Learn More About the U.S. Government

Governmental power and functions in the United States rest in three branches of government: the legislative, judicial, and executive. Article I of the Constitution defines the legislative branch and vests power to legislate in the Congress of the United States. The executive powers of the President are defined in Article 2. Article 3 places judicial power in the hands of one Supreme Court and inferior courts as Congress sees necessary to establish. 

complete diagram of the branches of the U.S. Government may be found in the U.S. Government Manual.

Each branch of the federal government operates independently of the others, referred to as the "separation of powers." However, there are built in "checks and balances" to prevent overwhelming concentration of power in any one branch and to protect the rights and liberties of citizens. For example, the President can veto bills approved by Congress and the President nominates individuals to serve in the Federal judiciary; the Supreme Court can declare a law enacted by Congress or an action by the President unconstitutional; and Congress can impeach the President and Federal court justices and judges.

Legislative Branch

The United States Congress is made up of two houses, the Senate and the US House of Representatives. The two house system is also known as a bicameral legislature. The primary duty of Congress is to write, debate, and pass laws, which are then sent to the president for his approval and final signature. 

Other congressional duties include investigating pressing national issues and supervising the executive and judicial branches.

The Senate has certain responsibilities that the House of Representatives does not. These responsibilities include agreeing to treaties and confirming federal officials like Supreme Court Justices.

National Elections take place every even-numbered year. Every four years the president, vice president, one-third of the Senate, and the entire House are up for election (on-year elections). On even-numbered years when there isn't a presidential election, one-third of the Senate and the whole House are included in the election (off-year elections).

A new Congress begins in January following Congressional elections. Since the First Congress, which met from 1789 to 1791, all Congresses have been numbered in order. We are currently in the 113th Congress.  The House and Senate each meet in their respective chamber in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. 

The Powers of Congress

The Constitution grants Congress "all legislative powers" in the national government. Congress also controls federal taxing and spending policies-one of the most important sources of power in the government. Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution lists a wide range of congressional powers, including:

  • Coining money.
  • Maintaining a military.
  • Declaring war on other countries.
  • Regulating interstate and foreign commerce

One of the most important implied powers is Congress's 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 summons senior officials to answer questions from members, orders audits of agencies, and holds hearings to air grievances of citizens. 

Congress also holds 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. 

There are, however, some congressional powers that are rarely used such as the ability to impeach an official and the ability to amend the Constitution.

In addition to the power described above, Congress shares powers with the president in matters such as, framing U.S. foreign policy and control over the military. For example, while the president negotiates treaties, they are only put into effect once the Senate approves them. Also, while Congress can declare war and approve funds for the military, the president is the commander-in-chief of the military.

The Senate

The United States Senate is a part of the bicameral Congress, consists of 100 elected Senators, each state is represented by two Senators. Massachusetts has been represented in the United States Senate by two former Presidents, John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy. The legendary Daniel Webster and Edward M. Kennedy. Current Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Paul Tsongas, Edward Brooke, Henry Cabot Lodge and many other dedicated public servants represented the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate.
According the Article 1, Section 3, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, no personal shall be a Senator who shall not have attained the age of thirty years and been 9 years a citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected be an inhabitant of that state for which he shall be chosen.
Senators have certain responsibilities that no one else has – including those in the House of Representatives. These responsibilities include agreeing to treaties and confirming federal officials like Supreme Court Justices.
For an extensive history of the United States Senate please click here. and to receive continuous updates on the history of the Senate follow @SenateHistory on twitter. 


The House of Representatives

There are a total of 435 members in the House of Representatives.  Seats in the House are distributed based on the population of each state.  Each state is guaranteed  at least one seat , Massachusetts currently has 9 seats in the House of Representatives . As of the 2010 U.S. Census, the area each member represents, a congressional district, contains over 647,000 residents.

Representatives, elected for two-year terms, must be 25 years old, a citizen for at least seven years, and a resident of the state from which they are elected. Five additional  members  —from Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia—  serve as delegates to the House. While they may participate in debates  and hold committee positions,  they cannot vote on the House Floor.

The House of Representatives has unique jobs that only it can perform. Only it can:

  • Initiate bills imposing taxes.
  • Decide if a government official should be put on trial before the Senate if s/he commits a crime against the country.

What is the Role of the State Government?

While each state sends representatives to Washington, D.C. to make federal laws,  states have their own legislatures,  that create laws that apply only in their own state. Our State Representatives and State Senators work in the Massachusetts State House in Boston. According to the Constitution, states can make laws in any area not reserved to the federal government. If you want to learn more about the Massachusetts state government visit Mass.gov

Other Informational Sites about the US Government:

Note: The links below will take you to external sites