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Branches Of Government

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The founders of the United States Constitution knew it was important to form a government that did not allow one person to have too much control. While under control of the British monarchical government, they found that too much power corrupts. Yet government under the Articles of Confederation taught them that there was a need for a strong centralized government. With this in mind, the men wrote the Constitution to provide for three separate, but equally powerful branches of government known as the Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, and the Judicial Branch. The separation of powers allows for a system of checks and balances within the government. Each branch is given certain control over the other two, which distributes the power and keeps abuse of power to a minimum.

The Legislative Branch

The first article of the Constitution states that there shall be a bicameral legislature containing two separate legislative bodies: a House of Representatives and a Senate, called Congress. The two bodies of Congress work together to write, debate, and pass bills, which are then passed on to the President for approval.

There are 100 senators and 435 representatives. Each state has two senators, whereas a state's population determines the number of representatives. Each member represents an area of the state called a congressional district, and the number of representatives is based on the number of districts a state has. Densely populated states, like New York, would have more representatives than a sparsely populated state, such as Montana.

The Senate: The Upper House

The citizens of the United States elect our senators, although it hasn't always been that way. Before the 17th Amendment was passed, each state's legislature would elect them. Also, not just anyone is able to run for the Senate. There are certain qualifications a senator must have. They must be 30 years of age, have been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and must reside in the state they seek to represent. A senator is elected for a six-year term, and there is no limit on the number of times a person may be elected.

The Senate has specified powers named by the Constitution; it serves as the judge and jury of impeachment trials, appoints certain officials, and has the power to approve treaties made by the executive government, among others. The Senate and the House must agree on all of the bills passed, and is done so during certain conference committees.

The House of Representatives

This house of Congress is known as the lower house. The qualifications to be a representative are more relaxed than those to be a senator. A representative must be 25 years old, must have been a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and must also reside in the state in which they represent. A representative is not required to live in the district they represent, but some state laws require this.

The Senate has specific powers, and so does the House. The House has the power to

Although Congress has numerous responsibilities and powers under the Constitution, its chief function is to make laws. The legislative process can be quite complicated. A proposed law, or bill, must pass through a series of steps before it is voted upon on the House and Senate floors. At any one of these steps, a bill can be delayed, defeated, or amended (changed). Most bills that are introduced do not survive this process and do not become law.

Suppose you had fifteen minutes to describe the ten most important features of the U.S. Congress - could you do it? Don't worry, help is close by.

Executive Branch

The executive branch of government makes sure that the laws of the United States are obeyed. Article II, section 1, of the Constitution vests the President of the United States the head of the executive branch. The United States has had 42 Presidents. How many can you name? How many presidents have we had in your life time? No women have been elected to the Oval Office, yet women make up half the population of the U.S. Do you think that a woman will be elected president in the next decade? In the next twenty years? Ever? Why do you think a woman has never been elected to the presidency?

The President

Vice President

The Vice President of the United States is second in command. This person must be ready to become president or acting president at a moment's notice if the president dies, resigns, is removed from office, or becomes unable to perform the duties of office. Only nine of our nation's 45 vice president have had to do this: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald R. Ford.

The Constitution of the United States defines only one official duty for the vice president. He is the president of the U.S. Senate. The president, however, can choose to delegate additional responsibilities to this person and since 1933, the vice presidents have attended meetings of the president's Cabinet. At this point, only five vice presidents have been successfully elected as president: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon and George Bush.

You may want to read the biographies of Vice Presidents from Grolier Online and then take the Vice Presidents Trivia Quiz.

First Lady

The wife of a president is called the First Lady. Read about some of our most recent first ladies, Laura Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, and Jacqueline Kennedy, and learn how they have influenced their husband's administration. Many of these women were activists for issues of their times. Discover which first lady was a champion of women's rights, which started a "Just Say No to Drugs" campaign, which supported mental health programs and which focused on adult literacy.

The Executive branch is very large so the President gets help from the Vice President, department heads (Cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies.

The Cabinet

The Cabinet is composed of the heads of the 14 executive departments:

Department of Agriculture




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