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What Are the Branches of Government?
There are three branches of the United States government, and they work together to make the country tick. There’s the legislative branch, which makes laws. There’s also the executive branch, which carries out those laws. And there’s the judicial branch, which interprets the laws and makes sure they’re constitutional. This three-branch system creates a separation of powers that keeps any one branch from becoming too powerful.
- The Three Branches of Government: From the Truman library, this article summarizes the highest levels of each branch.
- The Executive Branch: Learn about the president and their job directly from the White House.
- Separation of Powers: The National Conference of State Legislatures has a more complicated overview of the concept.
- Separation of Powers: A History: Who put this system in place, and why do we do it? PBS explains the history behind the separation of powers.
The Legislative Branch
The legislative branch is sometimes described as “the people’s branch.” This branch is made up of citizens who were elected by their state or region to represent the people in Congress. Congress consists of the Senate, a group of 100 people (two for each state), and the House of Representatives, a group of 435 people. These two halves of Congress work together to turn bills into laws to better our country.
- The House Explained: What is the House of Representatives, and what does it do? Learn more here.
- How a Bill Becomes a Law: Proposed legislation takes a long path through Congress before it can become a law.
- Ben’s Guide to the Legislative Branch: Who better to teach you about our government than Ben Franklin? Get the most important details from this summary.
- Overview of the Legislative Process: Watch this video to learn more about our bicameral legislature.
The Executive Branch
The executive branch is led by the president of the United States. The president’s job is to act as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, head of state, and enforcer of laws. While this branch is the leader of the branches, that doesn’t mean it has the most power; our government has checks and balances in place that are supposed to ensure that the president can’t overstep their powers.
- The World’s Hardest Job: Find out what a typical American president does in their day-to-day life in this article.
- Starter Kit: Executive Branch: Listen to this podcast or read the transcript to hear all about how the executive branch is supposed to work.
The Judicial Branch
This branch is responsible for deciding what the laws mean and how to enforce them. If the legislative branch passes a law, citizens will go before the judicial branch when they break it. The courts are also in charge of deciding when a law violates the Constitution, rendering it invalid. There are courts all the way down to your local traffic court and all the way up to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.
- The Judicial Branch: Learn the basics about the Supreme Court and lower courts here.
- The Supreme Court and its Procedures: The Supreme Court isn’t quite like the rest of the judicial branch. Learn how it’s different straight from the court itself.
- Court Role and Structure: All cases heard before the Supreme Court started in a lower court and were appealed.
- Introduction to the Federal Court System: The lowest tier of the federal court system is the district courts.
Checks and Balances
The reason why having three branches is important is because each of the branches have powers over the other, a system we call checks and balances. Each branch has the ability to check the power of the others, maintaining a balance of power between them.
- If the legislative branch passes a law, the president can veto it, or the judicial branch can rule it unconstitutional.
- The president nominates judges to the Supreme Court who evaluate the laws, and the legislative branch can remove judges from office.
- Congress has the ability to impeach a president and remove them from office, and it can override a presidential veto with a large majority.
This complicated system of checks and balances keeps the government in balance, never letting one branch get too much power.
- Constitutional Topic: Checks and Balances: Read this list of the many ways the branches balance each other out to learn how much power they have over each other.
- Internal Constraints on Government Power: Learn more with a list of real-world examples of historical checks and balances.
Government Resources for Kids
- Checks and Balances Game: Kids can play this game to test how much they know about the system of checks and balances.
- Judicial System Quiz: How well do you understand the judicial system? Take this quiz to find out!
- Win the White House: Campaign your way across the country and learn how the president gets elected with this game.
- Government 101: Congress: Study up on what representatives do and how to become one.