How Our Government Works
From Korean Resource Center
The United States government is divided into three main branches: the Executive Branch (The President), the Legislative Branch (Congress), and the Judicial Branch (Federal Courts). The U.S. government is a system of “checks and balances” – each branch can check each other and the powers are balanced so that not one branch holds more absolute power than any other.
 The Executive Branch
Once elected, the President presides over the Executive Branch for the presidential term of four years and may serve a total of two terms only. As stated in the Constitution, the President holds the roles of chief of state, chief of executive, commander in chief of the armed forces, chief diplomat, and chief legislator. The president also holds important legislative and judicial powers.
The Vice-President is given the right to succeed the president in the case the president can no longer perform her or his duties. The vice-president is also the presiding officer of the Senate without voting power unless there is a tie. And if both the president and the vice president vacate their offices, the speaker of the House assumes the presidency.
There are 15 executive departments. The heads of the departments, which are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate, form a council of advisors generally known as the Cabinet. Each head of the department is referred to as “Secretary” (e.g. Secretary of State). The head of the department of justice alone is referred to as “Attorney General.”
If you would like more information about the executive branch, please visit the Library of Congress Internet Resource Page, http://www.loc.gov/rr/news/fedgov.html.
 The Legislative Branch
Article 1 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. Membership in the House is based on the population of the state, therefore the size of the House is not specified in the Constitution.
The reason why the Congress is divided into two chambers is that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention reasoned that if two separate groups must both approve every proposed law, there would be little danger of the Congress passing laws hurriedly or carelessly. That way, one chamber representing state governments and the other chamber representing the people can always check each other.
Each state is entitled to two senators no matter the population or size of the state they represent. Since there are 50 states, there are 100 senators. The senatorial term is six years and there are no limits to how many terms a Senator may serve. Senate terms are staggered so that approximately one-third of the Senate seats are up for election every two years – this ensures that no state has both Senate seats contested in the same election.
The members of the House are determined by the population or size of the state they represent. Currently there are 435 members in the House of Representatives and their term is two years. State legislators divide their state into congressional districts, which must be equal in population. The Speaker of the House is elected by the members of the House.
Each chamber of Congress has the power to introduce legislation on any subject except revenue bills, which must originate in the House of Representatives. The Senate also has certain powers especially reserved to that body, including the authority to confirm the presidential nomination of high officials and ambassadors of the federal government as well as the authority to ratify all treaties by a two-thirds vote. Unfavorable action in either instance nullifies executive action.
 Powers of Congress
The broad powers of Congress are outlined in the 8th section of the 1st article of the Constitution:
- To levy and collect taxes
- To borrow money for the public treasury
- To make rules and regulations governing commerce among the states with foreign countries
- To make uniform rules for the naturalization of foreign citizens
- To coin money, state its value, and provide for the punishment of counterfeiters
- To set the standards for weights and measures
- To establish bankruptcy laws for the country as a whole
- To establish post offices and post roads
- To issue patents and copyrights
- To set up a system of federal courts
- To punish piracy
- To declare war
- To raise and support armies
- To provide for a navy
- To call out the militia to enforce federal laws, suppress lawlessness or repel invasions by foreign powers
- To make all laws for the District of Columbia
- To make all laws necessary to enforce the Constitution
 How a Bill Becomes Law
Bills originating from the House are designated by an "H.R." followed by a number, while bills originating from the Senate are designated by an "S" followed by a number. A bill first appears in the appropriate full committee of either the House or the Senate. The bill is then transferred to a specialized subcommittee for study, hearings, revisions and approval. More hearings and revisions may occur as the full committee takes the bill up again. A full committee may approve a bill and recommend its passage. A proposed bill must be passed by both the House and the Senate before it is approved by the President. The debating process for a bill is similar in both the House and the Senate.
After both chambers have passed related bills, members from the House and the Senate form a conference committee to work out any differences. Compromised versions from the conference committee are sent to each chamber for final approval.
Compromised versions of the bill, once approved by both chambers, are sent to the president, who can sign it into law or veto it and return it to the Congress. The Congress may override a presidential veto by a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers and the bill can then become law without the president’s signature, 10 days after it reaches the president’s desk. The single exception to this rule is when the Congress adjourns after sending a bill to the president, and before the 10 day-period has expired; the President’s refusal to take action then negates the bill during this period. This is called a “pocket veto.”
 The Judicial Branch
The third branch of the government is largely responsible for the interpretation of the Constitution. It also consists of a system of courts spread throughout the country that is headed by the Supreme Court. Article III of the Constitution states the basis of the federal court system:
With this article as a guide, the first Congress divided the nation into districts and created federal courts for each district. The present structure has since evolved to consist of: the Supreme Court, 11 courts of appeals, 91 district courts, and three courts of special jurisdiction. The 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. However, it does not have the ability to abolish the Supreme Court.
The judicial power extends to cases arising under the Constitution: laws and treaties of the United States, admiralty and maritime cases affecting ambassadors, ministers and consuls of foreign countries in the United States, controversies in which the U.S. government is a party, and controversies between states (or their citizens) and foreign nations (or citizens or subjects). The power of the federal courts also extends both to civil actions for damages and other redress, as well as to criminal cases arising under federal law.
The Constitution safeguards judicial independence by providing that federal judges shall hold office “during good behavior.” In practice, they can hold their position until they die, retire, or resign, although a judge who commits an offense while in office may be impeached the same way as the president or other officials of the federal government. U.S. federal judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Congress determines the pay scale of the judges.
If you would like more information on the Judicial Branch, please visit the U.S. Courts website at http://www.uscourts.gov.
 The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court of the United States and its decisions cannot be appealed to any other court. The Congress has the power to fix the number of judges sitting on the Supreme Court and within limits, it can also decide what kinds of cases it may hear, but it cannot change the powers given to the Supreme Court by the Constitution.
Supreme Court justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Justices do not have term limits; their service is terminated at death, resignation, retirement, or conviction on impeachment.
In general, there is one chief justice and eight associates in the Supreme Court. The chief justice is the executive officer of the Supreme Court, but in deciding cases, has only one vote, similarly to the associate judges. Of the several thousand cases filed annually, the Supreme Court usually hears about 150. Most of the cases involve interpretation of the law or the intent of the Congress in passing a piece of legislation.
Decisions of the Supreme Court do not have to be unanimous, for the majority prevails, provided that at least six justices (the legal quorum) participate in the decision. In the case of split decisions, the Supreme Court usually issues a majority and a minority (dissenting) opinion, both of which may form the basis of future decisions by the Supreme Court.
 Court of Appeals and District Courts
The second highest level of the federal courts is the court of appeals, created to facilitate the disposition of cases and ease the burden of the Supreme Court. These courts review the decisions of the district courts (trial courts with federal jurisdiction) within their areas. Below the court of appeals are the district courts. Most cases and controversies heard by these courts involve federal offenses.
The following is a list of the District courts:
- 1st district: Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island
- 2nd district: New York, Vermont
- 3rd district: Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virgin Islands
- 4th district: Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia
- 5th district: Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas
- 6th district: Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee
- 7th district: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin
- 8th district: Alaska, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota
- 9th district: Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada,
- Northern Mariana Islands, Oregon, Washington
- 10th district: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming
- 11th district: Alabama, Florida, Georgia