How Does the U.S. Government Work?

How do adults decide the rules and laws we live by? That’s what the government is for. The United States government makes the rules. Then, the government makes sure they’re followed. The U.S. government also judges any conflicts between the rules.

If you want to know how the U.S. government works, you need to understand the history of the United States. It all starts with the Constitution, which the founding fathers wrote. The Constitution breaks down the government into the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches.

the us supreme court building
The U.S. Supreme Court Building. This is the head of the Judicial Branch and an important part of how the U.S. government works.

A Dream of Fairness and Equality

When the founding fathers designed the United States government, they considered how they would make sure that it would work well. Their first goal was to design a government that would be fair and equal.

It was not easy! The first time they tried, the government was too weak because there was no one who could make sure that people would follow the laws. The government could make laws, but no one had to follow them.

The Branches of Government

The Constitution was written to fix the problem and make sure the U.S. government works. Its first duty was to make a fair government. They did that by making three branches of government: one to make the laws, one to enforce them, and one to judge them. 

History taught them that making any one of these branches too powerful caused big problems, so they set up rules where any branch could be checked by the other two branches. This creates a balance between the branches. We call this the system of checks and balances.

There are many parts of the government. Think of a tree with three large branches. These are the three main branches of the government. But each of these tree branches has even smaller branches. Let’s look at the three main branches of the U.S. government.

The Legislative Branch

The United States is a representative democracy. In this kind of government, a few people out of everyone in the country are elected to make laws for all of us. In the United States, this group is called the U.S. Congress, or the Legislative Branch.

Congress is made up of two parts: the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House of Representatives has 435 voting members divided between all 50 states. States with more people get more representatives, and the numbers get changed every 10 years.

The Senate only has 100 members, two per state. If the country got a new state, there would be two more senators. The last time a state was added to the United States was over 60 years ago, but there are two places that may become states soon: Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.

The Executive Branch

The Executive Branch makes sure that everyone follows the laws that Congress makes. The President is the head of the Executive Branch and also is our Head of State. When the President talks with leaders in other countries, he represents all of America.

The President is elected by citizens who live in the United States and is helped by his Cabinet, a group of people with big responsibilities. They handle the day-to-day work of running the U.S. government. The President is in charge of bigger problems and guiding the country.

The Judicial Branch

The third branch of the United States government is the Judicial Branch. The Judicial Branch is there to make sure that the laws and the way they’re enforced agree with the Constitution. They are much like referees in a sport and help keep our laws fair and equal.

At the top of the Judicial Branch is the Supreme Court. Their job is to understand the Constitution very well and make decisions when law conflicts with the Constitution. These decisions affect everyone in the country. 

The Supreme Court also decides whether something that either Congress or the President does is legal.

Checks and Balances

Each of these three branches, the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial, can keep the others from getting too powerful through the checks and balances written in the Constitution. Here is just one example that shows how the U.S. government works:

Once Congress goes through its process for making a new law, it doesn’t become law until it goes to the President. The President has the power to veto the law. This means that they don’t agree with it. A law doesn’t become real until the President signs it.

Congress could fix the law or give up. But they also have the power to override the veto if they can get a lot of people in Congress to vote for the bill. If they override the veto, then the law becomes real and the President must enforce it.

Let’s say the law is an unfair one though. One of us could go to the Judicial Branch and tell them the law is unfair. Through a long process, the Supreme Court might look at the law and agree that it’s unfair. They can strike down the law, which means it’s no longer a law anymore.

Changing the Constitution

The Constitution has our most important rules about how our government works, including rules about who can become a U.S. citizen, but they can be changed. These changes are called amendments. Right now, 27 amendments have passed.

The first ten amendments were passed soon after the Constitution was made. These ten are called the Bill of Rights. They protect many of our freedoms, like the freedom of speech, the freedom to practice religion, and our right to fair trials in court.

Learn More About Civics

The study of our government is called Civics, and it’s a fascinating topic. It’s also an important one. Since we all have to follow the rules of the government, it’s important to know what the rules are, how they’re decided, and who enforces them. 

Our Constitution is where the three branches of the government look at each other’s work to see if it’s fair and equal, and it has been keeping the country running for over 200 years. So far it has worked pretty well!

Here are some other pages about how the U.S. government works and about U.S. history:

Learn more about the 46 Presidents of the United States.

Learn more about how laws are made in the United States.

Learn more about the different branches of government.

Learn more about how Presidents get elected.

Learn more about the Supreme Court.

How to contact your senator.

Learn more about the Legislative Branch.

Did you know that states have a different but similar government to the United States? Find out about how your state’s government works.

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