Understanding the Branches of Government

Understanding the Branches of Government

An Overview Of Purpose And Differing Powers

The United States constitution was constructed by individuals who experienced oppression and dictatorships of Europe. These individuals were also highly educated men who had an understanding of ancient history and set out to create a form of government that mimicked the democracies of Ancient Greece. Having also studied John Locke and Thomas Hobbes the forefathers of the US constitution sought establish a form of government that barred a dictator or tyrant ruler from usurping power from the people.

Drawing on the social contract theory of Hobbs and Locke, the forefathers designed democratic republic in which authority was spread amongst three branches of government. Referred to as the separation of powers or the system of checks and balances the US government is divided into three branches; legislative, judicial and executive. Each branch maintains specific powers which are capable of overriding the other branches of government. Each branch also has specific duties which balance the work of government (Padover, & Landynski, 1995).

The Legislative Branch consists of two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The primary mission of these two branches is to design laws for the nation and to ensure that the laws and actions of the other two branches are in the interest of the people. Some of the primary powers of the legislative branch include: passing federal laws; establishment of lower federal courts; override of the Presidential veto; and the power to impeach federal officials including the president (The White House, 2010).

The Senate, the second half of the legislative branch, has the sole power to confirm the President’s appointments such as to federal agencies, and to ratify treaties with foreign powers. The Senate also tries impeachment cases for federal officials referred to it by the House of Representatives. In order to pass legislation and send it to the President for his signature, both the House and the Senate must pass the same bill by majority vote. If the President vetoes a bill, the houses may override the president’s veto by passing the bill again with at least two-thirds from both houses (The White House, 2010).

The duty of the Executive Branch is to enforce the laws of the United States. The branch is headed by the President of the United States. The President is by far, the most influential person in the US government. The president represents the nation to the rest of the world and speaks for the American people (The White House, 2010). However, the actions and opinions of the President represent the Executive branch as a whole. The power of the Executive Branch is vested in the President of the United States, who also acts as head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. The President’s responsibilities are inclusive of implementing and enforcing the laws written by Congress and as a result is granted the power to appoint the heads of federal agencies (Padover , & Landynski , 1995).

The three branches of government are designed to interact in a manner that upholds the constitution, “…to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity (US Constitution, 1787)…” Essentially, the three branches of government are designed to interact in a manner that preserves the freedom for the citizens of the United States while at the same time maintaining the security and safety of the country. In essence, the three branches of government are the social contract of the US. By virtue of the fact that each branch is formed through democratic process the people ultimately maintain the power to control officials through voting (The White House, 2010).

The interaction of the three branches of government is often complicated because of the different populations represented by different representatives. The House of Representatives is often at odds with itself and with the Senate because of the larger number of constituents representing different interests across larger demographics and viewpoints. For instance, a state such as California which has 53 representatives is also divided 69% Democratic and 31% Republican. This creates a disparity in voting in which large portions of the population can never be fully satisfied with congressional decisions. This disparity can be seen as a failure in the legislative process, yet somehow the country has managed to grow financially and culturally by abiding by a majority rule (The White House, 2010).

Another failure of the system is the balance of power between branches of government. The executive branch, because it controls military and police powers is ultimately the largest seat of power in government. There have been occasions in which the president has declared martial law. President Lincoln declared martial law in Maryland in order to stop southern sympathizers from revolting at the onset of the Civil War. The suspension of civil rights and imposing of military rule is allowable in the constitution. Article 1, Section 9 states, “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” However, the power to suspend Habeas Corpus is vested in the Executive branch and this power is reserved for the president. The president could, for any variety of reasons, declare martial law at any time. The problem is that congress is a slower acting vehicle of government and even if it could convene quickly to stop the president the voting process could take time and might not go against the president’s decision. In this example, should the Congress and the Executive branches become deadlocked, the Judiciary would need to rule in order to break the deadlock. Still, because of the president’s power to control military and police there is the possibility that the President could misuse authority. This situation has occurred in the past with the well known Watergate scandal involving Richard Nixon. President Nixon misused his authority by having government intelligence and law enforcement agencies cover-up presidential wrongdoings (White, 1975).

Yet even with these inherent flaws, the US continues to grow. The forefathers of the constitution were, during their time, concerned with a single tyrant or a foreign power taking control of the US. During the early years of the United States, the divisions of power between the federal and state governments were of more concern. The forefathers needed to have an effective and efficient form of government that was also controllable.

The US Constitution forms a federalist government in which states rights are balanced between individual rights and federal authority. In early days of the United States, many individuals were divided on the topic of state vs. federal authority. There were individuals such as Thomas Jefferson, who vehemently opposed a strong federal government as it could lead to tyranny. At the same time, figures such as Alexander Hamilton were opposed to Thomas Jefferson believing that the federal government needed to be strong in order to accomplish its goal of protecting the mission of the constitution.

In this difference of opinion, advocates of state’s rights believed that states should have the autonomy to create their own laws and enforce them as they saw fit. They also did not believe that the federal government should be able to tax states or individuals. Those individuals in opposition to states rights saw the need for powerful government as essential to protecting the security of the nation. Without having authority over states the federal government would be ineffectual. In proof of this concept, the first constitution of the United States was discarded in favor of the Constitution for the reason that the Articles of Confederation did not give the federal government enough strength to perform its requirements. The Constitution would grant the federal government authority over states but as a means of protection from tyranny, Congress and the Presidency would be elected by the people.

The Federal government is today a much stronger entity than it was in its earliest form. The debate between states rights and federal sovereignty continues today. The recent law struck down by federal courts in Arizona, SB 1070, was determined to be unconstitutional because of its treatment of immigrants. The law was passed in response to the growing problem of illegal aliens and crime but the the U.S. District Court issued a temporary injunction on parts of the law requiring police to determine legal status of persons stopped and making a crime of not possessing immigration documents (Riccardi, & Gorman, 2010).

In this example the federal authority superseded states authority and this particular case is expected to go to the Supreme Court for a final verdict. The final verdict will however be made by the Supreme Court a part of the federal government. The power of the federal government is much more expansive today than it was in the early days of the US. Although battles such as this are still fought today they are under the authority of the Supreme Court which is a federal authority.

The system of checks and balances in the federal and in state governments seems to avoid the issues of tyranny and usurping of power from any on branch. However, the larger problem with the branches of government seems to involve efficiency and corruption. The federal government is slow to react to problems and as a result inequalities in law can sometimes take years to correct. After the civil war and the end of reconstruction, millions of African Americans would be subjected to legalized segregation and discrimination. It would take years of debates and legal intervention to end segregation and declare it unconstitutional. Landmark cases, such as Brown vs. Board of Education would set into motion legal changes that continue to this day. This inefficiency in government is also considered a positive attribute because if someone were to try to usurp control of the federal government he or she would find it impossibly difficult to control all of the differing agencies and bureaucracies.

The larger problem with the US governments branch design is that it does not seem to provide enough internal control to discourage corruption. The government representatives have consistently found themselves involved in corrupt activities. From presidents to heads of agencies, both federal and state governments have been plagued with corrupt politicians (Grossman, 2008). The damage of corruption is extensive as it undermines democratic process and the respect for law. The forefathers of the US could not have imagined a government the size of the US and with the technological capabilities it possesses. The US government’s size allows for corruption to take place because of the lack of oversight built into its system. This combined with fast communication’s technologies also allows for lack of transparency with day to day operations. In order to solve the problem of corruption, there needs to be a greater degree of transparency within the government’s operations (Grossman, 2008). Money and appropriations need to be publically accessible. As well, the standard of punishment for public officials needs to be raised and enforced to a greater degree. The protecting of corrupt officials undermines the belief in a fair government and weakens the design.


Grossman, M. (2008). Political corruption in america: an encyclopedia of scandals, power, and greed . New York, NY: Anthem.

Padover , S, & Landynski , J. (1995). The living u.s. constitution . New York, NY: Lawyer’s Cooperative Publishing.

Riccardi, N, & Gorman, A. (2010, July 28). Federal judge blocks key parts of arizona immigration law.Los Angeles Times, Retrieved from 20100729

The White House. (2010). The executive branch. Retrieved from

US Constitution. (1787). The united states constitution. Retrieved from

White, T.H. (1975). Breach of faith: the fall of richard nixon. New York, NY: Atheneum Publishers.

Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash


Triola Vincent. Mon, Feb 01, 2021. Understanding the Branches of Government Retrieved from

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