Federal government of the United States

The history of the Federal government of the USA since 1789. The United States Congress as the legislative branch of the federal government and its powers. Executive and Judicial branches, President. Relationships between state and federal courts.

12.04.2012
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FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED STATES

The federal government of the United States is the federal government of the constitutional republic of fifty states and one district that is the United States of America. The federal government comprises three distinct branches of government: a legislative, an executive and a judiciary. These branches and their various powers are delineated in the U.S. Constitution; the powers are specified in greater detail in laws enacted by Congress.

The seat of government of the United States is in Washington, D.C., a geographical area that is not located within any state. This has led to Washington commonly being used as a metonym for the U.S. federal government.

History.

Diagram of Federal Government and American Union, 1862.

The outline of the government of the United States is laid out in the Constitution. The government was formed in 1789, making the United States one of the world's first, if not the first, modern national constitutional republic.

The United States government as is based on the principle of federalism, in which power is shared between the federal government and state governments. The details of American federalism, including what powers the federal government should have and how those powers can be exercised, have been debated ever since the adoption of the Constitution. Some make the case for expansive federal powers while others argue for a more limited role for the central government in relation to individuals, the states or other recognized entities.

Since the U.S. Civil War, the powers of the federal government have generally expanded greatly, although there have been periods since that time of legislative branch dominance (e.g., the decades immediately following the Civil War) or when states' rights proponents have succeeded in limiting federal power through legislative action, executive prerogative or by constitutional interpretation by the courts.

One of the theoretical pillars of the United States Constitution is the idea of checks and balances among the powers and responsibilities of the three branches of American government: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary. For example, while the Congress (legislative) has the power to create law, the executive (President) can veto any legislation - an act which, in turn, can be overridden by Congress. The President nominates judges to the nation's highest judiciary authority (The Supreme Court), but those nominees must be approved by Congress. The Supreme Court, in its turn, has the power to invalidate as unconstitutional any law passed by the Congress. These and other examples are examined in more detail in the text below.

Legislative branch.

The United States Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government. It is bicameral, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Powers of Congress. The Constitution grants numerous powers to Congress. Enumerated in Article I, Section 8, these include the powers to levy and collect taxes; to coin money and regulate its value; provide for punishment for counterfeiting; establish post offices and roads, promote progress of science by issuing patents, create federal courts inferior to the Supreme Court, combat 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 to make laws necessary to properly execute powers. Over the two centuries since the United States was formed, many disputes have arisen over the limits on the powers of the federal government. These disputes have often been the subject of lawsuits that have ultimately been decided by the United States Supreme Court.

Makeup of Congress.

House of Representatives. The House currently consists of 435 voting members, each of whom represents a congressional district. The number of representatives each state has in the House is based on each state's population as determined in the most recent United States Census. All 435 representatives serve a two-year term. Each state receives a minimum of one representative in the House. In order to be elected as a representative, an individual must be at least 25 years of age, and must have been a U.S. citizen for at least seven years. There is no limit on the number of terms a representative may serve. In addition to the 435 voting members, there are six non-voting members, consisting of five delegates and one resident commissioner. There is one delegate each from the District of Columbia, Guam, Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and the resident commissioner from Puerto Rico.

Senate. In contrast the Senate is made up of two senators from each state, regardless of population. There is currently a total of 100 senators (two from each of the 50 states), who each serve six-year terms. Approximately one third of the Senate stands for election every two years.

Different powers. The House and Senate each have particular exclusive powers. For example, the Senate must approve (give advice and consent to) many important Presidential appointments, including cabinet officers, federal judges (including nominees to the Supreme Court), department secretaries (heads of federal executive branch departments), U.S. military and naval officers, and ambassadors to foreign countries. All legislative bills for the purpose of raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives. The approval of both chambers is required to pass any legislation, which then may only become law by being signed by the President (or, if the President vetoes the bill, both houses of Congress then re-pass the bill, but by a two-thirds majority of each chamber, in which case the bill becomes law without the President's signature). 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.

Impeachment of federal officers. Congress has the power to remove the President, federal judges, and other federal officers from office. The House of Representatives and Senate have separate roles in this process. The House must first vote to impeach the official. Then, a trial is held in the Senate to decide whether the official should be removed from office. Although two presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton), neither of them was removed following trial in the Senate.

Congressional procedures. Article I, Section 2, paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives each chamber the power to determine the rules of its proceedings. From this provision were created congressional committees, which do the work of drafting legislation and conducting congressional investigations into national matters. 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 may name special, or select, committees to study specific problems. Today, much of the congressional workload is borne by subcommittees, of which there are some 150.

Powers of Congress

federal government united states

The United States Capitol is the seat of government for Congress.

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:

- Committee inquiries and hearings

- Formal consultations with and reports from the President

- Senate advice and consent for presidential nominations and for treaties

- House impeachment proceedings and subsequent Senate trials

- House and Senate proceedings under the 25th Amendment in the event that the President becomes disabled or the office of the Vice President falls vacant.

- Informal meetings between legislators and executive officials

- Congressional membership: each state is allocated a number of seats based on its representation (or ostensible representation, in the case of D.C.) in the House of Representatives. Each state is allocated two Senators regardless of its population. As of January 2010, the District of Columbia elects a non-voting representative to the House of Representatives along with American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Executive branch. The 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 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. The President is limited to a maximum of two non-consecutive, as well as being able to have served for 2 years after succeeding to the presidency, prior to his last term.

President. The executive branch consists of the President and those to whom the President's powers are delegated. The President is both the head of state and government, as well as the military commander-in-chief and chief diplomat. The President, according to the Constitution, must take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. The President presides over the executive branch of the federal government, an organization numbering about 5 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel and 600000 postal service employees. The forty-fourth and 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 unilaterally sign treaties with foreign nations. However, ratification of international treaties requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate. 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.

Vice President

The Vice President is the second-highest executive official in rank of the government. As first in the U.S. 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. Under the Constitution, the Vice President is President of the Senate. By virtue of this role, he or she is the head of the Senate. In that capacity, the Vice President is allowed to vote in the Senate, but only when necessary to break a tie vote. Pursuant to the Twelfth Amendment, the Vice President presides over the joint session of Congress when it convenes to count the vote of the Electoral College. While the Vice President's only constitutionally prescribed functions, aside from presidential succession, relate to his or her role as President of the Senate, the office is now commonly viewed as a member of the executive branch of the federal government. The U.S. Constitution does not expressly assign the office to any one branch, causing scholars to dispute whether it belongs to the executive branch, the legislative branch, or both.

Cabinet, executive departments and agencies

Secretary of State. The Secretary of State is the Chief Executive Officer of the United States Department of State, the most senior of all federal executive departments. The Secretary of State is the third-highest official of the executive branch of the federal government of the United States, after the President and Vice President. The Secretary is a member of the President's Cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in the presidential line of succession and order of precedence. The Secretary has many duties and responsibilities. The Secretary serves as the President's chief adviser on U.S. foreign policy and as such negotiates, interprets, and terminates treaties and agreements, personally participates in or directs U.S. representatives to international conferences, organizations, and agencies, conducts negotiations relating to U.S. foreign affairs, and is responsible for the administration and management of foreign embassies and consulate offices. Foreign trade missions and intelligence assets report directly to the Secretary of State. The Secretary is also responsible for overall direction, coordination, and supervision of interdepartmental activities of the U.S. government overseas.

Other cabinet officials, commissions and 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 Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The employees in these United States government agencies are called federal civil servants.

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.

Judicial branch. The Judiciary explains and applies the laws. This branch does this by hearing and eventually making decisions on various legal cases.

Overview of the federal judiciary. Article III section I of the Constitution establishes The Supreme Court of the United States and authorizes the United States Congress to establish inferior courts as their need shall arise. Section I also establishes a life time tenure for all federal judges and states that their compensation may not be diminished during their time in office. Article II section II establishes that all federal judges are to be appointed by the president and confirmed by the United States Senate.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 subdivided the nation jurisdictionally into judicial districts and created federal courts for each district. The three tiered structure of this act established the basic structure of the national judiciary: the Supreme Court, 13 courts of appeals, 94 district courts, and two courts of special jurisdiction. Congress, retains the power to re-organize or even abolish federal courts lower than the Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court adjudicates cases and controversies-matters pertaining to the federal government, disputes between states, and interpretation of the United States Constitution, and, in general, 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. The United States Constitution does not grant the judicial branch the power of judicial review (the power to declare a law Unconstitutional).The power of judicial review was asserted by Chief Justice Marshall in the landmark Supreme Court Case Marbury v. Madison (1803). There have been instances in the past where such declarations have been ignored by the other two branches. Below the U.S. Supreme Court are the United States Courts of Appeals, and below them in turn are the United States District Courts, which are the general trial courts for federal law, and for certain controversies between litigants who are not deemed citizens of the same state (diversity jurisdiction).

There are three levels of federal courts with general jurisdiction, meaning that these courts handle criminal cases and civil lawsuits between individuals. The other courts, such as the bankruptcy courts and the Tax Court, are specialized courts handling only certain kinds of cases (subject matter jurisdiction). The Bankruptcy Courts are under the district courts, and as such are not considered part of the Article III judiciary and also as such their judges do not have lifetime tenure, nor are they Constitutionally exempt from diminution of their remuneration. Also the Tax Court is not an Article III court (but is, instead an Article I Court).

The district courts are the trial courts wherein cases that are considered under the Judicial Code (Title 28, United States Code) consistent with the jurisdictional precepts of federal question jurisdiction and diversity jurisdiction and pendent jurisdiction can be filed and decided. The district courts can also hear cases under removal jurisdiction, wherein a case brought in State court meets the requirements for diversity jurisdiction, and one party litigant chooses to remove the case from state court to federal court.

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, and some interlocutory appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court hears appeals from the decisions of the courts of appeals or state supreme courts, and in addition has original jurisdiction over a small number of cases.

The judicial power extends to cases arising under the Constitution, an Act of Congress; a U.S. treaty; cases affecting ambassadors, ministers and consuls of foreign countries in the U.S.; cases and controversies to which the federal government is a party; controversies between states (or their citizens) and foreign nations (or their citizens or subjects); and bankruptcy cases (collectively federal-question jurisdiction). 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. The interplay of the Supremacy Clause and Article III has resulted in a complex set of relationships between state and federal courts. Federal courts can sometimes hear cases arising under state law pursuant to diversity jurisdiction, state courts can decide certain matters involving federal law, and a handful of federal claims are primarily reserved by federal statute to the state courts (for example, those arising from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991). Both court systems thus can be said to have exclusive jurisdiction in some areas and concurrent jurisdiction in others.

The U.S. Constitution safeguards judicial independence by providing that federal judges shall hold office during good behavior; in practice, this usually means they serve until they die, retire, or resign. A judge who commits an offense while 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 Article III 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).

Relationships between state and federal courts. Separate from, but not entirely independent of, this federal court system are the court systems of each state, each dealing with, in addition to federal law when not deemed preempted, a state's own laws, and having its own court rules and procedures. Although state governments and the federal government are legally dual sovereigns, the Supreme Court of the United States is in many cases the appellate court from the State Supreme Courts (e.g., absent the Court countenancing the applicability of the doctrine of adequate and independent State grounds). The Supreme Courts of each state are by this doctrine the final authority on the interpretation of the applicable state's laws and Constitution. Many state constitution provisions are equal in breadth to those of the U.S. Constitution, but are considered parallel (thus, where, for example, the right to privacy pursuant to a state constitution is broader than the federal right to privacy, and the asserted ground is explicitly held to be independent, the question can be finally decided in a State Supreme Court-the U.S. Supreme Court will decline to take jurisdiction).

A State Supreme Court, other than of its own accord, is bound only by the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of federal law, but is not bound by interpretation of federal law by the federal court of appeals for the federal circuit in which the state is included, or even the federal district courts located in the state, a result of the dual sovereigns concept. Conversely, a federal district court hearing a matter involving only a question of state law (usually through diversity jurisdiction) must apply the substantive law of the state in which the court sits, a result of the application of the Erie Doctrine; however, at the same time, the case is heard under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence instead of state procedural rules (that is, the application of the Erie Doctrine only extends to a requirement that a federal court asserting diversity jurisdiction apply substantive state law, but not procedural state law, which may be different). Together, the laws of the federal and state governments form U.S. law.

Elections and voting. 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.

Under the U.S. Constitution, 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, only some residents of Puerto Rico pay federal income taxes (though all residents must pay all other federal taxes, including import/export taxes, federal commodity taxes and federal payroll taxes, including Social Security and Medicare). All federal laws that are not locally inapplicable are automatically the law of the land in Puerto Rico but their current representation in the U.S. Congress is in the form of a Resident Commissioner, a nonvoting delegate.

State, tribal and local governments. United States, showing states, divided into counties (parishes in Louisiana; boroughs in Alaska). Note that Alaska and Hawaii are shown at different scales, and that the Aleutian Islands and the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are omitted from this map.

The state governments tend to have the greatest influence over most Americans' daily lives. The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the federal government from exercising any power not delegated to it by the States in the Constitution; as a result, states handle the majority of issues most relevant to individuals within their jurisdiction. Because state governments lack the power to print currency, they must raise revenue either through taxes or bonds. As a result, state governments tend to impose severe budget cuts at any time the economy is faltering, which are strongly felt by the public for which they are responsible.

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--vis individual states, but the two have continued to be recognized 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 within 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.

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