The government of the United States is divided into three parts – the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch.
What is a branch?
Trees have branches. They are smaller parts of something larger. If you make a family tree (a drawing to show all the relationships in your family), each branch will show a small family within the bigger family. The branches of government are also smaller parts of something much bigger.
What do the different branches do?
Each branch of the government has a different job.
- Executive Branch – The president is the head of the executive branch. He is in charge of the military, and he chooses his cabinet (leaders of government departments). The president lives and works in the White House. The executive branch is responsible for enforcing the laws. That means they make sure people obey the laws. The police are part of the executive branch. There are many government departments that make rules about how the country works. For example, the Department of Labor makes rules about companies and workers. The Department of Transportation makes rules and decisions about drivers, highways, and vehicles (cars, buses, trucks, vans, etc.).
- Legislative Branch – Congress is the head of the legislative branch. The U.S. Congress is bicameral, which means it has two parts. The two parts are the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both groups work in the Capitol Building. The legislative branch of government is responsible for making the laws.
- Judicial Branch – The Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch. They work in the Supreme Court Building, and their job is to interpret the law. That means they decide who is guilty and who is innocent. Sometimes laws are confusing, and sometimes laws change or new laws are added, and it isn’t clear whether someone has broken a law or not. For these reasons, we need the courts to decide.
Each branch of government has its own powers and jobs, but those powers and jobs sometimes overlap (two branches have the same power or job). This system of dividing and overlapping jobs limits the power of each branch so that one branch cannot make decisions alone. The other branches need to support or approve those decisions.
For example, if Congress wants to make a new law, they must vote on it. If the Senate approves the law, then the House of Representatives must also approve it. If both houses vote for the new law, then the president must agree. If he does, then it becomes a law. If he doesn’t agree with the idea, he can veto (say no to) it.
Here are a few more examples:
- The president chooses judges for the Supreme Court, but Congress must approve of each judge.
- When a president chooses a Supreme Court judge and the Senate approves, that judge cannot be removed or fired by the next president or group of senators.
- If Congress tries to make a law that goes against the Constitution, the Supreme Court can stop them.