There are three branches of government – the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. These three branches were designed in order to keep any one person from getting too much power. When our country first began, it was because one ruler – King George had too much power and refused to listen to the people from the colonies. The people in America did not like this. They worked very hard for their money and did not think it was fair that a monarch who lived thousands of miles away could tax them, thereby taking away their money all because he kept getting into very expensive wars. No matter how much the colonists complained, King George did not listen to them.
|Our Founding Fathers knew what they wanted in a new government|
What were they to do? One thing was certain, if they had all the power, they would make sure a single person never got too much power again. It was a form of checks and balances, so one branch could check the other branches to keep the power of our country balanced. This is how they decided to have three branches of the government. So, what exactly do these three parts do?
|The President's House - Philadelphia|
The executive branch – or the President of the United States, is the most recognized branch of the government. Currently, this person is President Barack Obama. What does the president do? This was something George Washington asked himself as he became the very first president. He had never been president before – no one had. He had been a farmer, a surveyor, and a soldier, but never a president.
|Our current president's house - the White House|
The president can:
1. appoint advisors who will give him sound advice on what to do such as the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of the Interior, and many others. These important men made up the President’s cabinet (no this is not the cabinet like in your kitchen. This cabinet is a group of men or women to help the president make important decisions).
2. sign a law or veto it. Even if the president vetoes a bill, Congress can outvote this veto with a 2/3s vote.
3. sign and negotiate treaties. Important treaties included the Treaty of Versailles.
4. Extend pardons or clemencies for federal crimes
5. Give the State of the Union address and other speeches to the American people when necessary
6. Live in the White House with his family during his term of office
7. Appoint federal judges
The President must be over 35 years of age, a citizen born in the United States, and have lived in this country over 14 years. He or she can only serve two terms in office. Only one president was ever elected to more than 2 terms – Franklin D. Roosevelt. Actually, George Washington was asked to run for a third term, but he refused, therefore opening the door to John Adams. Franklin Roosevelt was elected 4 times, but he died before he could truly serve his fourth term.
|Our first legislators sat here|
The legislative branch – includes all the members of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. This is the governing branch of our nation and also includes the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress. They have the power to make laws. They can also create new taxes (better be careful or the people will think they are too much like King George and kick them out of office). They can also declare war, like when the World Trade Center was attacked. Currently, there are 535 members of Congress. While you don’t have to be born in the United States to be a member of Congress, you do have to be a citizen.
|The Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol building|
The House – you must be elected into the House of Representatives, be at least 25 years old, and have lived in this country at least 7 years. (remember you have to be a citizen too). Each state has representatives based on the number of people in that state – so states with bigger populations have more representatives. The Speaker of the House is in charge while they are discussing important issues. Guess what? The Speaker of the House can succeed the President and Vice President if something happens to both of them. Only the House can create new taxes, impeach the president, and break a tie in a presidential election. By the way, only twice has the House voted to impeach a president, but both times, when the president went on trial in the Senate, the senators could not agree to impeach.
The Senate – you are also elected into the Senate. You have to be 30, have lived in this country 9 years, and live in the state you represent. There are only 100 senators or 2 from each state. This is so no state has more power than any other, no matter how big they are like Alaska, California, and Texas. They have the same power as Delaware, Vermont, or Rhode Island. While the Speaker of the House is in charge of the House, the Vice President is in charge of the Senate. The Senate confirms or rejects presidential appointees and approve agreements with foreign countries.
|The Supreme Court building|
The judicial branch – This includes all courts in the federal and national court system. The Supreme Court of the United States is a group of nine justices who are chosen by our president and is the highest court in the land. A justice is appointed when an old one either resigns or dies in office. This means that once appointed by the president, the job is theirs for life. Throughout our history, mostly men have held this office, until Sandra Day O’Conner became the first female to be appointed. Currently three females sit on the Supreme Court – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
|Before they had their own building, the justices had a room in the Capitol|
It’s not easy to take your case to the Supreme Court. You must first go through the US district courts, then the court of appeals, and finally you can try to see if the justices will choose your case to be heard. They only hear a certain number of cases per year because there just is not time to hear all of them. Did you know that before we had one building for our Supreme Court, the men had to travel around the new nation on horseback from state to state? This was a huge logistical problem
The Chief Justice swears the new president in after each election. The next time we have a presidential election, check to see who swears the president in on inauguration day. There are many famous cases in Supreme Court history – Dred Scott case, Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka (desegregation), and Gore vs. Bush (ask your parents about the hanging chads).
|Old City Hall - sight of the first Supreme Court|
So now you know about the three branches of government. We need each one so we do not become like old King George, a tyrant who helped give birth to a nation.