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The Federal Government of the United States is the central government entity established by the United States Constitution, which shares sovereignty over the United Statesmarker with the government of the individual U.S. states. The federal government has three branches: the legislative, executive, and judicial. Through a system of separation of powers and the system of "checks and balances," each of these branches has some authority to act on its own, some authority to regulate the other two branches, and has some of its own authority, in turn, regulated by the other branches. The policies of the federal government have a broad impact on both the domestic and foreign affairs of the United States. In addition, the powers of the federal government as a whole are limited by the Constitution, which, per the Tenth Amendment, states that all powers not expressly assigned to the federal government are reserved to the states or to the people.

The seat of the federal government is in the federal district of Washington, D.C.marker

Legislative branch

The United States Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government. It is bicameral, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives consists of 435 voting members, each of whom represents a congressional district and serves for a two-year term. In addition to the 435 voting members there are five non-voting members, consisting of four delegates and one resident commissioner. There is one delegate each from the District of Columbiamarker, Guammarker, Virgin Islands, and American Samoamarker, and the resident commissioner is from Puerto Rico. House seats are apportioned among the state by population; in contrast, each state has two Senators, regardless of population. There are a total of 100 senators (as there are currently 50 states), who serve six-year terms (one third of the Senate stands for election every two years). Each congressional chamber (House or Senate) has particular exclusive powers—the Senate must give "advice and consent" to many important Presidential appointments, and the House must introduce any bills for the purpose of raising revenue. The consent of both chambers is required to pass any legislation, which then may only become law by being signed by the President; if the President vetoes such legislation, however, both houses of Congress must then repass the legislation, but by a two-thirds majority of each chamber, in order to make such legislation law without the need for the President's signature. The powers of Congress are limited to those enumerated in the Constitution; all other powers are reserved to the states and the people. The Constitution also includes the "Necessary and Proper Clause", which grants Congress the power to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers."Members of the House and Senate are elected by first-past-the-post voting in every state except Louisianamarker and Washingtonmarker, which have runoff.

The Constitution does not specifically call for the establishment of Congressional committees. As the nation grew, however, so did the need for investigating pending legislation more thoroughly. The 108th Congress (2003-2005) had 19 standing committees in the House and 17 in the Senate, plus four joint permanent committees with members from both houses overseeing the Library of Congressmarker, printing, taxation, and the economy. 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.

Powers of Congress

The Constitution grants numerous powers to Congress. Enumerated in Article One, Section 8, these include the powers to levy and collect taxes; to coin money and regulate its value; provide for punishment for counterfeiting; establish post offices and roads, promote progress of science by issuing patents, create federal courts inferior to the Supreme Courtmarker, define and punish piracies and felonies, declare war, raise and support armies, provide and maintain a navy, make rules for the regulation of land and naval forces, provide for, arm, and discipline the militia, exercise exclusive legislation in the District of Columbiamarker, and to make laws necessary to properly execute these powers.

Congressional oversight

Congressional oversight is intended to prevent waste and fraud, protect civil liberties and individual rights, ensure executive compliance with the law, gather information for making laws and educating the public, and evaluate 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 25th 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: each state is allocated a number of seats based on its representation (or ostensible representation, in the case of D.C.) in the House of Representatives. Each state is allocated two Senators regardless of its population. At the present time, the District of Columbia elects a non-voting representative to the House of Representatives along with American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

Executive branch

The executive power in the federal government is vested in the President of the United States, although power is often delegated to the Cabinet members and other officials. The President and Vice President are elected as running mates for a maximum of two four-year terms by the Electoral College, for which each state, as well as the District of Columbiamarker, is allocated a number of seats based on its representation (or ostensible representation, in the case of D.C.) in both houses of Congress.


The executive branch consists of the President and delegates. The President is both the head of state and government, as well as the military commander-in-chief and chief diplomat. The President, according to the Constitution, must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed," and "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution." The President presides over the executive branch of the federal government, a vast organization numbering about 4 million people, including 1 million active-duty military personnel. The forty-fourth and current president is Barack Obama

The President may sign legislation passed by Congress into law or may veto it, preventing it from becoming law unless two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to override the veto. The President may, with the consent of two-thirds of the Senate, make treaties with foreign nations. The President may be impeached by a majority in the House and removed from office by a two-thirds majority in the Senate for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The President may not dissolve Congress or call special election but does have the power to pardon, or release, criminals convicted of offenses against the federal government (except in cases of impeachment), enact executive orders, and (with the consent of the Senate) appoint Supreme Court justices and federal judges.

Vice President

The Vice President is the second-highest executive official of the government. As first in the U.S. presidential line of succession, the Vice President becomes President upon the death, resignation, or removal of the President, which has happened nine times in U.S. history. Under the Constitution, the Vice President is President of the Senate. By virtue of the Vice President's role as President of the Senate, he or she is the nominal head of the United States Senate. In that capacity, the Vice President is allowed to vote in the Senate, but only when necessary to break a tied vote. Pursuant to the Twelfth Amendment, the Vice President presides over the joint session of Congress when it convenes to count the vote of the Electoral College. While the Vice President's only constitutionally prescribed functions, aside from presidential succession, relate to his role as President of the Senate, the office is now commonly viewed as a member of the executive branch of the federal government. The U.S. Constitution does not expressly assign the office to any one branch, causing scholars to dispute whether it belongs to the executive branch, the legislative branch, or both.

Secretary of State

The Secretary of State is the Chief Executive Officer of the United States Department of Statemarker, the most senior of all federal executive departments concerned with foreign affairs. The Secretary of State is the third-highest official of the executive branch of the federal government of the United States, after the President and Vice President. The Secretary is a member of the President's Cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in U.S. presidential line of succession and order of precedence. The Secretary has many duties and responsibilities. The Secretary serves as the President's chief adviser on U.S. foreign policy and as such negotiates, interprets, and terminates treaties and agreements, personally participates in or directs U.S. representatives to international conferences, organizations, and agencies, conducts negotiations relating to U.S. foreign affairs, and is responsible for the administration and management of foreign embassies and consulate offices. Foreign trade missions and intelligence assets report directly to the Secretary of State. The Secretary is also responsible for overall direction, coordination, and supervision of interdepartmental activities of the U.S. Government overseas. The Secretary answers directly to the President of the United States.

Relationship with Congress

The relationship between the President and the Congress reflects that between the English monarchy and parliament at the time of the framing of the United States Constitution. While the President can directly propose legislation (for instance, the federal budget), he must rely on members of Congress to support and promote his legislative agenda. After identical copies of a particular bill have been approved by a majority of both houses of Congress, the President's signature is required to make these bills law; in this respect, the President has the power to veto congressional legislation. Congress can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority vote from both houses. The ultimate power of Congress over the President is that of impeachment or removal of the elected President through a House vote, a Senate trial, and a Senate vote (by two-thirds majority in favor). Nearly every president is threatened with the idea of impeachment, but only two Presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) have ever been successfully impeached, and neither was convicted by the Senate. Richard Nixon was not impeached in connection with the Watergate scandal, although the House Judiciary Committee had approved articles of impeachment against Nixon at the time he resigned.

The President makes around 2,000 executive appointments, including members of the Cabinet and ambassadors, which must be approved by the Senate; the President can also issue executive orders and pardons, and has other Constitutional duties, among them the requirement to give a State of the Union Address to Congress from time to time (usually once a year). (The Constitution does not specify that the State of the Union address be delivered in person; it can be in the form of a letter, as was the practice during most of the 19th century.) Although the President's constitutional role may appear to be constrained, in practice, the office carries enormous prestige that typically eclipses the power of Congress. The Vice President is first in the line of succession, and is the President of the Senate ex officio, with the ability to cast a tie-breaking vote. The members of the President's Cabinet are responsible for administering the various departments of state, including the Department of Defensemarker, the Justice Departmentmarker, and the State Departmentmarker. These departments and department heads have considerable regulatory and political power, and it is they who are responsible for executing federal laws and regulations.

Cabinet, executive departments, and agencies

The day-to-day enforcement and administration of federal laws is in the hands of the various federal 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 with the "advice and consent" of the U.S. 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 Housemarker staff, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The employees in these United States government agencies are called federal civil servants.

There are also independent agencies such as the United States Postal Service, the National Aeronautics and Space Administrationmarker (NASA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Agency for International Development. In addition, there are government-owned corporations such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the National Railroad Passenger Corporation.

By law, each agency must submit an annual Section 300 report to the President's Office of Management and Budget. This is part of a larger set of more extensive annual requirements called Circular A-11. Section 300 specifically covers planning, budgeting, acquisition, and management of capital assets. The details on how agencies collect and share information and how they are upgrading and improving their information technology decisions are becoming increasingly important. Within Section 300 there is a special exhibit called Exhibit 53 which gives extensive details on agency information technology investments. These investments make up most of the information technology investments from the annual budgets. For the fiscal year 2008's budget, that spending exceeds $66.4 billion.

Judicial branch

The Supreme Courtmarker is the highest court in the federal court system. The court deals with matters pertaining to the federal government, disputes between states, and interpretation of the United States Constitution, and can declare legislation or executive action made at any level of the government as unconstitutional, nullifying the law and creating precedent for future law and decisions. Below the Supreme Court are the courts of appeals, and below them in turn are the district courts, which are the general trial courts for federal law.

Separate from, but not entirely independent of, this federal court system are the individual court systems of each state, each dealing with its own laws and having its own court rules and procedures.

The supreme court of each state is the final authority on the interpretation of that state's laws and constitution. A case may be appealed from a state court to the U.S. Supreme Court only if there is a federal question (an issue arising under the U.S. Constitution, or laws/treaties of the United States). The relationship between federal and state laws is extremely complex and confusing as a result of the unique nature of American federalism. For example, a state supreme court is bound only by the U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of federal law, but is not bound by interpretation of federal law by the federal court of appeals for the circuit in which the state sits, or even the federal district courts located in the state. Conversely, a federal district court hearing a matter involving only a question of state law (usually through diversity jurisdiction) must apply the substantive law of the state in which the court sits, as if the federal court were a court of that state (but at the same time, the case is heard under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure instead of local rules, which may be quite different). Together the laws of the federal and state governments form U.S. law.

The federal judiciary consists of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose justices are appointed for life by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and various "lower" or "inferior courts," among which are the courts of appeals and district courts.

The first Congress divided the nation into judicial 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 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 bankruptcy courts are branches of the district courts, but technically are not considered part of the "Article III" judiciary because their judges do not have lifetime tenure. Similarly, the tax court is not an Article III court.

The U.S. district courts are the "trial courts" where cases are filed and decided. The United States courts of appeals are "appellate courts" that hear appeals of cases decided by the district courts, and some direct appeals from administrative agencies. The Supreme Court hears appeals from the decisions of the courts of appeals or state supreme courts (on constitutional matters), as well as having original jurisdiction over a very small number of cases.

The judicial power extends to cases arising under the Constitution, an Act of Congress, or a U.S. treaty; cases affecting ambassadors, minister, and consul of foreign countries in the U.S.; 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. Federal courts can sometimes hear cases arising under state law pursuant to diversity jurisdiction, state courts can decide certain matters involving federal law, and a handful of federal claims are primarily reserved to the state courts (for example, those arising from the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991). 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 behaviour"; in practice, this usually means they serve until they die, retire, or resign. A judge who commits an offence 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, subject to confirmation by the Senate. Another Constitutional provision prohibits Congress from reducing the pay of any judge. Congress is able to set a lower salary for all future judges that take office after the reduction, but may not decrease the rate of pay for judges already in office.

Elections and votings

Suffrage, commonly known as the ability to vote, has changed significantly over time. In the early years of the United States, voting was considered a matter for state governments, and was commonly restricted to white men who owned land. Direct elections were mostly held only for the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislatures, although what specific bodies were elected by the electorate varied from state to state. Under this original system, both senator representing each state in the U.S. Senate were chosen by a majority vote of the state legislature. Since the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, members of both houses of Congress have been directly elected.

Today, partially due to the Twenty-sixth Amendment, U.S. citizens have almost universal suffrage from the age of 18, regardless of race, gender, or wealth, and both Houses of Congress are directly elected. The only exception to this is the disenfranchisement of convicted felons, and in some states former felons as well.

Currently, the national representation of territories and the federal district of Washington, D.C.marker, in Congress is limited: residents of the District of Columbia are subject to federal laws and federal taxes, but their only congressional representative is a non-voting delegate. Residents of U.S. territories have varying rights; for example, only some residents of Puerto Rico pay federal income taxes (though all residents must pay all other federal taxes, including import/export taxes, federal commodity taxes, and federal payroll taxes, including Social Security and Medicare).

State, tribal, and local governments

United States

The state governments tend to have the greatest influence over most Americans' daily lives. The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees their general plenary powers, versus the limited enumerated powers possessed by the federal government; as a result, they handle the majority of issues most relevant for most individuals within their jurisdiction. Because state governments lack the power to print currency, they must raise revenue either through taxes or bonds (both of which are politically unpopular). As a result, state governments tend to impose severe budget cuts at any time the economy is faltering, which are strongly felt by the public they are responsible for.

Each state has its own written constitution, government, and code of laws. There are sometimes great differences in law and procedure between individual states, concerning issues such as property, crime, health, and education. The highest elected official of each state is the Governor. Each state also has an elected state legislature (bicameralism is a feature of every state except Nebraskamarker), whose members represent the voters of the state. Each state maintains its own state court system. In some states, supreme and lower court justices are elected by the people; in others, they are appointed, as they are in the federal system.

As a result of the Supreme Court case Worcester v. Georgia, Indian tribes are considered "domestic dependent nations" that operate as sovereign governments subject to federal authority but, generally and where possible, outside of the influence of state governments. Hundreds of laws, executive orders, and court cases have modified the governmental status of tribes vis-à-vis individual states, but the two have continued to be recognised as separate bodies. Tribal capacity to operate robust governments varies, from a simple council used to manage all aspects of tribal affairs, to large and complex bureaucracies with several branches of government. Tribes are empowered to form their own governments, with power resting in elected tribal councils, elected tribal chairpersons, or religiously appointed leaders (as is the case with pueblos). Tribal citizenship (and voting rights) is generally restricted to individuals of native descent, but tribes are free to set whatever membership requirements they wish.

The institutions that are responsible for local government in states are typically town, city, or county boards, water management districts, fire management districts, library districts, and other similar governmental units which make laws that affect their particular area. These laws concern issues such as traffic, the sale of alcohol, and the keeping of animals. The highest elected official of a town or city is usually the mayor. In New Englandmarker, towns operate in a direct democratic fashion, and in some states, such as Rhode Islandmarker and Connecticutmarker, counties have little or no power, existing only as geographic distinctions. In other areas, county governments have more power, such as to collect taxes and maintain law enforcement agencies.

See also




Most agencies are executive, but a few are legislative or judicial.

States and territories

Web site and works


  1. US House Official Website Retrieved on 17 August 2008
  2. Article II, Constitution of the United States of America
  3. Amendment XXII to the United States Constitution
  4. Amendment XXIII to the United States Constitution
  5. Contrary to common misconception, residents of Puerto Rico do pay U.S. federal taxes: customs taxes (which are subsequently returned to the Puerto Rico Treasury) (See Dept of the Interior, Office of Insular Affairs.), import/export taxes (See, federal commodity taxes (See, social security taxes (See, etc. Residents pay federal payroll taxes, such as Social Security (See and Medicare (See, as well as Commonwealth of Puerto Rico income taxes (See and All federal employees (See, those who do business with the federal government (See, Puerto Rico-based corporations that intend to send funds to the U.S. (See Page 9, line 1.), and some others (For example, Puerto Rican residents that are members of the U.S. military, See; and Puerto Rico residents who earned income from sources outside Puerto Rico, See, pp 14-15.) also pay federal income taxes. In addition, because the cutoff point for income taxation is lower than that of the U.S. IRS code, and because the per-capita income in Puerto Rico is much lower than the average per-capita income on the mainland, more Puerto Rico residents pay income taxes to the local taxation authority than if the IRS code were applied to the island. This occurs because "the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico government has a wider set of responsibilities than do U.S. State and local governments" (See As residents of Puerto Rico pay into Social Security, Puerto Ricans are eligible for Social Security benefits upon retirement, but are excluded from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico residents, unlike residents of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and residents of the 50 States, do not receive the SSI. See, and the island actually receives less than 15% of the Medicaid funding it would normally receive if it were a U.S. state. However, Medicare providers receive less-than-full state-like reimbursements for services rendered to beneficiaries in Puerto Rico, even though the latter paid fully into the system (See It has also been estimated (See that, because the population of the Island is greater than that of 50% of the States, if it were a state, Puerto Rico would have six to eight seats in the House, in addition to the two seats in the Senate.(See, and [Note that for the later, the official US Congress database website, you will need to resubmit a query. The document in question is called "House Report 110-597 - PUERTO RICO DEMOCRACY ACT OF 2007." These are the steps to follow: > Committee Reports > 110 > drop down "Word/Phrase" and pick "Report Number" > type "597" next to Report Number. This will provide the document "House Report 110-597 - PUERTO RICO DEMOCRACY ACT OF 2007", then from the Table of Contents choose "BACKGROUND AND NEED FOR LEGISLATION".]). Another misconception is that the import/export taxes collected by the U.S. on products manufactured in Puerto Rico are all returned to the Puerto Rico Treasury. This is not the case. Such import/export taxes are returned only for rum products, and even then the US Treasury keeps a portion of those taxes (See the "House Report 110-597 - PUERTO RICO DEMOCRACY ACT OF 2007" mentioned above.

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