Primer | United States Governance & Politics


The United States of America are a federated republican democracy. Three branches work together to govern the United States:

  • Executive branch

  • Legislative branch

  • Judicial branches

The executive branch (also called the Government) is the decision-making branch, made up of the President and their advisors. The legislative branch is the law-making branch, which is made up of the Senate and House of Representatives, which together are called Congress. The judicial branch consists of Lower Federal Courts and the Supreme Court, which interpret the laws passed by Congress.


The President’s Role

The President is the chief executive, or chief administrator, of the United States. The President’s job is to manage employees in the executive branch and to ensure enforcement of national laws. The President also holds the title of Chief of State, meaning they are the foremost representative of the nation, performing ceremonial duties and meeting with leaders of foreign nations.

More than any other person, they are responsible for legislation and may suggest legislation to Congress that they feel will improve the "state of the union." The President may also veto legislation that they do not believe should become law.

The President recommends candidates for the position of Attorney General, who leads the executive Department of Justice, as well as nominates Supreme Court justices (judges), federal court justices, and U.S. district attorneys whenever there are vacancies. The President also has the power to pardon criminals.

The President is also the Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. Having the armed forces led by the President, who is a civilian and not a military officer, guarantees democratic control over this enormously powerful organization within the government.

As head of the diplomatic corps, the President can make treaties with foreign countries, and can also appoint U.S. ambassadors and receive visits from foreign ambassadors and heads of state.

The President appoints key advisers to oversee various executive departments, bureaus, offices, and agencies on his behalf.



Congress is comprised of two wings: The House of Representatives and the Senate. The main powers of Congress are to raise money for use by the government and to decide in broad terms how to spend it. Congress considers proposed laws that have been introduced by its members. There are three major categories of bills considered by Congress

  • Authorization bills, which create and set goals for government programs;

  • Appropriations bills are requests for money to fund these programs; and

  • Revenue bills that are designed to raise money through taxation and other means.

Each year the executive branch presents a budget to the Congress, outlining the funds the President and executive departments would like to spend. Congress considers the President's plan but usually changes it in many ways.

Congress may also officially declare war on another country, raise and pay for armed forces, establish federal courts of law, and regulate trade with other countries. It may also impeach, or bring charges against, any member of the executive branch suspected of committing a crime.


House of Representatives

The House of Representatives ("the House") has 435 voting members. Its members are called Representatives, or Congressmen and Congresswomen. These members serve 2-year terms, where elections are held in general elections and midterm elections in November; Representatives take office the following January.

Representatives represent the people who live in a congressional district. Each of the 435 districts has about the same number of people. The states with the smallest populations have one Representative (called "Representatives-At-Large"). The state with the biggest population (California) has 53. The number of Representatives each state elects is refigured every ten years, based on a national census of the population.

The members of the House of Representatives choose their own leader, called the Speaker of the House. The Speaker belongs to the majority party and plays an active role in setting the legislative agenda. This agenda determines which bills will be voted on and in what order. The Speaker is assisted by the House majority leader. The House majority leader, in turn, is assisted by the House majority whip. All three are elected to their posts by a simple majority (at least one more than half) of all the members of the majority party. Members of the minority party also elect a House minority leader and a House minority whip.



The Senate is the smaller of the two houses of Congress. Each state has two Senators, regardless of the size of its population. There are 100 senators representing 50 states. Each Senator is elected to a 6-year term. Every two years, one third of the total members (33 or 34) comes up for election.

The Vice President of the United States serves as the President of the Senate, and their principal power is deciding an issue in case of a tie vote. On occasion the Vice President rules on questions of procedure, though the role is largely ceremonial; actual leadership in the Senate is exercised by the Senate majority leader and the Senate minority leader.



The Constitution of the United States of America is the supreme law of the United States. Empowered with the sovereign authority of the people by the framers and the consent of the legislatures of the states, it is the source of all government powers, and also provides important limitations on the government that protect the fundamental rights of United States citizens.

The Constitution is based on six principles:

  • Popular Sovereignty

  • Limited Government

  • Separation of Powers

  • Checks and Balances

  • Judicial Review

  • Federalism


Lower Federal Courts

If the government or a citizen has a case that involves a federal law, the case goes to a federal district court (called a court of original jurisdiction as the first to try such cases.) There are 89 district courts in the 50 states, plus one each for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Territorial Courts have also been established for Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

In addition to the district courts, Congress has established four special courts of original jurisdiction, all located in Washington, D.C.:

  • U.S. Tax Court;

  • U.S. Court of International Trade;

  • U.S. Court of Military Appeals; and

  • U.S. Claims Court.

Those who lose a case in a district court or in one of the specialized courts may take their case to a higher court to appeal the court's decision. The same is true for those who feel they have not been treated fairly. Such cases are brought before a United States Court of Appeals, also known as a circuit court. These courts have appellate jurisdiction. This means they have the authority to hear cases that have already been decided by a lower court. There are 13 U.S. courts of appeals around the country.

The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in very few cases, and these are specified in the Constitution. Most often, the Supreme Court hears cases that come on appeal from one of the circuit courts or from the high courts of the fifty states. Citizens do not have the right to have their appeals heard by the Supreme Court; in recent years the Supreme Court has decided to review only about 200 of the approximate 5,000 cases it is asked to consider every year.

The Supreme Court examines cases when the justices feel that important principles of law are in question. Frequently these cases arise when different circuit court justices have interpreted the Constitution in different ways. They also arise when a state court has acted in a way that might be considered in violation of the federal Constitution.


Supreme Court

The highest court in the nation is the United States Supreme Court. It is made up of one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. They are appointed by Presidents with the approval of the Senate. Supreme Court Justices may serve for life or until they wish to retire.

The Supreme Court has the power of judicial review, or the ability to declare laws unconstitutional. It allows the Supreme Court to check the power of the other two branches of the federal government as well as that of the state's governments.


Politics & Elections


Political Parties

The United States has a two-party system, the Democratic and Republican parties. This does not mean other political parties cannot and do not exist, however this third type of parties are ideological, single-issue, protest or splinter parties.


Democrats & Republicans

In 1865, the defeat of the Southern Confederacy in the Civil War weakened the Democrats, who were associated in voters’ minds with the Southern cause. For many years the Republicans were the major party, favoring business interests and high tariffs. The Democrats supported free trade and attracted farmers and the immigrants who poured into the country between the Civil War and the turn of the century.

Following the Civil War, Democrats and Republicans were not so deeply divided again until the 1930’s, with the Great Depression. The 1932 presidential election brought in Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal programs. Roosevelt Democrats thought that the federal government must actively help people who had been hurt by the Depression. Under the New Deal the government passed economic relief measures, social security, laws helping unions, and other bills. Republicans thought the government was taking too much power and moving the country toward a welfare state. They fought against governmental interference with business. This point marks the widening of the divide between the two parties to present day.

Today, both parties generally agree when it comes to social security, unemployment insurance, basic foreign policy, and civil rights. The issues on which they disagree often are not goals so much as means: how best to keep the economy growing, protect the environment, and maintain a strong national defense. In general, Republicans tend to oppose government programs as solutions to national problems. Democrats tend to believe that government can and should act for good. However, the parties’ views on government’s role often depend on the specific issue or program in question.


Two Party System

The United States has a two-party system, however, nothing in the Constitution requires two parties. The Democrats and Republicans have alternated in power since before the Civil War mainly because they have put forward candidates and policies that appeal to most Americans. But minor parties, or third parties, have often played a role in politics by focusing attention on issues and ideas. Sometimes they draw enough support to affect the outcome of elections. Sometimes a third-party gains part of its goals by supporting a major party that promises to act on the third party’s views.

The leaders of the American Revolution did not like the idea of parties and political battles between parties. Upon his retirement from public life in 1796, George Washington warned Americans against “faction” (parties). James Madison thought parties were probably necessary, although he did not entirely approve of them. Alexander Hamilton thought that faction was a vice to be guarded against at all times. Thomas Jefferson declared in 1789, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” Nevertheless, the men who held these views founded the first two great American political parties.


Electoral College

The founding fathers created the Electoral College system as a compromise between having the President elected by Congress and having the President elected by the popular vote of qualified citizens. The President and Vice President of the United States are really elected by the votes of only 538 citizens - the "electors" of the Electoral College System.

Each state gets a number of electors equal to its number of members in the U.S. House of Representatives plus one for each of its two U.S. Senators. While state laws determine how electors are chosen, they are generally selected by the political party committees within the states.


Gubernatorial & Local

In all states, the Governor is elected by the people in a statewide election. Once a Governor’s term has expired, he or she must run for re-election, and will sometimes face opponents from his or her own party. That election is called a primary. Voters across the state typically register with one party or another then cast their vote for the candidate who will run as a Republican, Democrat, or an Independent.

The winner of that primary will go on to face the primary winner from other parties in the general election. In some states, the Lieutenant Governor runs on the same ticket as the Governor — much like the President and Vice President do — but in others, they run separately.


Presidential & Federal

Following the nomination process, consisting of the primary elections and caucuses and the nominating conventions, the nominees for the Democratic and Republican parties prepare for the presidential election. Each party’s presidential nominee chooses a vice presidential running mate.

Presidential elections are held every four years on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. The President and the Vice President are elected together in a presidential election.

Congressional and presidential elections take place simultaneously every four years, and the intervening Congressional elections, which take place every two years, are called Midterm elections.


Primaries & Caucuses

A primary election is an election in which registered voters in a jurisdiction (nominating primary) select a political party’s candidate for a later election. The primary and caucus season in Presidential elections lasts from the Iowa caucus in January to the last primaries in June.

A state’s presidential primary election or caucus usually is an indirect election: instead of voters directly selecting a particular person running for President, it determines how many delegates each party’s national political convention will receive from their respective state. These delegates then in turn select their party’s presidential nominee. Held in the summer, a political convention’s purpose is also to adopt a statement of the party’s principles and goals known as the platform and adopt the rules for the party’s activities.

The day on which primaries are held for congressional seats, and state and local offices may also vary between states. The only federally mandated day for elections is Election Day for the general elections of the President and Congress; all other elections are at the discretion of the individual state and local governments.


Senate & House of Representatives

The Senate has 100 members, elected for a six-year term in dual-seat constituencies, two from each state, with one-third being renewed every two years.

The House of Representatives has 435 members, elected for a two-year term in single-seat constituencies. House of Representatives elections are held every two years on the first Tuesday after November 1 in even years. House elections are first-past-the-post elections that elect a Representative from each of 435 House districts which cover the United States.