US Government for dummies

by Kevin Cordoba-Llanos, Katherine ScheetzAlahna Kindred

On 4 July 1776 the 13 American colonies signed the Declaration of Independence. It launched the Revolutionary War against Great Britain, which ended with the colonies establishing their own country: the United States of America.

In 1789 George Washington was established as the first US President and 11 of the 13 former colonies, now states, ratified the United States Constitution. Rhode Island and North Carolina ratified a year later.

The Constitution established three separate branches of government: the legislative, executive and judicial.

Legislative Branch

The legislative branch is divided into two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The House was created based on the Virginia Plan, which determined that the number of representatives would be based on population within the state. Because it is based on population, the number of representatives changes every ten years, based on census reports. Today there are 435.

The Senate was created based on the New Jersey Plan, to give less populous states a voice in governing. Each state has two senators representing them making a total of 100 Senate members.

Congress is responsible for creating the laws of the land. Within Congress subcommittees of representatives are formed to discuss specific issues like the Federal budget, homeland security, education, the armed forces, energy, and commerce and transportation etc.

The subcommittees draft bills, which must be voted on and passed in both the Senate and the House in order to be enacted as law. In order for a bill to pass in the House or the Senate it must be voted for by a majority of more than 50 per cent, 218 votes in the House and 51 votes in the Senate.

Washington DC and the 5 US territories, Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa, elect non-voting delegates.

  • The legislative branch checks on the executive and the judicial branch. It is able to:
    • Override presidential vetoes
    • Confirm executive appointments
    • Ratify treaties
    • Declare war
    • Appropriate money
    • Impeach and remove the president
  • The Judicial branch is able to:
    • Create lower federal courts
    • Impeach and remove judges
    • Propose amendments to overrule judicial decisions
    • Approve appointments of federal judges

Executive Branch

The executive branch is made up of the US president, the vice president and the cabinet. The president selects cabinet members and the Senate is tasked with approving the appointments. The cabinet members act as advisors to the president. The vice president acts as president of the Senate, breaking tie votes and overseeing the Electoral College vote.

The president has the power to issue executive orders, nominate Supreme Court justices and grant pardons. He can also veto, or deny, an act that has been passed in Congress. He acts as the Commander-in-Chief of the US military, a position that can be used to wage wars that Congress does not declare, notably in Vietnam, the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq War.

  • The Executive branch checks on the Legislative branch by:
    • Prosing laws
    • Vetoing laws
    • Calling special sessions of Congress
    • Making appointments
    • Negotiating foreign treaties
  • The Executive branch checks on the Judicial branch by:
    • Appointing federal judges
    • Granting pardons to federal offenders

Judicial Branch

The Judicial Branch is made up of a federal court system that is headed by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court traditionally consists of nine justices who are appointed for life having been nominated by the president and approved by the Senate. Their job is to interpret the laws created by Congress.

  • Checks on the Executive branch by declaring executive actions unconstitutional
  • Checks on the Legislative branch by declaring acts of Congress unconstitutional

Their power in interpreting the law was demonstrated in 1954 when the Supreme Court declared that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional, based on the Fourteenth Amendment in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. Another historic example of the power of judicial review is the case of Obergefell v. Hodges which made same-sex marriages legal nationwide in the US in 2015.

In addition to the three branches of government the Constitution outlined the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights are the first ten amendments outlining rights such as the right to a fair trial, the right to own property and the right to free speech, among others.

The process of amending the Constitution is how the Constitution can continue to be law but also be constantly changing. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1864, abolished slavery in the US. The 14th Amendment made former slaves citizens in 1868 and the 15th gave them the right to vote in 1870. The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, gave women the right to vote.

The amendment process unites all three branches of government laid out in the Bill of Rights. It is what turns the Constitution into a living and breathing document.

US elections

The 2016 presidential election cycle

Spring 2015 – Candidates announce that they are going to run

Summer 2015 to Spring 2016 – Primary debates occur

January to June 2016 – Primary elections are held in every state, candidates begin to drop out of race

July 2016 to early September 2016 – Democratic and Republican parties hold their national convention to choose their presidential candidates

September 2016 and October 2016 – Presidential debates

Early November 2016 – Election Day

December 2016 – Electors vote in the Electoral College

Early January 2017 – Congress counts the votes

January 20 2017 – Inauguration Day, the new president is officially sworn in and moves into the White House


Primaries are the first round of campaigning and elections in the US presidential election cycle. Both of the main parties have more than one candidate competing for the popular vote and their overall party nomination. There are two kinds of primaries: open and closed. In an open primary, voters can vote regardless their party affiliation. In a closed primary, voters can only vote within their declared party. For example, registered Democrats can only vote in the Democratic primary and registered Republicans can only vote in the Republican primary.

National Party Conventions  

Republicans and Democrats both hold a national convention where they nominate their party’s candidates for president and vice president. Delegates within each party select these candidates with a simple majority vote.

Election Day

Election Day is always the “next Tuesday after the first Monday in the month of November,” according to the second session of the 28th Congress.


In order to be eligible to vote, individuals must be US citizens, 18 years old and registered to vote. The deadline for registration varies from state to state. Unlike closed primaries, voters do not have to be registered or affiliated with any party to vote for the president.

All information about voting came from USA Election in Brief.

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