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Interactions among branches of government: unit overview

Unit overview

This unit introduced the three branches of the US government: the legislative branch (Congress), the executive branch (the presidency), and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and inferior courts). It also introduced the bureaucracy, sometimes called the "fourth branch" of government, which includes the federal agencies responsible for implementing policies.

Key terms from this unit

bureaucracyAn administrative group of nonelected officials charged with implementing policies created by the other branches of government.
enumerated powersPowers of the federal government explicitly named in the Constitution.
executive orderA presidential order to the executive branch that carries the force of law. The Supreme Court can rule executive orders unconstitutional.
formal powers of the PresidentPowers expressly granted to the president under Article II of the Constitution. Examples include making treaties, commanding the military, appointing Supreme Court justices, and vetoing legislation.
gerrymanderingThe act of changing the boundaries of an electoral district to favor one party over another.
House of RepresentativesThe lower chamber of Congress, where a state's population determines its number of representatives. All 435 Members of the House serve two-year terms.
implied powersPowers of the federal government not explicitly named in the Constitution that enable the federal government to carry out its enumerated powers.
informal powers of the PresidentPowers claimed by presidents as necessary in order to execute the law. Examples include issuing executive orders and negotiating executive agreements.
judicial reviewThe Supreme Court’s power to review whether acts of the legislative branch, the executive branch, and state governments are consistent with the Constitution, and to strike down acts it finds unconstitutional.
jurisdictionThe field of authority a court has to make legal judgments and decisions.
precedentA legal decision that establishes a rule for similar cases going forward.
SenateThe upper chamber of Congress, in which each state has two representatives regardless of its population, with 100 senators total. Senators serve six-year terms, with one-third of them running for reelection every two years.
Supreme CourtThe highest federal court of the United States, established by Article III of the US Constitution, with nine sitting justices today.
vetoThe president’s constitutional right to reject a law passed by Congress. Congress may override the president’s veto with a two-thirds vote.

Key documents and cases from this unit

The Constitution of the United States (1787) — The fundamental laws and principles that govern the United States.
Federalist no. 70 (1788) — “The Executive Department Further Considered,” written by Alexander Hamilton. In this essay, Hamilton argues that a single executive (led by one person as president, rather than several people acting as a council) is the best form for the executive branch of the United States.
Federalist no. 78 (1788) — “The Judiciary Department,” written by Alexander Hamilton. In this essay advocating for the ratification of the US Constitution, Hamilton describes the proposed form for the new government’s judicial branch. He argues that judges should serve for life to preserve their independence. Hamilton also provides an early argument for the power of judicial review, stating that the courts’ duty is “to declare all acts contrary to . . . the Constitution void.”
Marbury v. Madison (1803) — An early Supreme Court case that affirmed the Court’s power of judicial review by striking down a law made by Congress as unconstitutional. In his written opinion, Chief Justice John Marshall declared that “an act of the legislature repugnant to the Constitution is void.”
Baker v. Carr (1961) — Established the "one-person, one-vote" principle that districts should be proportionately represented in Congress. Set the precedent the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to review state redistricting issues.
Shaw v. Reno (1993) — This case established that, although legislative redistricting must be conscious of race and comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, redistricting cannot exceed what is reasonably necessary to avoid racial imbalances.

Key takeaways from this unit

Constitutionalism — Each branch of the government has different powers, structures, and functions by design. Congress comprises the House of Representatives (designed to represent the population) and the Senate (designed to represent the states equally), each of which is affected by chamber-specific rules and election processes. The power of the presidency has expanded over time, and the president uses both formal and informal powers to implement their policy agenda. The judicial branch exercises the power of judicial review to determine the constitutionality of the acts of the other branches and of state governments.
Competing policymaking interests — The interactions between the branches are complex by design. Congress, the executive branch (including the bureaucracy), and the judiciary must both compete and cooperate in order to enact policy. The implementation process is likewise difficult, as each branch must struggle to maintain the accountability of a vast federal bureaucracy charged with putting policy into action.

Review questions

Why is the public policy process so complex? Can you explain the role of each branch of government in developing and enacting a policy?
How have voting rights in the United States changed between 1960 and today? What roles have Congress and the Supreme Court played in these changes?
Why do presidents and Congress frequently struggle with each other? How can presidential powers affect congressional decisionmaking? How can congressional powers affect presidential decisionmaking?
Why does the bureaucracy exercise so much independence? How can the other branches hold the bureaucracy accountable?

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