The US is a constitutional republic and representative democracy. Our Government is regulated by a system of checks and balances defined by the US Constitution, which serves as the country’s supreme legal document. In the US, citizens are usually subject to three levels of government: federal, state, and local. The original text of the Constitution establishes the structure and responsibilities of the federal government and its relationship with the individual states. The Constitution has been amended 27 times, including the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights, which forms the central basis of Americans’ individual rights.
Federal government structure
The Constitution divides the federal government into three branches to ensure a central government in which no individual or group gains too much control:
Legislative – Makes laws (Congress)
Executive – Carries out laws (President, Vice President, Cabinet)
Judicial – Evaluates laws (Supreme Court and other courts)
Each branch of government can change acts of the other branches as follows:
The president can veto legislative bills passed by Congress before they become law (subject to Congressional override).
Congress confirms or rejects the president’s appointments and can remove the president from office in exceptional circumstances.
The justices of the Supreme Court, who can overturn unconstitutional laws, are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
The legislative branch enacts legislation, confirms or rejects presidential appointments, and has the authority to declare war. This branch comprises Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives) and several agencies that provide support services to Congress.
The executive branch carries out and enforces laws. It includes the president, vice president, the Cabinet, 15 executive departments, independent agencies, and other boards, commissions, and committees.
The judicial branch interprets the meaning of laws, applies laws to individual cases, and decides if laws violate the Constitution. The judicial branch comprises the Supreme Court and other federal courts.
Under the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution, all powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people. All state governments are modeled after the federal government and consist of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The US Constitution mandates that states uphold a “republican form” of government, although the three-branch structure is not required.
All 50 states have legislatures made up of elected representatives, who consider matters brought forth by the governor or introduced by its members to create legislation that becomes law. The legislature also approves a state’s budget and initiates tax legislation and articles of impeachment. The latter is part of a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government that mirrors the federal system and prevents any branch from abusing its power.
Every state except one has a bicameral legislature made up of two chambers: a smaller upper house and a larger lower house. Together the two chambers make state laws and fulfill other governing responsibilities. The smaller upper chamber is always called the Senate, and its members generally serve longer terms, usually four years. The larger lower chamber is most often called the House of Representatives, but some states call it the Assembly or the House of Delegates. Its members usually serve shorter terms, often two years. Nebraska is the lone state that has just one chamber in its legislature.
In every state, the executive branch is headed by a governor who is directly elected by the people. In most states, other leaders in the executive branch are also directly elected, including the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the secretary of state, and auditors and commissioners. States reserve the right to organize in any way, so they often vary greatly with regard to executive structure. No two state executive organizations are identical.
Most states have a supreme court that hears appeals from lower-level state courts. Court structures and judicial appointments/elections are determined either by legislation or by the state constitution. The state supreme court usually focuses on correcting errors made in lower courts and therefore holds no trials. Rulings made in state supreme courts are normally binding; however, when questions are raised regarding consistency with the US Constitution, matters may be appealed directly to the United States Supreme Court.
STATE GOVERNMENTS (50)
UPPER AND LOWER HOUSES:
states also elect:
Local government structure2
A government is an organized entity that, in addition to having governmental character, has sufficient discretion in the management of its own affairs to distinguish it as separate from the administrative structure of any other governmental unit.
To be counted as a government, any entity must possess all three of the following attributes:
Existence as an organized entity – the presence of some form of organization and the possession of some corporate powers, such as perpetual succession, the right to sue and be sued, have a name, make contracts, acquire and dispose of property, and the like.
Governmental character – In essence, an organization can only be considered to be a government if it provides services, wields authority, or bears accountability that is of a public nature.
Substantial autonomy – This requirement is met when, subject to statutory limitations and any supervision of local governments by the state, an entity has considerable fiscal and administrative independence.
LOCAL GOVERNMENTS (90,075)
Other Special Districts (38,542)
Parks and recreation
Sea and inland port facilities
Solid waste management
Housing and community development
Insulararea government structure
The US has many insular areas, or jurisdictions that are neither a state nor a federal district, including any commonwealth, freely associated state, possession, or territory. Five of the insular areas – Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa – are self-governing, each with a non-voting member of the House of Representatives and permanent populations. The remaining areas are small islands, atolls, and reefs in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. US possession of certain of these areas is disputed by other countries. The population of these areas are excluded from our reported population figures. However, these individuals may contribute to the revenues, expenditures, and other figures included in this report.
American Indian tribal government structure
Our Government officially recognizes 574 Indian tribes in the contiguous 48 states and Alaska. The US observes tribal sovereignty of the American Indian nations to a limited degree, as it does with the states’ sovereignty. American Indians are US citizens and tribal lands are subject to the jurisdiction of the US Congress and the federal courts. Like the states, the tribal governments have a great deal of autonomy with respect to their members, including the power to tax, govern, and try them in court, but also like the states, tribes are not allowed to make war, engage in their own foreign relations, or print and issue currency.