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United States Government, the combination of federal, state, and local laws, bodies, and agencies that is responsible for carrying out the operations of the United States. The federal government of the United States is centered in Washington, D.C.

The institutions of all governments emerge from basic principles. In the United States the one basic principle is representative democracy, which defines a system in which the people govern themselves by electing their own leaders. The American government functions to secure this principle and to further the common interests of the people.

Democracy in America is based on six essential ideals: (1) People must accept the principle of majority rule. (2) The political rights of minorities must be protected. (3) Citizens must agree to a system of rule by law. (4) The free exchange of opinions and ideas must not be restricted. (5) All citizens must be equal before the law. (6) Government exists to serve the people, because it derives its power from the people. These ideals form the basis of the democratic system in the United States, which seeks to create a union of diverse peoples, places, and interests.

To implement its essential democratic ideals, the United States has built its government on four elements: (1) popular sovereignty, meaning that the people are the ultimate source of the government’s authority; (2) representative government; (3) checks and balances; and (4) federalism, an arrangement where powers are shared by different levels of government.

Every government has a source of its sovereignty or authority, and most of the political structures of the U.S. government apply the doctrine of popular sovereignty. In previous centuries the source of sovereignty in some countries was the monarchy-the divine right of kings to rule. Americans place the source of authority in the people who, in a democratic society, reign. In this idea the citizens collectively represent the nation’s authority. They then express that authority individually by voting to elect leaders to represent them in government. “I know no safe repository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1820, “and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.” This was an experimental idea at the time, but today Americans take it for granted.

The second principle of U.S. democracy is representative government. In a representative government, the people delegate their powers to elected officials. In the United States, candidates compete for the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, as well as for many state and local positions. In turn these elected officials represent the will of the people and ensure that the government is accountable to its citizens. In a democracy, the people exercise power through elections, which allow adult citizens of the United States the chance to have their voices heard and to influence government. With their vote, they can remove officials who ignore their intentions or who betray their trust. Political leaders are accountable as agents of the people; this accountability is an important feature of the American system of representative government.

In order to truly work, however, representative government must represent all people. Originally, the only people allowed to vote, and thus to be represented, were white men who owned property—a small percentage of the population. Gradually, voting rights were broadened to include white men without property, blacks, Native Americans, naturalized immigrants, and women.

The third principle of American democracy is the system of checks and balances. The three branches of government—the legislative, the executive, and the judicial—restrain and stabilize one another through their separated functions. The legislative branch, represented by Congress, must pass bills before they can become law. The executive branch—namely, the president—can veto bills passed by Congress, thus preventing them from becoming law. In turn, by a two-thirds vote, Congress can override the president’s veto. The Supreme Court may invalidate acts of Congress by declaring them contrary to the Constitution of the United States, but Congress can change the Constitution through the amendment process.

The fourth principle of democracy in the United States is federalism. In the American federal system, the states and the national government divide authority. This division of power helps curb abuses by either the national or the state governments.

This is one of seven major articles that together provide a comprehensive discussion of the United States of America. For more information on the United States, please see the other six major articles: United States (Overview), United States (Geography), United States (People), United States (Culture), United States (Economy), and United States (History).


The Constitution of the United States is the basis for the machinery and institutions of the U.S. government. The Constitution is the world’s oldest charter of national government in continuous use. It was written in 1787 during the Constitutional Convention, which had been convened in the midst of the political crisis that followed the American Revolution. At that time relations were tense between the states and the acting central government, the Continental Congress. The Constitution was an effort to ease those tensions and to create a single political entity from the 13 independent former colonies—the ideal expressed in the motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One). In 1788, after nine states ratified it, the Constitution became the law of the land. With 27 amendments—or additions—it has remained so.

Before the ratification of the Constitution, the states were governed under the Articles of Confederation, which served as a constitution. Under the articles, the central government was much weaker than the state governments. The men who drafted the Constitution favored a stronger central government. In the preamble—or introduction—to the Constitution, in which they stated their principles and purposes, the Founders recognized the United States as a government of the people, not of the states. They saw their purpose as forming “a more perfect Union,” which, along with promoting the “general welfare,” would secure “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” For more information on the ratification of the Constitution, see United States (History): Forging a New Nation.

Articles I, II, and III

To implement these abstract ideas, the Founders established three branches of government—the executive, the legislative, and the judicial. The functions of these branches are described in the first three articles of the Constitution.

Article I is the longest article in the Constitution; it establishes the national legislature called Congress. The Founders divided Congress into a Senate and a House of Representatives because they were afraid of placing too much authority in any one institution. Among other powers, Congress collects taxes, provides for the common defense (meaning that the federal government, not just the states, provides resources for the protection and security of the United States), regulates commerce, raises armies, and declares war. In addition, Article I contains the “necessary and proper clause,” which authorizes Congress to pass any law that it thinks is necessary to carry out its constitutional duties. This provision is very important because it allows Congress to react to situations that may not have existed when the Constitution was written.

Article II establishes an executive department headed by a president and vice president. The article further describes the powers of the offices, the manner of election, and the qualifications for office. Of special significance is the president’s constitutional role as commander of the nation’s armed forces, which assures civilian control over the military. Because the president is the head of the armed forces and only Congress can declare war, the authority of the military is diffused and its power to make decisions is restrained. The Constitution also grants the president the authority to make treaties with other nations. However, to limit abuse of this power, the Constitution requires treaties to be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate.

Article III directs that the federal judicial power be placed in a Supreme Court and in other courts as directed by Congress. This brief article also lists the kinds of cases that fall specifically under the jurisdiction of the federal courts.

Articles IV, V, VI, and VII

Along with the preamble, the first three articles are the most familiar parts of the Constitution. There are, however, four additional articles. Article IV sets up cooperative arrangements between the states and the federal government regarding fugitives and criminals, and requires that states respect one other and one other’s citizens. It also establishes the process by which territories become states, an important function during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, Article IV guarantees a republican—or representative—form of government for all states.

Article V establishes procedures for amending the Constitution. The Founders developed a method for changing the Constitution so that it could be adapted to changing times. To maintain a balance between the power of the federal government and that of the state governments, the amendment process requires approval by majorities of legislative bodies at both the state and federal levels. Only a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress can propose a constitutional revision; the legislatures of three-quarters of the states must then ratify the amendment for it to take effect. The Constitution also provides another amendment method, though it has never been used: The legislatures of two-thirds of the states can call a constitutional convention to propose amendments to the Constitution. Any proposal agreed upon must then be ratified by three-quarters of the states.

Article VI is a catchall article; its most important section establishes the Constitution and the laws of the United States as “the supreme Law of the Land.” Article VII of the Constitution establishes procedures that were used in 1788 and 1789 for the approval and subsequent adoption of the document by the states.


No sooner was the Constitution accepted than both individuals and states insisted on additions to protect the people from possible abuses by the new federal government. In 1790 Congress and the states ratified ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments guarantee personal liberties and prevent the federal government from infringing on the rights of states and citizens.

For example, the First Amendment—the most far-reaching amendment in the Bill of Rights—prohibits Congress from establishing an official state religion and from preventing Americans from the free exercise of their religion. It also prohibits the government from interfering with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right “peaceably to assemble.” Other amendments in the Bill of Rights confer on the people the right to speedy trials, to be secure in their homes, and to own and carry arms. The Fifth Amendment states that people cannot be deprived of life, liberty, or property “without due process of law”—that is, without a fair trial.

Besides the Bill of Rights, there have been only 17 other amendments to the Constitution in the more than 200 years of its existence. Of these, some of the most important are the 15th, 19th, and 26th amendments, which, respectively, gave blacks, women, and 18-year-olds the right to vote. Also important are the 17th Amendment, which gave the people the right to elect United States senators, and the 22nd Amendment, which restricted the number of terms a president can serve to two. These amendments extended the principles of democracy to more Americans, and in the case of the president, limited the power of a chief executive by restricting the length of his or her tenure. Besides these amendments, the 14th Amendment is an important safeguard for minority rights because under its “due process” clause, it extends the protections of the Bill of Rights to individual residents of states. In the same way that the Bill of Rights limits federal power, the 14th Amendment limits the power of the states over their citizens.

Importance of the Constitution

The Constitution of the United States embodies the principle that out of many different peoples, one national society can be created. The Founders wanted unity and stability. But they also wanted to safeguard the rights and liberties of states and individuals by balancing power among individuals, states, and the national government. The result is a system of shared functions designed to prevent any one element from gaining too much power.


The president and vice president are the only officials elected by all citizens of the United States; both serve four-year terms. Although the president shares power with Congress and the judiciary, he or she is the most powerful and important officeholder in the country. The president has no vote in Congress but proposes much of the legislation that becomes law. As the principal maker of foreign policy, the president of the United States has become one of the world’s most important leaders in international affairs.


At first, the Founders were uncertain about the kind of executive power they desired for the United States. In 1787 they debated at length about how to choose a president and how much authority to give such a person. The drafters of the Constitution gave the president fewer specific powers than they extended to Congress because they were worried about placing too much power in the hands of one individual. The Founders then created an electoral college as the means of selecting the executive of their new country.

The electoral college is composed of presidential electors representing each state. The number of electors per state is equal to the sum of the state’s senators and representatives in Congress. The Founders intended these electors, chosen as each state thought best, to meet and vote according to their individual preferences. This process excluded the influence of Congress as well as that of voters, who in these early days of the United States were not believed to be competent to choose a president.

This system depended on states to determine how electors would be chosen, an arrangement that removed the choice of the president from the direct vote of the people. Even today Americans do not vote directly for a presidential candidate. Instead, if a presidential candidate receives a majority of the state’s popular vote, a slate of electors pledges to cast all that state’s electoral votes for that candidate. Two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, where electoral votes can be divided among candidates depending on the proportion of votes the candidates received.

Such a process makes some Americans fear the possibility of a presidential candidate winning the popular vote and losing the electoral vote. Since the system works mostly on a winner-take-all basis, the electoral vote of most states is always unanimous, but the popular vote may be very close. It is possible for a candidate to garner a majority of the popular vote but then, by losing certain key states with large numbers of electoral votes, to fail to win a majority in the electoral college. In 1888, for example, Democrat Grover Cleveland received 5,540,000 votes to Republican Benjamin Harrison’s 5,444,000 but lost the electoral college 233 to 168. More recently, in 2000, Democrat Al Gore won 50,994,082 votes to 50,461,080 for Republican George W. Bush, but Bush won the presidency by capturing 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266 (see Disputed Presidential Election of 2000).

Of the three branches of government, the presidency has changed the most in the last 200 years. At first, presidents mostly served as administrators carrying out the laws passed by Congress. But in time they have come to stand at the center of the national government. In fact, presidential power had increased so much by the middle of the 20th century that in 1951 the states ratified the 22nd Amendment, which limited the presidency to two terms.

Responsibilities of the President

In the United States today, the chief executive has many responsibilities. The president appoints personnel—including ambassadors, White House staff, and members of various boards and commissions—to more than 3,000 positions; oversees the many components of the executive branch of government; and proposes legislation to Congress—including the yearly federal budget. The president also directs foreign policy, commands the armed forces, negotiates and signs treaties, and serves as a symbol of the nation and a head of state with ceremonial duties.

Executive Agencies

The increasing power of modern presidents does not violate the Constitution by encroaching on the other branches of government. Rather, executive authority has expanded because of the loosely defined nature of the president’s powers in the Constitution. In Article II of the Constitution, the president is charged with seeing that “the Laws be faithfully executed.” It would be difficult for one individual to oversee all aspects of a modern industrialized society like that of the United States. Thus the executive branch has established a large number of agencies that carry out some of the executive functions of the government. Many full-time government employees participate in defining, regulating, and carrying out the various functions of the executive branch.

There are 15 departments of the executive branch. The heads of these departments, called secretaries, make up the Cabinet, a body that advises the president on matters of policy and government administration. There are also more than 140 executive agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the National Labor Relations Board, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the United States Postal Service.

The difference between departments and executive agencies is both historical and functional. Departments, many of which were created in the 19th century, are authorized by Congress; their chiefs sit in the Cabinet, and they often deal with large policy issues. Executive agencies, on the other hand, are usually designed to carry out specific tasks. Most executive agencies are contained within departments, as one part of a larger organization. For example, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is an agency within the Department of the Treasury that fulfills the highly specialized function of regulating taxation. However, a few executive agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), are independent.

Executive agencies expanded in the 20th century to keep pace with a changing society and its growing needs. Large programs, such as Social Security, have grown to require more government workers to administer them. National security needs have also grown as the United States has taken a more active role in the world. The CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) were created to protect Americans and maintain the security of the United States.

Many executive agencies establish safety standards. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, issued rules in 1998 requiring drug companies to conduct wider testing of drugs in order to have more precise information about the use of medications on children. While drug companies challenged these regulations as burdensome, consumer and parent groups praised them as important safeguards.

Americans sometimes complain about the size of the federal government and especially that of the executive branch, which employs 98 percent of all national government personnel. This impression, however, should be measured against the growth of the American work force and the increases in state and local bureaucracies. In 1998 nearly 4.2 million people worked for the executive branch: 1.4 million were uniformed military employees and 2.7 million were civilians. However, the proportion of federal workers to the total American work force has not increased since 1950 and in fact has been declining since the 1980s. It has also declined relative to the number of local public employees, suggesting that although the number of federal employees is large, if measured against the general population, its growth has not been disproportionate.

Foreign Policy

In addition to authority as head of the many executive departments and agencies, the president also has primary responsibility for making foreign policy. The Constitution established the president as commander of the armed forces and gave the president the authority to make treaties “with the Advice and Consent” of Congress. As a result, both Congress and the courts have generally supported energetic presidential action in the area of foreign policy. The president has the power to recognize new governments, to attend summit meetings with the heads of other nations, and to make executive agreements with foreign governments. Executive agreements have the force of law, but unlike treaties, they do not require congressional approval. Most Americans consider it in their best interests to allow the president some freedom of action in foreign affairs, recognizing that the president may be required to respond quickly to international challenges.

In conducting foreign policy, the president is helped by professionals at the State and Defense departments, by the National Security Council, by foreign affairs advisers in the White House, and by experts in the NSA and the CIA. In fact, one of the reasons that the president has dominated the direction of foreign policy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been this access to intelligence information, which allows the president to make rapid and informed decisions. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, however, a crisis of confidence in U.S. intelligence agencies led to the creation in 2004 of a director of national intelligence to oversee the work of the CIA, the NSA, and other intelligence agencies. The crisis resulted after the CIA had assured the president that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Following the invasion, however, no such weapons or programs to develop them were found.

C. Limitations on Presidential Power
Despite their wide-ranging authority, presidents have limits on their power. While the Supreme Court, the media, and public opinion can affect presidential actions, Congress has the greatest ability to limit the president’s power. Congress can check presidential power by refusing to appropriate funds for a presidential initiative, whether domestic or international. It can also refuse to confirm presidential appointees, such as ambassadors or Supreme Court justices. And ultimately only Congress can write and pass the laws that the executive branch is constitutionally obligated to implement.

Current Trends and Issues

It has always been necessary for presidents to work with Congress, but in the second half of the 20th century, relations between the two were often strained and divided by political-party affiliation. Until after World War II (1939-1945) most presidents worked with a government in which their political party also controlled the House and Senate, making relations smoother. But since 1952 presidents have often confronted a Congress where the opposition party has a majority in at least one House. Such circumstances have limited the effectiveness of presidential leadership.

In an age when presidents initiate more legislation and relations with Congress are often chilly, the chief executive’s public image and persuasive abilities have become more important. Because the one voice of the president commands attention in a way that the 535 voices of Congress cannot, the president often uses public opinion to gain support for his or her agenda. Presidents distribute news releases, give favored reporters and journalists anonymous news leaks, and send their advisers to talk on news shows. Increasingly in the 21st century the voice of the people has come to be heard in sophisticated polls and interviews conducted by the media, which in turn influence the way that presidents respond to specific issues.

The presidency also needs to find a way to deal more effectively with the large numbers of administrative agencies that exert influence over legislative policies. Over the years, Congress has given broad authority over certain public issues to regulatory agencies. In turn, these agencies make regulations that frequently affect the way laws are carried out. These regulations have the force of law, though there is no review of them. Often, administrative orders read like acts of Congress or executive orders, despite the fact that no elected official had anything to do with them. Sometimes these regulatory agencies have better relationships with Congress than with a president who may not agree with their policies. This closeness diminishes the authority of the president over the bureaucracy.


Congress is the legislative branch of the government of the United States. The Constitution divides Congress into two structures—a House of Representatives and a Senate. These structures are jointly assigned “all legislative powers” in the national government.

The Founders expected Congress to be the dominant branch of the national government. In the early 1800s, James Monroe, the fifth U.S. president, said, “The whole system of national government may be said to rest essentially in powers granted to [the legislative] branch.” In fact, Congress was the center of government until the power of the presidency began to increase in the 20th century. However, from the start the Founders also felt that it was important to retain some control over the powers of Congress. As a result, the Constitution specifically enumerates ten things, some no longer relevant, that Congress may not do. Among other prohibitions, Congress cannot imprison people without due process of law, except in emergencies; Congress cannot pass laws that retroactively make a crime of what was legal when committed; and Congress cannot tax interstate commerce. In addition, the Bill of Rights forbids Congress from abridging rights held by individuals.

Structure of the House

The House of Representatives is made up of 435 representatives—the number per state varies by population—elected every two years. Demonstrating the growth of the United States, today’s congresspersons represent more than 20 times the number of constituents as their predecessors did in the late 18th century. Today there is one representative for approximately every 621,000 residents, a much larger figure than the 30,000 residents the Constitution originally required for a congressional district. The framers of the Constitution intended that the congressional districts, which are usually substantially smaller units of representation than a state, would assure that all interests in the nation would be adequately represented. Thus these units reflect the geographic, social, and economic diversity of the American people.

The internal organization of the House is based on a system of committees and subcommittees. All representatives serve on several committees, and these committees consider all legislation before it is presented to the House as a whole. The committees work to transform ideas into detailed, complex bills.

The most important House committees are the Rules Committee, which decides when and for how long every bill will be debated and whether or not it can be amended; the Ways and Means Committee, which studies the president’s budget proposals and demands that administrative agencies justify their requests for money; and the Appropriations Committee, which allots money from the federal budget to support approved measures. Frequently the jurisdictions of committees and subcommittees overlap so that several subcommittees might examine a bill before it is voted on. For example, a single energy bill may be considered by the subcommittees on public works and transportation; science, space, and technology; and energy and commerce.

Because the committee process is very important, committee chairmen and chairwomen are some of the most powerful people in the House. In the past, committee chairs could prevent legislation supported by a majority from reaching the floor of the House. Chairs could either refuse to let a bill out of the committee or they could allot very little or no time for the committee to consider a bill. While committee chairs still retain some powers that regular committee members do not have—such as controlling when bills will be taken up and the hiring of committee staff—committee members are more likely to challenge chairs’ rulings. Until the 1970s representatives obtained committee chair positions through seniority—how many terms they had served. When the committees’ seniority rules were dismantled, committee members gained more freedom. Now committee chairs are elected by party caucuses.

Party caucuses (or conferences, as they are called by Republicans) are made up of all the House members of a party. At the beginning of each session of Congress, each caucus meets to select its officers and its nominees for House leadership positions. Caucuses also occasionally meet during a session to discuss the policies of the party and significant legislation. Caucuses can have significant influence on lawmaking, as the choice of a committee chairperson sympathetic to a certain piece of legislation often changes the fate of a particular bill.

The most powerful individual in the House is the Speaker of the House, who presides over the chamber, refers bills to committees, appoints representatives to special committees, and grants representatives the right to speak during chamber debates. The Speaker of the House is elected by the entire body and is always a member of the party with a majority of seats in the House. Other important posts in the House are the majority and minority floor leaders and their assistants, called whips. The floor leaders and whips are influential members whose function is to try to have representatives vote the way their political party suggests on key issues. Each party chooses its own floor leader and whips.

Structure of the Senate

The Senate is composed of 100 members—two each from the 50 states—who serve six-year terms. The procedures and workings of the Senate are similar to those of the House, though because of its smaller membership there are fewer committees and subcommittees. The most important committees of the Senate are the Appropriations, Budget, Finance, Foreign Relations, and Judiciary committees.

The Founders designed the Senate to be a deliberative national body, more stable and insulated from popular sentiment than the House. That is why senators serve six-year terms (as opposed to the two-year terms of the House) and why, until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than directly by the people. The Founders also designed the Senate to protect the interests of the states, especially states with small populations, by giving each state the same number of representatives in the Senate. In the House, states with larger populations have more representatives. In addition, unlike the House, the Senate does not limit the amount of debate on any bill or for any one senator. This privilege allows Senators to filibuster, or make unlimited speeches, to block action on a bill or to delay a vote for an extended period of time. A filibuster can be ended only through a vote of 60 senators.

The vice president of the United States serves as the president of the Senate. One of the few designated duties of the vice president is to break tie votes in the Senate. However, because the vice president has such a limited role in the Senate, he or she rarely attends its sessions. The Senate selects a president pro tempore (temporary president), who is usually the senior senator of the majority party. He or she supervises the Senate most of the time.

Besides the vice president, the leadership in the Senate consists of majority and minority leaders, who schedule bills for consideration, and whips, who gather information about their colleagues’ views on specific bills. The policy committee, which advises the Senate leadership on legislative priorities, is also influential in the workings of the Senate.

Responsibilities of Congress

Congress has many powers and responsibilities. The most important of these is lawmaking. Lawmaking is a long and complicated process, and takes up a large portion of representatives’ and senators’ time. Only a small percentage of the bills introduced to Congress actually become law.

The Legislative Process

The legislative process begins when a member of Congress introduces a bill—a proposed law—to the House or the Senate. When a bill is introduced in one of the houses of Congress, it is assigned a number and forwarded to an appropriate legislative committee. The committee decides whether a need exists for such legislation and whether the bill fits the need. The committee discusses the bill and may conduct hearings or consult outside experts. After considering the bill, the committee may approve or amend it and pass it on to the full House or Senate. If the committee fails to approve the bill or votes to take no action on it, the bill dies. The majority of bills that are introduced to Congress die in committee.

If the committee approves the bill, it is placed on the calendar of the house where it was introduced and debated according to the rules of that chamber. During the debate, amendments may be suggested and voted on. After the debate, a vote is taken. If a majority votes for the bill, it then goes to the other house of Congress, where it is considered under the same basic procedures.

If both houses pass the bill in the same form, it is submitted to the president, who may either sign or veto it. Usually, however, Senate and House bills differ somewhat because of amendments added by either chamber. In this case a conference committee made up of both senators and representatives settles the differences. The revised bill is then sent back to the House and the Senate. If both houses approve it, the bill is sent to the president.

If the president signs the bill, it becomes law. If the president vetoes it, it can become law only if both houses of Congress again pass it—this time by a two-thirds majority. Any bill that has not been passed by the end of each session of Congress is considered dead and must be reintroduced in the next Congress.

Other Responsibilities

In addition to its sole power over lawmaking, Congress has the authority to initiate bills to fund federal programs, to set tariffs and taxes, to provide for the national defense (including funding for things such as fortifications and defensive weaponry), to control immigration, to establish post offices, to raise and support a military force, and to declare war. Congress can also impeach (see impeachment) and remove federal officials, including the president, from office.

Congress is also responsible for congressional investigations. Congress has the authority to investigate and oversee the executive branch and its agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice. As part of this responsibility, which is known as oversight, Congress can summon senior officials to answer questions, can order audits of agencies, and can hold hearings to air grievances of citizens. Congress can also hold hearings on matters of general public concern. Sometimes members of Congress conduct these hearings to identify problems that create a need for new laws. In other cases Congress holds hearings to raise public awareness about an issue. Some congressional investigations, such as those into Watergate and the Iran-Contra Affair, were efforts to limit the growing authority of the executive branch. Despite these high-profile examples, however, most investigations are little-known efforts.

Related Groups and Agencies

As congressional work has grown and become more complex, Congress has come to rely on the advice and assistance of a large number of auxiliary agencies. One of the most important of these agencies is the Congressional Budget Office, a group of experts in economics and statistics. This office provides the information necessary for legislators to respond to the president’s budget proposals and to reconcile estimated tax revenues with projected expenses.

In order to participate actively in government and be well informed, Congress has a large congressional staff. Many of these men and women serve as personal assistants to representatives and senators. Others are on the staffs of the numerous committees—for example, 30 staff members work for the House Committee on the District of Columbia alone. Many members of the congressional staff work for support agencies such as the Government Accountability Office, which tracks the funding and expenditures of the federal government.

In addition to the auxiliary congressional agencies, both the House and Senate depend on what is sometimes called the third house of Congress—the lobbyists (see lobbying). Lobbyists are usually employees or representatives of companies or interest groups who try to influence votes on legislation and to gain publicity for their causes. With at least 1,800 associations located in Washington, the causes that are represented by lobbyists run the gamut from labor unions, the National Association of Manufacturers, and large corporations to citizens’ groups promoting environmental issues and health concerns.

In some instances, lobbyists specialize in a field such as agriculture or taxation and become experts who provide technical information to legislators on a variety of subjects. Lobbyists may even draft legislative bills. Full-time lobbyists are required to register and are regulated by laws that restrict their contributions and gifts to legislators. Their public image, however, remains that of people who affect the outcome of legislation and elections by contributing money to politicians. In 1998 special interests represented by 14,484 lobbyists (27 for each member of Congress) reported spending $1.17 billion to lobby Congress, the White House, and the federal agencies.

Current Trends and Issues

The relationship of Congress with the executive branch is critical to the workings of the government. Friction often develops between presidents, who want swift action, and Congress, whose machinery makes movement slow. Congress reflects national diversity and mirrors the nation in its fragmentation and lack of central control. The conflict between the executive and legislative branches is accentuated if different political parties control the two branches. The American people need to decide whether a Congress of one party fighting the presidency of another is a separation of powers that produces effective government. While this circumstance diffuses power, it can run counter to the public interest if important issues are not dealt with because of partisan disagreements. In 1995, for example, the president and Congress were unable to agree on a federal budget, and without congressional appropriations there was no money to pay federal employees, resulting in a brief government shutdown.

Another important issue surfaced as the 21st century began. It involved lobbying and its potential to corrupt members of Congress. In January 2006 a well-known congressional lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy, tax evasion, and mail fraud. He admitted that he was involved in a scheme to provide members of Congress with campaign contributions, leisure trips, and other favors “in exchange for certain official acts.” The Abramoff investigation was expected to implicate many powerful members of Congress and was likely to lead to reform measures to limit the influence of lobbyists.


The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Litigants dissatisfied with a lower court decision may appeal to the Supreme Court, although very few cases ever reach the court. A ruling of the Supreme Court cannot be appealed. As Justice Robert Jackson once explained: “The [Supreme] Court is not final because it is infallible; the court is infallible because it is final.” There are currently nine Supreme Court justices, who, like all federal judges, are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

Responsibilities of the Supreme Court

An important feature of the American legal system is the practice of judicial review. The most important exercise of judicial review is by the Supreme Court. The court can determine whether a statute or executive action conforms to the rules and principles laid down in the Constitution. It can strike down laws that it considers unconstitutional. Judicial review does not belong exclusively to the Supreme Court; in appropriate cases, every court may strike down laws that violate the Constitution. Although judicial review adds flexibility to the Constitution—allowing it to be interpreted for changing times—this power is not explicitly stated in the Constitution.

In the years following the adoption of the Constitution, the Court and Congress debated whether the judiciary actually had the power of judicial review. The issue was resolved in 1803, when in the case of Marbury v. Madison, the Court firmly established the power of the judiciary to review acts of Congress and decide if they were constitutional. Chief Justice John Marshall reasoned that the Constitution was the highest law of the nation, and that with respect to congressional legislation, the Constitution was “superior…law, unchangeable by ordinary means.” Consequently, Madison argued, if the judiciary interpreted a law or statute as contradicting the Constitution, the courts could nullify it.

Marshall established the common-sense view that within the three branches of government, courts are especially qualified to rule whether legislation is constitutional. Marshall held that judicial power resided in the court’s authority to interpret the Constitution. This principle has been accepted ever since. Although the judicial override has more often been a threat than a reality—by 1998 the Supreme Court had struck down federal laws and executive orders only 127 times—it still is a powerful tool. However, as with all federal courts, some Americans have questioned whether the Supreme Court should have that power without its members being elected by the people.

The Supreme Court decides appeals and constitutional issues. It also has jurisdiction over various kinds of other cases. These cases include those involving public officials such as ambassadors or consuls, or those where a state is a party in the case.

Influences on the Supreme Court

Despite its authority on paper, the Supreme Court is influenced by certain factors. When a vacancy occurs because of death, retirement, or impeachment of a Supreme Court justice, the president appoints a new justice who then must be confirmed by a majority of the Senate. As a result, the president and the Senate can affect the composition and sentiment of the court. For example, the court changed dramatically during the American Civil War (1861-1865), when President Abraham Lincoln appointed five justices to a body that had been controlled before the war by Southerners. Individual justices are also influenced by personal background, political views, relationships with other judges, and even by the clerks who assist them.

The Solicitor General, who represents the federal government at the Supreme Court, also shapes the court’s agenda. As the chief government lawyer in cases before the courts of appeals, the Solicitor General decides which cases the government should ask the court to review and what the government’s position will be in them. The Solicitor General’s power to petition the court to review cases is important because the Supreme Court can rule only on cases that are brought before it. The court cannot simply choose to examine a law or case of its own accord.

Finally, the Supreme Court is influenced by what it believes the majority of American people support. This influence of public opinion was evident in the 1930s, when a conservative court at first opposed the agricultural policies of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. These polices, which curtailed farm production in an effort to stabilize the agricultural economy, expanded the power of the federal government by giving it a much larger role in regulating agriculture and commerce. After Roosevelt won substantial majorities in the presidential elections of 1936 and 1940, however, the same justices accepted legislation similar to what they had earlier called unconstitutional. Another example is the 1972 decision Roe v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion during the first six months of pregnancy. This ruling is often seen as a judicial response to a significant change in the people’s attitudes toward women and their right to privacy.

Current Trends and Issues

Presently the judiciary has several challenges. The first involves a debate over the proper limits of the Supreme Court’s activism. This debate pits judicial fundamentalists, or strict constructionists, against judicial activists, also known as loose constructionists.

Strict constructionists believe the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution using only its specific wording and the original intentions of its authors. In this way, they argue, the court would serve as a gatekeeper, maintaining the balance between the separate powers of government and adhering to established precedents. Strict constructionists believe that changes should come through executive and legislative actions and through the states.

Loose constructionists favor a liberal interpretation of the Constitution. They hold that the authors of the Constitution did not intend to preserve an unchanging society, but instead meant the Constitution to adapt as the needs of the nation changed. Thus, they argue, the court should be free to clarify the vague language of statutes and to interpret rules for practical application. In this view, the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of important public issues in a society that is much different than it was when the Constitution was written.

Loose constructionists also believe the judiciary stands as the primary protector of minority rights and unpopular viewpoints. Judicial activists look to the courts to protect rights and opinions that are not widely accepted and that might be trampled by a legislative majority. By adopting a flexible view of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has often upheld the rights of minority groups, such as the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, the Amish have used the First Amendment to challenge the application of states’ school laws to their children. Members of Jehovah’s Witnesses have challenged the right of the state to draft them for military service and have refused to allow their children to salute the national flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. They have turned, often successfully, to the Supreme Court to sustain their constitutional right to dissent.


One of the fundamental principles of the U.S. government is a commitment to the rule of law. Law, a body of legal rules and obligations, provides an essential tool by which all nations seek order and stability. The United States is committed to a just society in which all citizens are equal under the law. In practical terms this concept means that society must be governed by laws that are made by elected officials and are enforceable through the courts. Without a court system, the government would be unable to enforce laws.

The Role of Law in Society

Under the rule of law, the United States is bound by regulations that govern various interactions among individuals, groups, and governmental bodies. These regulations are ideally applied to all without favoritism. Laws can be changed only through a formal, established system of new legislation or amendments to state or federal constitutions. In contrast to the procedures followed by some undemocratic governments, individuals or groups cannot arbitrarily change accepted laws and ways of dealing with citizens.

In framing and ratifying the Constitution, Americans adopted the idea that theirs was a government of laws, not men. The rule of law promised predictability in American lives by placing limits on the power that the government exercised. By applying checks and balances to prevent one branch of government from gaining too much power, the Founders tried to ensure that laws were fairly created and enforced. Thus while in earlier societies the state had made law, in the United States the law—in the form of the Constitution—created the state.

Types of Law

In the United States, one of the most important types of law is what is called constitutional law. Under constitutional law, the courts review the actions of the state or federal government in relation to specific clauses of the Constitution. In Article VI of the Constitution, the Founders established that the Constitution “and the Laws of the United States…shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby.” Hence state laws as well as federal statutes and executive actions must conform to the Constitution as the courts interpret it.

Besides constitutional law, many other types of law exist. Certainly for the writers of the Constitution, the concept of natural law was essential. They agreed with the ideas expressed by 17th-century English philosopher John Locke. He believed that all individuals are equal and independent, and that they create an organized government in order to protect their collective right to a stable, secure society. Hence any individual’s claim to the authority to create a military force or serve as a police officer has been surrendered to government. But individuals retain other “inalienable” rights such as life and liberty. Neither government, nor law, nor elected officials can interfere with these privileges. Some of the rights retained by individuals are described in the Bill of Rights, which limits the powers of Congress, for example, to establish a religion, abridge freedom of speech, or subject Americans to unreasonable searches and seizures.

Common law consists of the customary practices created by past judicial decisions. After a court makes a decision, that decision becomes a precedent that can be applied to similar cases. Based on precedents and their application to new cases, judicial reasoning proceeds by analogy from one case to another and accumulates to form the basis of common law. Today common law is relevant mostly to areas of family law and disputes over contracts and property.

Administrative law involves disputes regarding the authority of administrative agencies that are part of the executive branch and whether their procedures are legal. Thus regulations established by federal agencies—such as decisions by the Forest Service on logging operations on public land or the Food and Drug Administration’s regulations for more testing of a new medicine—may be contested by private individuals and corporations. These agencies are not elected bodies, and yet they have emerged as independent policy-makers. The rise in importance of these administrative agencies challenges the rule of law because officials who are appointed, not elected, exercise a great deal of power. As a result, their rules and procedures have been questioned. At issue is whether the authority of these agencies is abused and whether their actions are within the jurisdictions delegated to them by Congress.

The most prevalent form of law today is statute law enacted by a legislative body at the federal, state, or local level. Statute law pertains to either criminal law or civil law. Civil law, which governs the relations of citizens among themselves, involves disputes between citizens and between government and citizen where no crime is alleged. Criminal law deals with public law and public order and mostly covers acts of violence, theft, and fraud. The government—at the federal, state or local level—prosecutes criminal cases and imposes jail sentences, fines, or other forms of punishment on people who are found guilty. The federal government prosecutes comparatively few criminal cases, but it defines crimes, assists in investigations, and helps determine sentencing guidelines.

The Federal Courts

Today the federal judiciary is based on a three-tiered hierarchy of courts. On the bottom are the 94 U.S. District Courts in the 50 states and the U.S. dependent territories. These courts have jurisdiction to hear only those cases allowed under the Constitution and by federal law. These include cases where crimes have been committed that violate federal laws, and disputes between citizens of different states. The next tier above the district courts contains the 13 Circuit Courts of Appeal. These courts can hear only cases where the ruling of a district court has been appealed (contested) by one of the parties involved. The circuit courts, like other appeals courts, cannot question the facts of a case, they can consider only questions of law and legal interpretation. The top of the pyramid is the United States Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the country. Rulings of the circuit courts may be appealed to the Supreme Court, but in practice the court hears only cases of important constitutional significance. Congress is responsible for creating and maintaining the federal courts.

Federal judges serve for life, although they can be removed by congressional impeachment. These lifetime appointments insulate the federal judiciary—especially the Supreme Court—from the whims of popular opinion, which can influence the legislative and executive branches. On the other hand, because its members are not popularly elected, the federal judiciary is less accountable to the people than are the other two branches of government. In this way, the life tenure of federal judges epitomizes a tension between a democracy of the people and a powerful institution that is not directly accountable to the people. This tension is significant because judicial rulings determine the scope and meaning of the law. Thus, in a very real sense, the courts do make laws. Court rulings, for example, have been responsible for limiting industrial monopolies, determining the pace of racial integration, and protecting individuals from the abuses of government. Some people have criticized the fact that federal judges can issue such far-reaching rulings without fear of being voted out of office.

In addition to the district, appeals, and Supreme courts, the federal judicial system includes various courts with jurisdiction over specialized cases. For example, the Tax Court handles cases that arise out of enforcing the tax code, and the Claims Court considers disputes about property taken for public use. A Customs Court handles complicated issues arising from seizures of and taxes on imported goods, while the Patent Court, also with a specialized jurisdiction, deals with controversies about registering patents. The Court of Veterans Appeals reviews decisions regarding veterans benefits made by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

State and Local Courts

Despite their high visibility, the federal courts deal with only one percent of the nation’s judicial business. The state and local courts—the latter usually at the county, municipal, and township level—hear most of the judicial cases. Annually over 25 million cases enter state and local systems; every year, one in nine Americans is directly involved in some sort of litigation or court proceeding.

At the state level, courts are assigned what are called police powers over the health, morals, and safety of their citizens. Thus, by the authority of its health power, a state legislature may require all schoolchildren to be vaccinated; any challenge to this law would be considered in state court. To protect community health in the late 19th century, state courts approved a controversial quarantine of immigrants before they entered the United States. The states’ authority in these matters can be found in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which reserves powers not delegated to the federal government to the states. At the same time, many state constitutions include their own Bill of Rights, which limits the power of states over the people.

By constitution or by statute, state governments create the local courts that have jurisdiction over minor state offenses and the violation of local ordinances, such as those involving zoning or disturbing the peace. Some local courts have specialized jurisdiction over juveniles and domestic relations.

Like those at the federal level, state court systems are arranged into a three-tiered system of trial, appellate, and supreme courts. Decisions by the state supreme courts can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which can overturn state laws. An example of the relation between state and federal courts occurred in the 1960s. At that time, state laws that impeded desegregation were overturned because in the view of the Supreme Court, the laws violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Unlike federal judges, who are appointed by the president with the Senate’s approval, state judges come to the bench in a variety of ways. Some judges are appointed by state governors and, after a period of time, stand for elections. Other judges are elected from the beginning. Sometimes these elections are contested and partisan; often they are not. In recent years states have tried to improve the quality of state and local judges by creating panels of qualified lawyers from which state governors choose the judges they appoint.

Current Trends and Issues

The judicial system is challenged by a tremendous volume of cases. The use of the system has escalated because the U.S. population has increased from 122 million in 1930 to 307 million in 2009. In addition, Americans have become more likely to settle any dispute, no matter how minor, in court.

The caseload has also increased because the courts have developed new categories of constitutional rights, mainly as a result of rulings in important, high-profile cases. Examples of this are the right to privacy established in the 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut and the legal rights guaranteed defendants by Miranda v. Arizona in 1966. The court has expanded the legal rights of defendants in matters such as pretrial criminal procedures and protections to prisoners in the state and federal prison systems. Changes in technology, such as the development of the Internet, are also new areas that require judicial response. Inevitably such new developments lead to new laws, new kinds of disputes, and new judicial interpretations.

Federal district courts heard 87,000 cases in 1961; in 1996, 320,000 cases were commenced. Circuit court judges heard 51,500 cases in 1996. The Supreme Court, which decides the cases it hears, considered 7,602 in the same year, and of these only 140 were given full review. Still this is a burdensome amount. A challenge for the Supreme Court is to keep control over the number and type of cases it accepts so that it can reserve its decisions for those that help determine high-level policy.

There are many problems that state and local judiciaries face. Among these are long delays for defendants coming to trial, the slowness of the trials themselves, unequal access to justice between the rich and the poor, and difficulties in obtaining jury pools.


Like most structures in the U.S. government, law enforcement agencies are divided into federal, state, and local jurisdictions. At every level these agencies maintain public order. Unlike many nations, the United States has no national police force or national criminal law. Instead each state, city, county, and sometimes township has its own police units as well as its own laws that regulate police activities and define criminal behavior. Under the Tenth Amendment, law enforcement is primarily the responsibility of local governments, as is the prosecution of the vast majority of crimes committed in the United States.

Law Enforcement Agencies

Local Agencies

In the 18th century, the law enforcement system existed only informally at the local level. Often an appointed justice of the peace served as judge and jury, while an elected county sheriff or constable was the principal law enforcement officer. However, as cities began to grow in the early and mid-19th century, many workers began to migrate to these new urban centers to find jobs. Workers came from other parts of the United States as well as from abroad. Conflicts often arose between native-born workers and immigrant workers because of competition for jobs. Police forces began to be needed to keep order and protect property. From their early beginnings in Boston in 1838, local police units, in county or city, have developed into the most important crime-fighting organizations in the United States.

At first police functioned as little more than night watchmen. Gradually they gained authority from their visibility and their uniforms, and they soon became an accepted first line of defense for maintaining order and safety. However, most local police were appointed by city officials and poorly trained. As a result, police officers were responsible for occasional episodes of brutality against citizens as well as for a failure to deliver equal justice to minority groups. By the 1920s, cities demanded more professional police forces that were better trained and not appointed by politicians.

Since that time, local forces have increased substantially both in size and in professionalism. But city sizes and crime rates have also increased, and local police are often hampered by a lack of funds and facilities. Also, modern city life requires much more from local police than detective work and crime fighting. Many of the functions of today’s police have little to do with maintaining law and order, and a great deal to do with investigating accidents and dealing with the problems of incapacitated adults, missing children, and corner drug sales.

State and Federal Agencies

Besides local forces, each of the 50 states has its own state police system. Developed in the early 20th century, state police perform functions such as patrolling state roads, investigating gambling, and seizing drugs transported on interstate highways. State police also provide local police forces with expert assistance and resources required to fight crime across jurisdictions.

At the federal level, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the largest and best-known law enforcement agency. Established in 1908, the FBI is a division of the U.S. Department of Justice. FBI agents investigate federal crimes, including kidnapping, espionage, theft involving interstate commerce, and terrorism. In addition to its investigative duties, the FBI provides state and local law enforcement agencies with facilities such as laboratories for analyzing fingerprints and genetic evidence. The FBI also runs training programs for local law enforcement personnel.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was created in 2002, oversees other federal law enforcement agencies such as the Secret Service, which protects the president and vice president and their families and investigates counterfeiting, and the Bureau of Border Security, which prevents illegal immigration to the United States. Other important federal law enforcement agencies include the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which combats the distribution and use of illegal drugs, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, which investigates violations of tax laws related to alcohol and tobacco, enforces laws controlling firearms, and investigates bombings. Another federal law enforcement agency, the U.S. Marshals Service, preserves order in courtrooms, handles subpoenas and court summonses, and transports federal prisoners.

Other Agencies

One of the fastest-growing parts of the law enforcement industry is private police, who are employed by private security agencies. They play an increasingly important role in providing security, especially in the workplace. In the mid-1990s private police numbered more than 1.5 million, close to three times the number of police in public enforcement agencies.

Increasing Federal Involvement

The size of nearly all police units has sharply increased since World War II because communities have demanded larger police forces. By the 1970s over 500,000 men and women were employed in 40,000 public law enforcement agencies. By the 1990s these figures had increased to nearly 750,000 people in 45,000 agencies. From the 1970s to the 1990s the combined annual budget of law enforcement organizations more than doubled, not including the cost of prisons. Some of this growth was spurred by public fears, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, that crime was becoming difficult to control.

As a result of these fears, the federal government has become increasingly involved in all levels of law enforcement. Congress and the president have attempted to provide more support for state and local law enforcement agencies. The federal government, state troopers, and local police often share technology such as crime laboratories and fingerprint records. In 1968 Congress passed the Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA). The LEAA provided federal grants to states to hire more police officers, purchase equipment for crime control, and improve coordination between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The act also required the licensing of gun dealers, prohibited the interstate shipment of pistols and revolvers to individuals, and prohibited the sale of handguns to anyone under the age of 21.

In 1994 the president and Congress again responded to citizen concerns with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which built on the federal, state, and local alliance. Not only did this legislation provide funds for local governments to hire more police, but for the first time it also included money for programs specifically designed to fight violence against women.

The federal government has also become involved in defining and standardizing what constitutes crime in the United States and the rights of those accused of criminal activity. Since World War II the Supreme Court has expanded the rights of suspected criminals to ensure that the innocent are protected. Under the law, an individual has the right to due process—that is, a fair trial and equal treatment. If arrested, people have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, to have access to an attorney, to be fairly questioned by the police, to be advised of their rights, and to be free from unreasonable seizures of personal property.

Some Americans believe that the need to protect individuals from injustice sometimes conflicts with society’s need to enforce the law and maintain social order. A Supreme Court case decided in 1984 addressed such tensions. In its ruling in United States v. Leon, the Court held that evidence obtained by a defective search warrant (which had been thrown out by a lower court in order to protect the defendant’s rights) was admissible. The Court ruled that because the police had believed at the time of the incident that the search warrant was legitimate and they were acting in good faith, the evidence could be used against the defendant.

Current Trends and Issues

Over time, the types of crimes that have been the focus of law enforcement have changed. During the 1950s, Americans worried about organized crime, treason by Communists, and vandalism by city gangs. Today they are more likely to worry about domestic violence and drugs. Domestic violence—abuse that occurs between married couples or individuals in other intimate relationships—was previously considered a private matter. Similarly, drug use was not as much of a concern in the past as it is today, when many Americans consider the sale, possession, and use of illegal drugs among the nation’s most serious problems. Annually, drug offenses rank as the largest category of criminal activity. On every level, law enforcement agencies are fighting a so-called war on drugs. This effort is led at the executive level by a presidentially appointed “drug czar,” the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The director’s main task is to coordinate national drug-fighting efforts and to draw attention to new developments, such as rising use of heroin among teenagers or the efforts of the U.S. government to control production of cocaine in Colombia.


Elections are a fundamental part of the American system of government, which was founded on the principle that the power to govern resides in the people. Elections provide the means by which the American people delegate this power to elected representatives. By voting for government officials, the public makes choices about the policies, programs, and future directions of government action. At the same time, elections make government officials accountable to their constituents. Elected officials must conduct themselves in a responsible manner and take into account popular interests and the wishes of those they represent. Otherwise they risk being voted out of office. This system depends primarily on the voters. The electoral process can only work if people participate.

Responsibility for Elections

In the United States, elections are held at regular intervals. National presidential elections take place every four years. Congressional elections occur every two years, and state and local elections usually coincide with national elections. In addition to elections for office, many state and local ballots include referendums and initiatives, which allow the people to directly determine a government policy.

State and local governments are largely responsible for organizing elections. State, county, and municipal election boards administer elections. These boards establish and staff polling places and verify the eligibility of individuals who come to vote. State laws specify the qualifications of candidates and how elections are to be administered, including registration procedures, the location of polling places, and even the kind of ballots used.

More importantly, states also determine the boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts. In the past, because many legislative districts were drawn based on area and not on population, regions with small populations had substantially more representation per person than did regions with large populations. Thus in the allocation of seats in the state legislature, rural districts were overrepresented in relation to their population. For example, in Vermont in the 1960s, the small town of Stratton, with a population of 38, had the same number of representatives in the state legislature as Burlington, with 40,000 residents. The U.S. Supreme Court in a series of decisions beginning in 1962 mandated that each elected official must represent roughly the same number of people.

Many people also debate whether the state legislatures should be allowed to gerrymander, or draw legislative lines to favor a special interest. In the early 19th century, to further his own and his party’s interests, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry encouraged the legislature to design a district so as to contain as many of his party’s opponents as possible. By doing this he hoped that his party would lose that district by a large majority but would then be able to win all the other districts by small majorities. The district Gerry created was so convoluted that it was described as being shaped like a salamander, and it is from this that the term “gerrymander” derives.

Gerrymandering has also occurred on racial lines, both to prevent and to ensure minority representation in government. After the Voting Act of 1965 made it possible for blacks to vote, racial gerrymandering that favored whites was instituted to prevent blacks from being adequately represented. In recent years, however, gerrymandering has been used to facilitate the election of members of minority groups, such as blacks or Hispanics, by creating a district in which such a group holds the majority. This process—sometimes called “loading a district”—has been used by some legislatures such as that of North Carolina to attempt to assure the election of a black representative. The intent of such districts is to adequately represent the diversity of the United States population in Congress. Opponents of this process claim that such procedures are unfair, that they create resentment against blacks and other minority groups, and that they produce racial segregation. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the states’ ability to set legislative and congressional boundaries is a powerful tool in the determination of public policy.

Political Parties

Political parties are the most representative, inclusive organizations in the United States. They are made up of citizens who may differ in race, religion, age, and economic and social background, but who share certain perspectives on public issues and leaders. Parties are the engines that drive the machinery of elections: They recruit candidates for office, organize primary elections so that party members can select their candidates for the general election, and support their candidates who reach the general election. Parties also write platforms, which state the direction that party members want the government to take. Parties have traditionally played a crucial role in educating Americans about issues and in getting out the vote.

For most of America’s history, a competitive two-party system has prevailed, and third parties have been the exception. This is a result of the U.S. electoral system in which the winner takes all. Since there is no proportional representation, losers get nothing. Thus a vote for a third party is usually a lost vote.

Originally the Founders opposed political parties, believing them to be factions intent on manipulating the independent will of voters. But by the early 19th century political parties had become the most important political organizations in the United States. They made certain that their members got to the polls. They also organized members of Congress into stable voting blocs based on party affiliation. These blocs united the legislators and helped the president create a party alliance between the executive and legislative branches. Since the mid-1850s, when the Republican Party was formed, the two major parties in the United States have been the Republican and the Democratic parties. The Democratic Party traces its beginnings to the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.

In the 19th century, political parties were powerful enough that they could often motivate voting turnouts of over 80 percent. Today, parties are less important. Slightly more than one-third of all Americans call themselves independents with no party affiliation, and voting in presidential contests—which traditionally have the highest turnout—has declined to 50 percent. At the same time, the platforms of the two major parties have shifted towards vague, moderate positions in order to appeal to the largest number of voters. As a result, the major parties may appear so similar that many voters lose interest.

Role of the Media in the Electoral Process

The media, especially television, have played a role in the increasing cost of campaigns because candidates spend a large amount of money on advertising. Today individual candidates spend more money on media advertising than ever before. In 1860 the Republicans spent only $100,000 on Abraham Lincoln’s presidential campaign and on those of all Republican House and Senate candidates. In 1988 Republican candidate George H. W. Bush spent $70 million, just on the presidential race. During the 1998 elections, a 60-second spot on prime-time television cost as much as $100,000 every time it ran. As a result, campaigns have become more expensive, forcing candidates to concentrate more on fund-raising and less on presenting issues to voters.

The media have also played a role in the declining importance of political parties because the media permit candidates to present themselves to the electorate without any aid from their political parties. Candidates running for office use the media to gain popularity. By appealing to the public through the media, candidates erode the authority of political parties. National party conventions, which officially nominate candidates for president and vice president, used to be exciting meetings where the party leaders decided who would receive the nomination. Today presidential hopefuls have become independent political entrepreneurs who go to the people rather than to party leaders. Although candidates still rely on parties for campaign money to a certain extent, the power of the media has focused attention much more on individual candidates rather than on the parties they represent. This has made personal campaign organizations more efficient moneymaking tools than the national parties. This individualism tends to undermine loyalty to the powerful and historically significant institution of political parties, which many now believe to be a broken branch of government.

Current Trends and Issues

Democrats and Republicans face significant challenges in the future. Traditional means of campaigning have been changed drastically by technology and by increasing media coverage. Politicians spend less time on grassroots campaigning, such as visiting neighborhoods. Instead they employ several elements to enhance their chances of election; some of these elements were unheard of as recently as the 1950s. These include short television advertisements that can be very costly, polls, direct mail, and political consultants who offer advice on how to shape a campaign.

Parties need to rethink how they can use a system that depends on professional public relations firms rather than on party leaders, and on direct mail advertising rather than grassroots party workers. Furthermore, party leaders need to consider how they can prevent campaigns from deteriorating into mudslinging: negative advertising about what an opponent has done wrong, rather than a presentation of what a candidate will do right. Meanwhile proposed policies have been reduced to slogans, as the brevity of television spots has limited viewers’ abilities to make choices based on information. Because they see little difference among candidates, voters often fail to cast a ballot, and election turnouts have declined.

Modern campaigns are expensive propositions, and Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with the way they are financed. Politicians depend on huge campaign contributions from corporations and powerful special interest groups. One answer to this problem is to rely entirely on public financing. Another is to limit the amount that any candidate can spend on a campaign, rather than control the amount that any individual or group can give. Yet in 1976 in the case of Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress cannot limit campaign spending because spending money on politics is a form of constitutionally protected free speech. Today there are no limits on how much money a candidate or party can spend, and no limits on how much a wealthy candidate can donate to his or her own campaign.

There are, however, limits on some kinds of contributions. For instance, $2,000 is the most any individual can give to any one candidate in any single election. A limit of $5,000 is placed on the amount that can be given to a political action committee, which then redistributes the funds to various candidates. The top amount that can be given to a national party committee in a federal election is $25,000.


The American government is a federal one, which means that authority and jurisdiction are divided among national, state, and local governments. This division and decentralization causes the system to be often unwieldy, slow-moving, and redundant. However, the federal system’s value lies in the fact that in such a large and diverse nation, local governing bodies can represent this diversity. In 2002 the United States had 50 state, 3,034 county, 19,429 municipal, and 16,504 township governments.

Government in America is constructed in such a way that state laws may differ depending on local circumstance—consider the speed limits on local roads, which are often different from state to state. Smaller subdivisions are also flexible enough to respond to some unique situation or element of their population. For example, in heavily Amish areas of Pennsylvania, local school districts have allowed the Amish to establish their own elementary schools. Although these institutions are funded solely by private money, unlike other private schools they violate various state laws regarding such things as teacher certification, curriculum, and length of the school year.

Responsibilities of State and Local Government

State and local governments exercise important functions in the United States. They plan and pay for most roads, run public schools, provide water, organize police and fire services, establish zoning regulations, license professions, and arrange elections for their citizens. These are functions that directly affect Americans every day and in every part of their lives.

State and local governments have never been totally separate political entities, because they cooperate in services ranging from welfare to transportation, and because they serve the same residents. Nonetheless, the state has the final decision over local functions. While states are part of the larger entity of a federal system, local governments are creatures of the state. The state government can abolish a local government, merge it with other entities, or give it additional authority. Local authority comes from specific state constitutional provisions or from acts of the state legislatures.

Authority of State and Local Government

The Constitution of the United States establishes the relationship between the state governments and Congress. It specifically grants certain powers to Congress, such as declaring war and raising armies, and it prohibits the states from activities that could undermine the national government, such as making treaties, coining money, imposing tariffs, or making war. The Constitution then gives the states power over everything else. In situations where both the states and Congress claim jurisdiction, the federal courts decide which claim is more valid. Although the national government and the states are supposedly balanced and equal, in the 20th century the courts tended to favor policies that give more power to the national government at the expense of the states.

Local governments began to gain importance in the early 19th century. At that time, many state governments were new and relatively weak. In addition, poor roads, primitive means of transportation and communication, and lack of funds made it difficult for the states to adequately take care of growing rural populations. County governments thus became an important source of information, administration, and community unity. In many rural towns, the county courthouse was—and often still is—the most prominent public building.

There are two types of local governments in the United States today. Some are territorial, with jurisdiction extending over a certain geographic area. Some county governments and local school districts are examples of such territorial units. The second type are corporate governments, which are based on charters granted to cities, towns, or villages by the state government. City charters are like constitutions, although their jurisdiction is on a local level. The state authorizes and approves these charters, which must conform to state law.

Some corporate governments have received various degrees of what is called home rule, which enables them to change their structures and pass laws with which the state government cannot interfere. However, changes and laws made under home rule cannot conflict with state law. In most instances, state legislatures allow cities to adapt state laws to their circumstances, but cities are ultimately bound by the state authority that created them. As a result, states delegate power to local bodies. Their relationship is much more hierarchical than the relationship between state governments and the federal government.

Changing Balance

In the 1780s, under the Articles of Confederation, the states had a good deal of control over their own internal affairs, and many Americans wanted the states to maintain that control. Others wanted a strong national government, with limited powers for the states. To compromise, the Founders created a federal system, which balanced power between the state and federal governments. In the first half of the 19th century, the states maintained their power, and the national government was much less active. Most U.S. citizens felt their strongest allegiance to their state, not to the national government. Before the Civil War, Americans said “the United States are,” a grammatical construction that stressed the primacy of the individual states. After the war, they began to say, “the United States is,” their changed grammar revealing their changed politics.

However, the relationship between the national government and the state and local governments has continued to change. A profound change came as a result of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s. For the first time, the national government became involved in areas, related mainly to the economy, that previously had been the responsibility of the states. As a result, a cooperative form of federalism emerged, in which the national government took a more active role in policies that had been under the jurisdiction of the states.

Often the national government gave grants to state and local governments to implement federal programs, such as establishing agricultural extension services or hiring more police. In the 1960s federal grants to the states were extended to cover areas such as housing, health, and education. Since the enactment of the 1972 General Revenue Sharing Act, state and local governments have received a portion of the federal income taxes paid by their citizens. Between 1965 and 1970, the amount of federal grants in constant dollars more than doubled from $10 billion to $24 billion; by 1995 it had reached $169 billion. All these grants were to be used by the states to pursue goals defined by the national government. Grants have grown so much that many local governments have come to depend on federal money. Some cities—Buffalo, New York, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for example—receive as much as one-third of their budgets from federal aid.

However, some local officials have become concerned that federal grants do not necessarily reflect the needs of different localities. A city may need funds to improve its parks, but the federal grant may specify money to build libraries. In addition, the federal government may give support for needed institutions such as nursing homes but then may require states to accept various regulations. Moreover, many rural areas receive little of this federal money, because they lack the personnel to apply for grants.

Current Trends and Issues

The current relationship of state and local governments with the national government is not simply the story of Washington, D.C., encroaching on small-town America. In fact, though the federal government has installed minimum requirements and standards in areas such as civil rights and pollution control, active state and local governments have broadened the scope of their activities and the size of their budgets.

Many state and local governments showed renewed energy in the 1990s. Some organized charter schools, which enable citizens to start alternative schools that are publicly funded. Others installed voucher systems that permit parents using a state-issued voucher to send their children to private schools. States have set limits on how long elected officials can serve in an office. They have also established limits on property taxes and have developed different forms of job training for welfare recipients. Some hope to fulfill an expectation that they are “laboratories for democracy”: closer to the people than the federal government and small enough to experiment with new and innovative practices.

In addition to expanding their budgets, state and local governments have also increased the size of their bureaucracies and their regulatory power over citizens. Based on the Tenth Amendment, which reserves powers not delegated to the federal government for the states, recent Supreme Court decisions have limited the federal government’s authority. For example, the federal government is unable to ask local law enforcement agencies to do minor administrative jobs, such as performing background checks on gun purchasers. Such limitations will lead to increased independence of state and local governments.

In the early 21st century, federalism resembled a marbled cake. The national, state, and local governments share functions and financing. This cooperation and sharing often made the roles of individual units difficult to distinguish. This differed from the traditional arrangement of the past, in which federal, state, and local governments functioned as a layer cake—the local governments on the bottom, then the state, and finally the federal government.


The U.S. government exists for the welfare of its citizens, a mandate that includes being responsible for external as well as internal affairs. The primary principles of American foreign policy are to defend the nation’s physical territory, to protect citizens from enemy attack, to further the nation’s economic interests and prestige, and to promote American ideals of liberty and democracy abroad. At the end of the 20th century, American foreign policy involved relationships with 159 nations that were sometimes cooperative, often competitive, and occasionally openly hostile.

Role of the President

The executive branch has primarily been responsible for foreign policy in the United States. The Constitution gives the president authority over treaty-making, command of the armed forces, and the right to make executive agreements that do not have to be approved by Congress. As a result, the chief executive is in the best and most well-informed position to define and pursue America’s international objectives.

The president is advised and lobbied in these matters by the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, the House’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, interest groups such as the Council of Foreign Relations, and influential citizens. In addition, foreign policy is influenced by public opinion; the risk of being voted out of office over an unpopular action has often served to restrain overaggressive policymakers.

American presidents today have several different channels by which they can pursue foreign policy goals. One of the most important is diplomatic relations with other nations. The State Department is the critical agency in this regard because it manages diplomacy through ambassadors and envoys who work with other nations. The United States also discusses issues and negotiates with other nations through the United Nations (UN), an international organization of countries created to promote world peace and cooperation. The United States contributes to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The World Bank was created in 1944 to provide postwar development aid through loans, and it concentrated on the rebuilding of Europe. The International Monetary Fund was also established in 1944 with the primary aim of setting up a structure to coordinate and stabilize currencies, and to lend money to help nations weather temporary financial crises. In addition, the United States can influence foreign policy through direct American economic and military aid to foreign countries.

Evolution of Foreign Policy


The first and most enduring principle of American foreign policy was isolationism. As expressed by George Washington in 1796, isolationism meant that there should be no permanent alliances and “as little political connection as possible” with foreign nations. This policy only applied to political relations because the United States continued to trade with other nations and to expand its territory. In the early 1800s the United States extended its isolationist polices to all of the Western Hemisphere with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. This doctrine stated that the United States would stay out of European wars and that European nations should not attempt to extend their influence into the Americas.

America’s policy of isolationism continued after World War I (1914-1918), when European countries created the League of Nations to establish a collective security system. At that time the U.S. Senate refused to join the league despite President Woodrow Wilson’s support for it. It was only after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941—the event that brought America into World War II—that isolationism disappeared. After the war ended, the United States became involved in a system of alliances and regional defense associations. These associations, which specified that an attack on one member was an attack on all and would require a suitable collective response, included the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the now-defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). These collective security alliances were adopted when the United States entered a 40-year period of mutual distrust—the Cold War—with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). See also Thematic Essay: The History of American Foreign Policy.

Growing Cooperation

The United Nations(UN) was formed in the aftermath of World War II to help countries resolve international issues without war. American policymakers at first enthusiastically embraced it. The UN had more authority and prestige than the old League of Nations. The UN had a powerful Security Council made up of 15 members and charged with preserving world peace. The Security Council has five permanent members (China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States), each of whom can veto any resolution proposed by other members. Other UN members take turns filling the remaining ten positions; these nonpermanent members cannot veto resolutions of the council.

Each member of the UN also has a vote in the General Assembly, which over the years has become an international forum where general topics are discussed and recommendations are formulated. The judicial arm of the United Nations is the International Court of Justice, which has jurisdiction only when nations agree that it has. For the most part this body interprets treaties and other international obligations. As the only major power that ended World War II with its economy intact—and the only nation at the time with nuclear weapons—the United States dominated the early United Nations.

Despite a growing cooperation with foreign governments, some Americans feared that international organizations might infringe on national sovereignty. This wariness led the U.S. Senate to pass the Connally reservation, which states that any treaty with respect to the United Nations must be made with the consent of the Senate. The Connally reservation also limits U.S. adherence to UN bodies such as the International Court of Justice by giving the federal government the right to decide for itself which issues are domestic and therefore beyond the court’s authority. The United States also has not accepted a 1998 international treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, which has the power to prosecute individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

By the 1960s the United Nations had grown with the addition of nations from Africa and the Middle East. It was less likely to support American foreign policy positions, and American presidents began to place less importance in the United Nations. Some U.S. conservatives became openly hostile to the UN.

Although the United States no longer dominates the United Nations, the organization continues to be an important instrument of U.S. foreign policy. The United States still seeks to win UN support for its foreign policy aims, although it decided to forgo UN Security Council approval for its invasion of Iraq (see U.S.-Iraq War).

Economic and Military Aid

After World War II, American policymakers developed new tools to advance U.S. foreign policy goals. The United States provided economic and military aid to European countries devastated by the war. It helped repair broken European economies through the Marshall Plan (European Recovery Program) and later through President Harry S. Truman’s Point Four Program. The Marshall Plan of 1947, which was named after Secretary of State George Marshall, provided relief for the war-ravaged economies of Europe. The Truman Doctrine, proposed in 1947, was a response to the news that Britain could no longer maintain commitments to help Turkey and Greece. Fearful of Communist influence in these countries, Congress promptly approved Truman’s request for $400 million in direct aid. During the Cold War, nations that received military and economic assistance were expected to develop democratic institutions and ally themselves with the United States against the Soviet Union. In return they would be protected by the powerful U.S. military.

Between 1946 and 1988, while pursuing these policies, the United States gave a total of $212 billion in economic aid and $131 billion in military aid to other nations. After the Cold War ended, however, the proportions shifted. In the 1980s the United States extended $82 billion in economic aid around the globe and just half that amount in military aid. In the 21st century the United States gave just 0.15 percent of its gross national income (GNI), or about $35 a year per American, in foreign aid. Of this, about one-third went to just three countries—Israel, Egypt, and Pakistan.

Americans have disagreed about whether economic and military aid was actually useful. Critics of these programs complain that foreign aid rarely reaches the people of a nation; it mostly reaches only the governments and the leaders. Thus if the United States intended its contributions to be used for democratic or humanitarian efforts, the contributions were most likely wasted.

National Defense

Defense Policy

In its early history, the American government relied for defense on a small number of professional soldiers and a citizen army that could be quickly mobilized before an enemy reached its shores. Protected by two oceans and sandwiched between friendly Canada to the north and weak Mexico to the south, the United States developed without the kinds of military challenges that were common in Europe. Even after World War I, the United States slipped back into a comfortable isolationism.

But American policy changed after World War II, when the USSR developed nuclear weapons and missiles powerful enough to reach the United States. U.S. policymakers adopted the new idea of nuclear deterrence. The basic idea of this policy was to amass such a huge nuclear arsenal that even in the event of a full-scale attack by the USSR, the United States would still be capable of retaliating and completely destroying the Soviets. This idea became known as mutually assured destruction, or, appropriately, MAD.

With the adoption of this policy, federal budget outlays for national defense began to grow dramatically. By 1975 the United States was spending more than 25 percent of the entire federal budget on national defense. In the 1980s expenditures reached 28 percent, as the United States undertook a costly program to develop military weaponry based on sophisticated technology. One proposed program of this type was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) introduced by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. This program would have used new technology, such as electronic beams and computer-guided missiles, to destroy incoming missiles. Congress balked at the cost of the program, which the media dubbed “Star Wars.”

With the end of the Cold War, military deterrence became less relevant to the United States. Acts of terrorism, such as the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001, were a more immediate threat to national security (see September 11 Attacks). To protect against terrorism, Congress in 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with a mission to prevent terrorist attacks and assist in recovery in the case of an attack. The DHS combined dozens of federal agencies, including the United States Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Secret Service.

The U.S. government also began a war on terrorism targeting both terrorist organizations and governments that supported them. Its first action was to lead a military operation with an international coalition into Afghanistan. There, they worked to eliminate al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the September 11 attacks, and to topple the Taliban regime, the government that had given refuge and support to al-Qaeda. By 2002 the Taliban regime had fallen, and al-Qaeda members had scattered. The United States pledged to continue its fight against terrorism throughout the world.

Defense Structure and Spending

The Department of Defense reflects the continuing ethic of civilian control of the military. The Secretary of Defense is a civilian, and civilian secretaries direct each branch of the armed forces. The Department of Defense originally combined the Army and Navy departments and integrated them with the Air Force. Over time, however, the Department’s structure has diffused and grown to include such offices as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

For the most part the Department of Defense has jurisdiction over the substantial amounts of tax money spent on the military. In 2005 the annual budget of the Department of Defense was more than $437 billion. The Defense Department employed more than 3 million people, both civilians and armed forces personnel. In 2003 that figure included about 487,000 people on active service in the Army, about 385,000 in the Navy, about 174,000 in the Marine Corps, and about 368,000 in the Air Force, according to Department of Defense figures.

Current Trends and Issues

At the beginning of the 21st century, Americans’ lives were interwoven with international issues, concerns, and events that had local effects. When the USSR collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War ended, the United States developed new foreign policy principles. Among the most important of these principles was an effort to define national interests more narrowly. The end of the Cold War meant that the United States no longer viewed all international controversies as necessarily requiring some response.

The September 11 terrorist attacks, however, had a profound impact on U.S. foreign policy. In response to the attacks President George W. Bush articulated a new set of principles that radically altered U.S. foreign policy. Known as the Bush Doctrine, the principles were outlined in 2002 in a document titled The National Security Strategy of the United States. In it Bush said the United States would pursue a policy of preventive war if an unfriendly nation attempted to develop weapons of mass destruction or gave aid to terrorist organizations. The new policy also said the United States would act unilaterally if necessary. The doctrine represented a shift away from multilateralism, a strategy of seeking consensus among allies, which had marked U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. Although the United States had long asserted the right to wage preemptive war in the face of a possible attack, the new doctrine of preventive war meant that the United States might use military force even if it did not face an immediate or direct threat.

The first application of the doctrine came in 2003 when the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq because the regime of Saddam Hussein was thought to possess weapons of mass destruction. The United States acted with few other allies because the United Nations Security Council rejected the use of military force in this instance. The two pillars of the Bush doctrine—preemption and unilateralism—were subsequently questioned after the invading forces failed to find any weapons of mass destruction and the onus of the invasion and occupation fell largely on the United States. Defenders of the new policy argued, however, that the invasion had toppled a dangerous dictator and made the region safer and more open to democratic reforms. See also U.S.-Iraq War.


This is one of seven major articles that together provide a comprehensive discussion of the United States of America. For more information on the United States, please see the other six major articles: United States (Overview), United States (Geography), United States (People), United States (Culture), United States (Economy), and United States (History).

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