American government system: Branches of the U.S. Government

Budget of the U.S. Government

Every year, Congress begins work on a federal budget for the next fiscal year. The federal government’s fiscal year runs from October 1 of one calendar year through September 30 of the next.

The work actually begins in the executive branch the year before the budget is to go into effect.

  • Federal agencies create budget requests and submit them to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
  • OMB refers to the agency requests as it develops the president’s budget proposal.

The president submits his budget proposal to Congress early the next year. Then Congress, which the Constitution puts in charge of spending and borrowing, starts its work.

Annual Funding Areas

The annual budget covers three spending areas:

  • Federal agency funding, called discretionary spending—the area Congress sets annually. Discretionary spending typically accounts for around a third of all funding.

  • Interest on the debt, which usually uses less than 10 percent of all funding

  • Funding for Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits, and other spending required by law. This is called mandatory spending and typically uses over half of all funding.

The Complex Role of Congress in the Budget Process


For agencies and their programs to be funded, Congressional authorization committees must pass, and the president must sign, authorization bills giving agencies the legal authority to fund and operate their programs. Normally, without authorization, an agency or program cannot receive annual appropriated funding.

Authorization is not tied to the same schedule as the budget appropriations process; programs can be authorized at any time of year on an annual, multi-year, or permanent basis.

Budget Resolutions

Congress’s first task in the annual process is to pass a budget resolution creating a framework and setting overall spending limits. As with most things Congress does, its two chambers—the Senate and the House of Representatives—each draft their own budget resolution. The two plans are merged, and each chamber votes on the identical resolution.

Appropriations Bills

The appropriations committee for each chamber divides the amount allotted for federal agency funding between 12 subcommittees. Each subcommittee is in charge of funding for different functions of government, such as defense spending, energy and water, and interior and environment, and for the agencies involved.

The subcommittees conduct hearings with agency leaders about their budget requests and draft appropriations bills setting the funding for each. The full House and Senate vote on their bills, merge both versions of each one, and vote on the identical version of every bill. Each one, if passed, goes to the president for signature. 

Budget Completion or Government Shutdown

If Congress passes, and the president signs, all 12 bills by September 30—the last day of the current fiscal year—the country has a new budget in time for the start of the next fiscal year. If Congress can’t agree on 12 separate bills, it can pass an Omnibus bill with funding for multiple areas. If the budget is not completed by the new fiscal year, Congress must pass a continuing resolution authorizing temporary funding at the previous year’s levels or face a government shutdown.

In the event of a shutdown, the government stops issuing passports, closes national parks and monuments, halts NASA operations, and puts many other functions on hold.

When the budget process is finally complete or Congress passes a continuing resolution, the government resumes normal operations.

Federal Budget by Fiscal Year

To see the approved federal budget for a year, you must look at the appropriations bills for that year that were signed into law.  

  1. Go to the Appropriations and Budget page on

  2. Click the year you want to see. 

  3. A chart will open. Scroll down to find various versions of budget legislation in it. To identify which budget legislation in the chart actually became law, look in the chart under the far right column titled «Public Law» for a Pub.L. number that was assigned to the legislation when it passed.  

The Deficit, the Debt, and the Debt Ceiling

When the amount of money the government collects in taxes and other revenue in a given year is less than the amount it spends, the difference is called the deficit. If the government takes in more money than it spends, the excess is called a surplus.

The deficit is financed by the sale of Treasury securities (bonds, notes, and bills), which the government pays back with interest. Part of what the government spends money on each year is the interest owed on all years’ deficits combined, or the national debt. Get statistics and learn more about the deficit and national debt.

The debt ceiling is the maximum amount of debt the government allows itself to hold. Congress can vote to raise the debt ceiling. If it doesn’t and the debt hits the ceiling, the government won’t be able to borrow any more money and it won’t be able to pay its bills.

The political system in the U.S. — Structure


In this section, you will be able to learn how the political system functions in the United States. Democracy can be carried out in many ways, and democratic practices vary from country to country. In Denmark the people vote for the candidates they wish to gain a seat in the Danish Parliament, Folketinget. After that, the elected members of parliament (MPs) choose who is going to be the Danish Prime Minister. In the United States the election is more directly focused on who is going to be the country’s President. In the U.S., people vote personally for the specific candidate who they believe should be President. Before the presidential election however, the parties go through the long process of the so-called primary elections. Here, they select the one candidate who is going to represent each party in the presidential election.

You can learn more about the election processes, the structure of the U.S. Congress, and how bills are passed, among other themes, by clicking on the different headlines in the index above. On this page, you can read about the structure of the political system in the United States. Thus, you can learn about the nation’s tripartition of power – divided between the President, the Congress, and the Supreme Court.

After the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, the country set out to organize their own political system. In doing this, they were inspired by the French philosopher, Montesquieu. In 1748 Montesquieu had presented his ideas on how best to organize a political system. These ideas featured a division of power, which was to ensure that one single person or group would not be able to function as the autocratic leader of a nation. Montesquieu’s idea was that power must be divided into a legislative, an executive, and a judicial branch. All democratic societies have since then been inspired by these principles.

In the United States, the Congress is the national parliament – that is, the American version of Folketinget in Denmark. The Congress functions as the legislative branch of the U.S. government. The President functions as the executive branch, and the courts (The Supreme Court), in turn, function as the judicial branch. The image at the top of this page provides a visual presentation of this tripartition.

The role of the Congress is to pass laws, and the President’s role is to implement such laws after they have been passed. Finally, the role of the courts is to interpret laws and make judgments in court based on these interpretations.

A principle of checks and balances

It is not enough, however, to divide these different, central duties of government between the three branches. The U.S. political system also follows a principle of “checks and balances”, which enables all three branches to mutually control each other. This prevents any of these three branches from getting too powerful.

In order to control the legislative power (Congress), the President, who is the executive power, is able to veto legislation passed in Congress. The judicial power, the courts, are also able to restrict Congress’ exercise of power. The courts can do this by declaring laws, which have otherwise been passed by Congress, unconstitutional.

In addition to this, the President’s power is restricted because Congress has the power to trump a veto cast by the president regarding the passing of a law. Congress can do this by passing such a law with a two thirds majority. Further, the courts are able to declare the President’s actions unconstitutional should the President act beyond the scope of his authority.

Contrary to Denmark, the process of selecting Supreme Court Justices in the U.S is politically influenced. Nine justices make up the United States Supreme Court, and they usually serve for the remainder of their lives. When a new Supreme Court judge is to be selected, the president in power at the given time picks out a candidate for the position. Then, the candidate must be approved by the Senate. This means that Democratic and Republican presidents have the ability to appoint judges who have a set of values that matches their own. Therefore, the issue of who gets the opportunity to take office at the U.S. Supreme Court is greatly influenced by the incumbent President.

Differences between Denmark and the U.S.

Montesquieu’s ideas about a tripartition of power have also inspired the Danish political structure. Folketinget, the Danish parliament, is the legislative branch, the government is the executive branch, and the courts make up the judiciary branch. One significant difference between the two political systems in Denmark and the U.S. is that the Danish government is not directly elected by the people, but by Folketinget. Generally, most members of the Danish government are also members of Folketinget. Therefore, they are able to vote for their own policies and participate in no-confidence votes directed at the government. Because of these key overlaps between the legislative and the executive branches, the division of power in Denmark is not in actual fact a tripartition, but rather what is called parliamentarism.

In the United States the tripartition is more evident. The President and his government are not themselves members of Congress, and the people – not the members of Congress – elect the president more directly. Furthermore, the U.S. Congress is not able to force the President to leave office should there be a majority of votes against him.


  • How is power divided in the United States? Between which branches?
  • What is the “checks and balances” principle?
  • Compare what you have just read about the political system in the U. S. with the knowledge you have about the structure of the Danish political system.


  • Drawing exercise: Make your own illustration of the structure of the political system in the United States. Think about what you have learned about the tripartition of power, and how the different branches are able to regulate each other.

The American State Power System

1. Read the text, look at the translation, offer your own translation. Write an abstract, prepare an oral presentation.

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The American State Power System
American system of government

(Translated by S. Yarlykov)
The United States is a constitutional republic. The nation operates as a presidential system also known as a congressional system. The federal government’s power is divided between three branches – the legislative, the executive and the judicial. The USA is a constitutional republic. The nation operates as a presidential system, also known as a congressional system. The power of the federal government is divided among three branches — legislative, executive and judicial. nine0005
Legislative branch. The legislative branch – the Congress – is made up of elected representatives from each of the 50 states. It is the only branch of U.S. government that can make federal laws, levy federal taxes, declare war, and put foreign treaties into effect. Members of the House of Representatives are elected to two-year terms. Each member represents a district in his or her home state. In all, there are 435 representatives in the House. Senators are elected to six-year terms. Each state has two senators, regardless of population. There are 100 senators. To become a law, a bill must pass both the House and the Senate. After the bill is introduced in either body, it is studied by one or more committees, amended, voted out of committee, and discussed in the chamber of the House or Senate. If passed by one body, it goes to the other for consideration. Once both bodies have passed the same version of a bill, it goes to the president for approval. nine0005

Legislative branch. The legislature — the Congress — consists of elected representatives from each of the 50 states. It is the only branch of the US government that can make federal laws, collect federal taxes, declare war, and approve foreign treaties. Members of the House are elected for a two-year term. Each member of the House represents a district in their home state. There are 435 representatives in total. Senators are elected for six-year terms. Each state has two senators, regardless of population. There are 100 senators in total. For the law to take effect, the bill must be considered in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. After a bill enters into force, it is examined by one or more committees, amended, voted on by the committee, and debated in Parliament. If it is accepted by one body, it is checked by another body for consideration. Once both chambers have reviewed the bill, it goes to the president for approval. nine0005
Executive Branch. The chief executive of the United States is the president, who together with the vice president is elected to a four-year term. As a result of a constitutional amendment that went into effect in 1951, a president may be elected to only two terms. Other than succeeding a president who dies or is disabled, the vice president’s only official duty is presiding over the Senate. The vice president may vote in the Senate only to break a tie. The president’s powers are formidable but not unlimited. As the chief formulator of national policy, the president proposes legislation to Congress. The president may veto any bill passed by Congress. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Within the executive branch, the president has broad powers to issue regulations and directives carrying out the work of the federal government’s departments and agencies. nine0005

Executive branch. The head of the executive branch of the United States is the president, who, along with the vice president, is elected to a four-year term. As a result of a constitutional amendment that went into effect in 1951, the president can only be elected to two terms. The only official duty of the vice president is to exercise control over the Senate, if the president dies or becomes incapacitated, then thereafter, the vice president assumes the office of president. The Vice President may cast his vote «for» or «against» if the number of votes in the voting is equal. The powers of the president are vast, but not unlimited. As the chief national policy maker, the president proposes legislation to Congress. The President can veto any bill passed by Congress. The President is the supreme commander of the armed forces. In the executive branch, the president has broad powers to issue regulations and directives to carry out the work of federal government departments and departments. nine0005
Judicial branch. The judicial branch is headed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the only court specifically created by the Constitution. In addition, Congress has established 13 federal courts of appeals and, below them, about 95 federal district courts. The Supreme Court meets in Washington, D.C., and the other federal courts are located in cities throughout the United States. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices. With minor exceptions, cases come to the Supreme Court on appeal from lower federal or state courts. nine0005

Judicial branch of government. The judiciary is headed by the US Supreme Court, which is the only court specially created by the constitution. In addition, Congress has established 13 federal courts of appeals, lower courts, about 95 federal district courts. The Supreme Court is located in Washington, DC, and federal courts are located in cities throughout the United States. The Supreme Court consists of the President of the Court and eight judges. With few exceptions, disputes are referred to the Supreme Court on appeal from lower federal courts. nine0005

Read and answer the following questions:

1. How many states are there in the USA?

2. Does this country have a constitution?

3. Who is the official head of this country?

4. Is the USA a democratic state? Prove it.

5. What are the main branches of power in America?

General theoretical description of the US legal system

Bibliographic description:

Agabalieva, I. E. General theoretical characteristics of the US legal system / I. E. Agabalieva. — Text: direct // Young scientist. — 2010. — No. 6 (17). — S. 228-230. — URL: (date of access: 01/06/2023).

In any organized society, the main power element is the state, the social purpose of which is to manage society. This is its main function. And the means used by the state to streamline and regulate social relations is law. State law in each country is the fundamental, main institution of the national system. Unlike the countries of the Romano-Germanic legal family, in which the enacted law is fixed as the leading source of law, in the countries of the Anglo-Saxon legal system, the main source of law is the norm formulated by judges and expressed in judicial precedents. nine0012

US law has its origin in English common law. Common law is a branch that bears a deep historical imprint, this history until the 18th century belongs exclusively to English law, its development and formation was carried out according to three principles:

1) the formation of common law;

2) addition of common law by the institution of justice;

3) interpretation of the statutes.

Significant changes in the American legal system were introduced by the revolution, which proposed the national idea of ​​an independent American law, not connected with its «English past». The adoption of the federal constitution in 1787 and subsequent constitutions of the states that became part of the United States was the first and most important stage on this path. nine0012

US common law is extremely confusing and contradictory. Suffice it to recall that by the middle of the nineteenth century. About 4,000 volumes of decisions and judgments of federal and state courts have been published in the United States [1, p. 67].

For an American lawyer, law is, first of all, jurisprudence. The norms that the legislator develops are truly included in the system of American law only when they have been repeatedly applied in practice and interpreted by the courts, i.e. when one can safely refer not to the norms themselves, but directly to judicial precedents and decisions. nine0012

America’s federal legal structure is structured as follows: all the states that make up the United States are endowed with a fairly wide range of rights and competences within which they form and develop their own legislation and their own system of case law. The courts of each state exercise jurisdiction independently of each other, and accordingly it is absolutely not necessary that decisions made in the courts of one state will take into account or follow the courts of other states. The US Constitution delimits the exclusive jurisdiction of the federation and the states. Each of the 50 states has its own administrative-territorial division and its own organization of state power in the field [4, p. 225]. nine0012

Attempts to reduce jurisprudence to uniformity are not uncommon, but more often the courts of different states make different, and sometimes completely opposite decisions in similar cases. Subsequently, this creates many conflicts, which are exacerbated by possible discrepancies in the decisions of state courts (hearing the vast majority of cases) and federal courts, which have jurisdiction over certain categories of cases. Protecting the fairness and integrity of the judiciary is a necessary element of the rule of law. The Magna Carta and numerous bills of rights throughout human history testify to the importance of such justice. nine0012

The sources of law are laws passed by the federal Congress and state legislatures, as well as numerous precedents that are formulated on the basis of court decisions in civil cases, as well as sentences handed down by the courts in criminal cases, all of these legal elements constitute the American common legal system. In the United States, civil law, for example, throughout its history has been composed of separate important legal institutions — the law of corporations, contract law, property, etc.

By the second half of the 20th century. one of the most pressing issues of state-political life and at the same time the US legal system was the question of universal equality and strengthening of civil rights in general . Due to various circumstances (the presence of numerous racial, national, religious reasons, special traditions of the legal system, etc. ), local and administrative-legal infringement of civil rights for various reasons has acquired a political dimension, thereby stimulating public distrust and uncertainty in justice established state order. Legislative and supreme judiciary authorities of the United States quickly responded to this problem, formulating and consolidating a practically new legal «field» of relations between citizens and state authorities. nine0012

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, a special Civil Rights Commission (whose members were appointed by the president himself with the consent of the Senate) was created within the executive branch. The commission was charged with investigating citizens’ allegations of infringement of their political rights when voting on the basis of race, color, religion, age and other circumstances, as well as assessing the regulations of the administration, laws and policies of the federal government from the point of view of the inequality allowed in the acts or in the policy. [3, p.191]. To prevent discrimination, this Commission was supposed to conduct quasi-judicial hearings, and was also endowed with coordinating powers.

The principle of separation of powers is the basis for the formation of government power. According to this principle, legislative power is wholly vested in Congress, executive power is vested in the president, and judicial power is vested in the Supreme and lower federal courts. Freer handling of precedent is of particular importance because of the power and jurisdiction of American courts to review the constitutionality of all laws. The Supreme Court of a state or the Supreme Court of the United States may similarly set aside precedent for constitutional interpretation. The right of constitutional review, in particular, actively used by the Supreme Court, highlights the dominant role of the judiciary in the American legal system. In addition, as noted above, the states have been given fairly broad legislative competence, and they actively use it. Hence, a significant body of legislation in its scale — statutory law at the state level. nine0012

The Supreme Court is the highest body of the judiciary, its doctrines, interpretation of laws and law-making in general, are binding on courts of all levels. As the first instance, it considers cases concerning diplomatic representatives and consuls, as well as cases in which one of the parties is the state [4, p. 224]. In other cases that arise on the basis of the Constitution, federal laws and concluded international treaties, the US Supreme Court acts as the last court of appeal. For state law, the activities of the Supreme Court related to constitutional supervision (control) are of particular importance. Such an interweaving of functions serves the purpose of a more complete adaptation of the mechanism of government power to the tasks and requirements set by the modern development of society. nine0012

However, the bodies of constitutional control are engaged not only in checking the compliance of acts with the Basic Law. Such verification is undoubtedly an important part of their work. At the same time, this check has an impact on all aspects of the activities of public authorities, relations between different levels of government, various elements of the political system [2, p. 13].

A special part of the codification in the United States was the formation of so-called uniform laws and codes, the purpose of which is to establish the possible unity of those areas of law where it is especially important and necessary. The relevant training is carried out by the National Commission of All-State Representatives in conjunction with the American Bar Association and the American Law Institute. In the United States, the application of a law (bill) depends on judicial precedents for its interpretation, and there are no clear guarantees that uniform laws or codes will be universally interpreted in the same way by judicial practice. nine0012

The history of American law has evolved through many transformations and changes. The main component of the national legal system of the United States is state law, the rules of which regulate social relations that arise in the process of applying state power.

The state, being an organizational institution within society, as a general rule, is called upon to express and guarantee the provision of the interests of this very society, to select ideas and actual relations, dressing them in a legal form, i.e. create a national system of law. The US legal system was seriously affected by the fact that it originated and developed under the conditions of American federalism, which formally proclaimed a fairly large competence of the states in the state-legal regulation of various areas of social relations. The federal authorities have the right to regulate only those areas that are assigned to their exclusive jurisdiction. Subsequently, this state division of competence became one of the many features that the US legal system is so saturated with. nine0012


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