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Government of the United States

This article is about the national government of the United States. For information about the state and local governments, see: Politics of the United States and the individual state entries.

The government of the United States, established by the Constitution, is a federal republic of 50 states. The national government consists of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The head of the executive branch is the President of the United States of America. The legislative branch consists of the United States Congress, while the Supreme Court of the United States is the head of the judicial branch.

The legal system of the United States is based on English common law; judicial review of legislative acts; accepts compulsory ICJ jurisdiction, with reservations.

Table of contents

Legislative branch

Article I of the Constitution grants all legislative powers of the federal government to a Congress divided into two chambers, a Senate and a House of Representatives. The Senate is composed of two members from each state as provided by the Constitution. Its current membership is 100. Membership in the House is based on each state's population, and its size is therefore not specified in the Constitution. Its current membership is 435.

The Constitution does not specifically call for congressional committees. As the nation grew, however, so did the need for investigating pending legislation more thoroughly. The 106th Congress (1999-2000) had 19 standing committees in the House and 17 in the Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both houses: Library of Congress, printing, taxation, and economic. 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.

The Congress has the responsibility to monitor and influence aspects of the executive branch. Congressional oversight prevents waste and fraud; protects civil liberties and individual rights; ensures executive compliance with the law; gathers information for making laws and educating the public; and evaluates 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 Twenty-fifth 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 on governmental commissions;
  • Studies by congressional committees and support agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office, and the Office of Technology Assessment ? all arms of Congress.

Executive branch

Article II of the Constitution establishes the Executive branch of Government. The President is both the head of government, chief of state[?], and commander-in-chief[?]. The current President and Vice President are George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, since January 20, 2001.

The office of president of the United States is one of the most powerful offices of its kind in the world. The president, the Constitution says, must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." To carry out this responsibility, he presides over the executive branch of the federal government, a vast organization numbering about 4 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel. In addition, the president has important legislative and judicial powers. Within the executive branch itself, the president has broad powers to manage national affairs and the workings of the federal government.

The Executive Departments

The day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws is in the hands of the various 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 by the 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, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. There are also a number of independent agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Constitution makes no provision for a presidential cabinet. It does provide that the president may ask opinions, in writing, from the principal officer in each of the executive departments on any subject in their area of responsibility, but it does not name the departments nor describe their duties. Similarly, there are no specific constitutional qualifications for service in the cabinet.

The cabinet developed outside the Constitution as a matter of practical necessity, for even in the days of George Washington, the country's first president, it was impossible for the president to discharge his duties without advice and assistance. Cabinets are what any particular president makes them. Some presidents have relied heavily on them for advice, others lightly, and some few have largely ignored them. Whether or not cabinet members act as advisers, they retain responsibility for directing the activities of the government in specific areas of concern.

Each department has thousands of employees, with offices throughout the country as well as in Washington. The departments are divided into divisions, bureaus, offices, and services, each with specific duties.

Department of Agriculture

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) supports agricultural production to ensure fair prices and stable markets for producers and consumers, works to improve and maintain farm income, and helps to develop and expand markets abroad for agricultural products. The department attempts to curb poverty, hunger, and malnutrition by issuing food stamps to the poor; by sponsoring educational programs on nutrition; and by administering other food assistance programs, primarily for children, expectant mothers, and the elderly. It maintains production capacity by helping landowners protect the soil, water, forests, and other natural resources.

USDA administers rural development, credit, and conservation programs that are designed to implement national growth policies, and it conducts scientific and technological research in all areas of agriculture. Through its inspection and grading services, USDA ensures standards of quality in food offered for sale. The department's Agricultural Research Service works to develop solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority, and it administers the National Agricultural Library to disseminate information to a wide cross-section of users, from research scientists to the general public.

The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) serves as an export promotion and service agency for U.S. agriculture, employing specialists abroad who make surveys of foreign agriculture for U.S. farm and business interests. The U.S. Forest Service, also part of the department, administers an extensive network of national forests and wilderness areas.

Department of Commerce

The United States Department of Commerce serves to promote the nation's international trade, economic growth, and technological advancement. It offers assistance and information to increase U.S. competitiveness in the global marketplace; administers programs to create new jobs and to foster the growth of minority-owned businesses; and provides statistical, economic, and demographic information for business and government planners.

The department comprises a diverse array of agencies. The National Institute of Standards and Technology, for example, promotes economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements, and standards. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service, works to improve understanding of the earth's environment and to conserve the nation's coastal and marine resources. The Patent and Trademark Office promotes the progress of science and the useful arts by securing for authors and inventors the exclusive right to their creations and discoveries. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration advises the president on telecommunications policy and works to spur innovation, encourage competition, create jobs, and provide consumers with better quality telecommunications at lower prices.

Department of Defense

Headquartered in The Pentagon, one of the world's largest office buildings, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) is responsible for all matters relating to the nation's military security. It provides the military forces of the United States, which consist of about 1 million men and women on active duty. They are backed, in case of emergency, by 1.5 million members of state reserve components, known as the National Guard. In addition, about 730,000 civilian employees serve in the Defense Department in such areas as research, intelligence communications, mapping, and international security affairs. The National Security Agency, which coordinates, directs, and performs highly specialized intelligence activities in support of U.S. government activities, also comes under the direction of the secretary of defense.

The department directs the separately organized military departments of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, as well as the four military service academies and the National War College, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several specialized combat commands. DoD maintains forces overseas to meet treaty commitments, to protect the nation's outlying territories and commerce, and to provide air combat and support forces. Nonmilitary responsibilities include flood control, development of oceanographic resources, and management of oil reserves.

Department of Education

While schools are primarily a local responsibility in the U.S. system of education, the United States Department of Education provides national leadership to address critical issues in American education and serves as a clearinghouse of information to help state and local decisionmakers improve their schools. The department establishes policy for and administers federal aid-to-education programs, including student loan programs, programs for disadvantaged and disabled students, and vocational programs.

In the 1990s, the Department of Education focused on the following issues: raising standards for all students; improving teaching; involving parents and families in children's education; making schools safe, disciplined, and drug-free; strengthening connections between school and work; increasing access to financial aid for students to attend college and receive training; and helping all students become technologically literate.

Department of Energy

Growing concern with the nation's energy problems in the 1970s prompted Congress to create the United States Department of Energy (DOE). The department took over the functions of several government agencies already engaged in the energy field. Staff offices within DOE are responsible for the research, development, and demonstration of energy technology; energy conservation; civilian and military use of nuclear energy; regulation of energy production and use; pricing and allocation of oil; and a central energy data collection and analysis program.

The Department of Energy protects the nation's environment by setting standards to minimize the harmful effects of energy production. For example, DOE conducts environmental and health related research, such as studies of energy-related pollutants and their effects on biological systems.

Department of Health and Human Services

The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees some 300 programs, probably directly touches the lives of more Americans than any other federal agency. Its largest component, the Health Care Financing Administration, administers the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which provide health care coverage to about one in every five Americans. Medicare provides health insurance for 30 million elderly and disabled Americans. Medicaid, a joint federal-state program, provides health coverage for 31 million low-income persons, including 15 million children.

HHS also administers the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the world's premier medical research organization, supporting some 30,000 research projects in diseases like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, arthritis, heart ailments, and AIDS. Other HHS agencies ensure the safety and effectiveness of the nation's food supply and drugs; work to prevent outbreaks of communicable diseases; provide health services to the nation's American Indian and Alaska Native populations; and help to improve the quality and availability of substance abuse prevention, addiction treatment, and mental health services.

Department of Homeland Security

Created in 2002 and activated in 2003, the United States Department of Homeland Security is responsible for protecting the nation against attacks to the homeland. The department consolidates 22 previously separate agencies under the authority and control of one department. The department covers border & transportation security, emergency preparedness & response, information analysis & infrastructure protection, science & technology, Coast Guard, Secret Service, and citizenship & immigration Services. It also is responsible for coordination of homeland security related concerns with state and local governments as well as the private sector.

Department of Housing and Urban Development

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) manages programs that assist community development and help provide affordable housing for the nation. Fair housing laws, administered by HUD, are designed to ensure that individuals and families can buy a home without being subjected to discrimination. HUD directs mortgage insurance programs that help families become homeowners, and a rent-subsidy program for low-income families that otherwise could not afford decent housing. In addition, it operates programs that aid neighborhood rehabilitation, preserve urban centers from blight, and encourage the development of new communities. HUD also protects the home buyer in the marketplace and fosters programs to stimulate the housing industry.

Department of the Interior

As the nation's principal conservation agency, the United States Department of the Interior is responsible for most of the federally owned public lands and natural resources in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers 500 wildlife refuges, 37 wetland management districts, 65 national fish hatcheries, and a network of wildlife law enforcement agents. The National Park Service administers more than 370 national parks and monuments, scenic parkways, riverways, seashores, recreation areas, and historic sites, through which it preserves America's natural and cultural heritage.

Through the Bureau of Land Management, the department oversees the land and resources, from rangeland vegetation and recreation areas to timber and oil production, of millions of hectares of public land located primarily in the West. The Bureau of Reclamation manages scarce water resources in the semiarid western United States. The department regulates mining in the United States, assesses mineral resources, and has major responsibility for protecting and conserving the trust resources of American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. Internationally, the department coordinates federal policy in the territories of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands, and oversees funding for development in the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau.

Department of Justice

The United States Department of Justice represents the U.S. government in legal matters and courts of law, and renders legal advice and opinions upon request to the president and to the heads of the executive departments. The Justice Department is headed by the attorney general of the United States, the chief law enforcement officer of the federal government. Its Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the principle law enforcement body for federal crimes, and its Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) administers immigration laws. A major agency within the department is the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which enforces narcotics and controlled substances laws, and tracks down major illicit drug trafficking organizations.

In addition to giving aid to local police forces, the department directs U.S. district attorneys and marshals throughout the country, supervises federal prisons and other penal institutions, and investigates and reports to the president on petitions for paroles and pardons. The Justice Department is also linked to INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization, charged with promoting mutual assistance between law enforcement agencies in 176 member countries.

Department of Labor

The United States Department of Labor promotes the welfare of wage earners in the United States, helps improve working conditions, and fosters good relations between labor and management. It administers federal labor laws through such agencies as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Employment Standards Administration, and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. These laws guarantee workers' rights to safe and healthy working conditions, hourly wages and overtime pay, freedom from employment discrimination, unemployment insurance, and workers' compensation for on-the-job injury. The Department also protects workers' pension rights, sponsors job training programs, and helps workers find jobs. Its Bureau of Labor Statistics monitors and reports changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements. For job seekers, the department makes special efforts to help older workers, youths, minorities, women, and the disabled.

Department of State

The United States Department of State advises the president, who has overall responsibility for formulating and executing the foreign policy of the United States. The department assesses American overseas interests, makes recommendations on policy and future action, and takes necessary steps to carry out established policy. It maintains contacts and relations between the United States and foreign countries, advises the president on recognition of new foreign countries and governments, negotiates treaties and agreements with foreign nations, and speaks for the United States in the United Nations and in other major international organizations. The department maintains more than 250 diplomatic and consular posts around the world. In 1999, the Department of State integrated the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the U.S. Information Agency into its structure and mission.

Department of Transportation

The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) establishes the nation's overall transportation policy through 10 operating units that encompass highway planning, development, and construction; urban mass transit; railroads; civilian aviation; and the safety of waterways, ports, highways, and oil and gas pipelines.

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) operates a network of airport towers, air traffic control centers, and flight service stations across the country; the Federal Highway Administration provides financial assistance to the states to improve the interstate highway system, urban and rural roads, and bridges; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration establishes safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment; and the Maritime Administration operates the U.S. merchant marine fleet. The U.S. Coast Guard, the nation's primary maritime law enforcement and licensing agency, conducts search and rescue missions at sea, combats drug smuggling, and works to prevent oil spills and ocean pollution.

Department of the Treasury

The United States Department of the Treasury is responsible for serving the fiscal and monetary needs of the nation. The department performs four basic functions: formulating financial, tax, and fiscal policies; serving as financial agent for the U.S. government; providing specialized law enforcement services; and manufacturing coins and currency. The Treasury Department reports to Congress and the president on the financial condition of the government and the national economy. It regulates the sale of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms in interstate and foreign commerce; supervises the printing of stamps for the United States Postal Service; operates the Secret Service, which protects the president, the vice president, their families, and visiting dignitaries and heads of state; suppresses counterfeiting of U.S. currency and securities; and administers the Customs Service, which regulates and taxes the flow of goods into the country.

The department includes the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Treasury official who executes the laws governing the operation of approximately 2,900 national banks. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is responsible for the determination, assessment, and collection of taxes ? the source of most of the federal government's revenue.

Department of Veterans Affairs

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), established as an independent agency in 1930 and elevated to cabinet level in 1989, dispenses benefits and services to eligible veterans of U.S. military service and their dependents. The Veterans Health Administration[?] provides hospital and nursing-home care, and outpatient medical and dental services through 173 medical centers, 40 retirement homes, 600 clinics, 133 nursing homes, and 206 Vietnam Veteran Outreach Centers in the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. It also conducts medical research in such areas as aging, women's health issues, AIDS, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) oversees claims for disability payments, pensions, specially adapted housing, and other services. The VBA also administers education programs for veterans and provides home loan assistance to eligible veterans and active-duty service personnel. The VA's National Cemetery System provides burial services, headstones, and markers for veterans and eligible family members within 116 cemeteries throughout the United States.

Judicial branch Article III of the Constitution states the basis for the federal court system: "The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish." The Federal judiciary consists of the Supreme Court of the United States, whose nine justices are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and various "lower" or "inferior courts," among which are the United States courts of appeals, the United States district courts, and the United States bankruptcy courts.

The Federal Court System

With this guide, the first Congress divided the nation into 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 today 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 United States district courts are the "trial courts" where cases are filed and decided. The United States circuit courts are "appellate courts" that hear appeals of cases decided by the district courts. The Supreme Court of the United States hears appeals from the decisions of the courts of appeals.

The judicial power extends to cases arising under the Constitution, an act of Congress, or a treaty of the United States; cases affecting ambassadors, ministers, and consuls of foreign countries in the United States; 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 behavior" ? in practice, until they die, retire, or resign, although 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 and confirmed by the Senate. Congress also determines the pay scale of judges.

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Executive Office of the President

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