The United States government is divided into three branches:
Legislative, Executive, Judicial.
The three branches were designed under the principles of Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances.
What follows is a brief outline of these topics. Although this background information is helpful, your ability to comprehend the essentials—Main Idea, Detail, Inference—from what you are given to read is more important for answering questions than tapping into an encyclopedic memory.
Separation of Powers
The Constitution set up three separate branches of government – Legislative, Executive, Judicial – each of which has its own powers.
Checks and Balances
Thanks to their separation, each branch of government checks or limits the others, thereby assuring a balance of power.
The legislative branch enacts legislation (makes laws), confirms or rejects presidential appointments, and has the authority to declare war.
The legislative branch is also known as Congress, consisting of two “Houses”:
• 2 elected senators per state, totaling 100 senators
• 6-year terms; no term limits
(2) House of Representatives
• 435 elected representatives divided among the 50 states according to population
• 2-year terms; no term limits
The executive branch carries out and enforces laws.
The most important members of the executive branch are:
(1) President of the United States
• nation’s leader; commander-in-chief of armed forces
• 4-year elected term; no more than 2 terms
(2) Vice President of the United States
• supports president; rises to presidency if president unable to serve
• 4-year term; no term limits
• advisors to the president
• include heads – known as “Secretaries” – of executive departments (Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Treasury, Transportation, Veterans Affairs)
• also includes vice president
The judicial branch evaluates laws, interprets laws, applies laws, and decides if laws violate the Constitution.
The most important members of the judicial branch are:
(1) Supreme Court
• nation’s highest court
• nine members, nominated by President, approved by Senate
• no term limits
(2) Other Federal Courts
• established by Congress
The Spirit of the Laws
1 When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty, because apprehensions may arise lest the same monarch or senate enact tyrannical laws to execute them in a tyrannical manner.
2 Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control, for the judge would then be the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.
3 There would be an end to everything, were the same man or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.
Practice – Questions
1. The above passage was written by a French philosopher several years before the United States’ Declaration of Independence (1776) and Constitution (1789). Which of the following can you infer from this passage?
A. Separation of powers is the same as separate but equal.
B. The concept of separation of powers did not originate in the United States.
C. France is superior to the United States.
D. The United States is superior to France.
2. What is the main idea of this passage?
A. There should not be separation of powers.
B. Laws are made to be broken.
C. Liberty is irrelevant.
D. There should be separation of powers.
3. If all three powers were in the same man or body, there would be:
C. an end to everything
D. separation of powers
4. If the judiciary were not separated from the executive branch, a judge:
A. would go on vacation
B. wouldn’t care
C. would always be fair
D. might behave with violence and oppression
5. Which of the following does this passage imply?
A. Checks and balances are closely related to separation of powers.
B. Checks and balances are not closely related to separation of powers.
C. Checks and balances refer only to money in a bank account.
D. Checks and balances are best handled by an accountant.
Practice – Answers
1. B. The concept of separation of powers did not originate in the United States.
2. D. There should be separation of powers.
3. C. an end to everything
4. D. might behave with violence and oppression
5. A. Checks and balances are closely related to separation of powers.