but, generally and where possible, outside of the influence of state governments. Hundreds of laws, executive orders, and court cases have modified the governmental status of tribes vis-à-vis individual states, but the two have continued to be recognised as separate bodies. Tribal capacity to operate robust governments varies, from a simple council used to manage all aspects of tribal affairs, to large and complex bureaucracies with several branches of government. Tribes are empowered to form their own governments, with power resting in elected tribal councils, elected tribal chairpersons, or religiously appointed leaders (as is the case with pueblos). Tribal citizenship (and voting rights) is generally restricted to individuals of native descent, but tribes are free to set whatever membership requirements they wish.
The institutions that are responsible for local government in states are typically town, city, or county boards, water management districts, fire management districts, library districts, and other similar governmental units which make laws that affect their particular area. These laws concern issues such as traffic, the sale of alcohol, and the keeping of animals. The highest elected official of a town or city is usually the mayor. In New England, towns operate in a direct democratic fashion, and in some states, such as Rhode Island and Connecticut, counties have little or no power, existing only as geographic distinctions. In other areas, county governments have more power, such as to collect taxes and maintain law enforcement agencies.