Order Code RS20443
Updated May 20, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
American National Government: An Overview
Frederick M. Kaiser
Specialist in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
Power in American national government is decentralized, divided, dispersed, and
limited. This distribution of power derives in part from the Constitution, through
limitations imposed on the government, the system of checks and balances among the
three branches, and independent bases of support and authority for each branch. This
report, which examines these characteristics, will be updated as developments require.
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither
external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government
which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first
enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.
James Madison, Federalist No. 51
In this passage from the Federalist Papers, James Madison, sometimes referred to
as the “Father of the Constitution,” offers a rationale for the form of national government
operating here since 1789. Power in the national government is dispersed, divided, and
decentralized; it is also limited, directly and indirectly, by the Constitution. To protect
certain individual rights and political liberties, this charter places explicit restrictions on
the national government, principally through the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment.
The First Amendment, for instance, mandates that “Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or
abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to
assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Constitution
also establishes checks and balances among the three branches of government — the
executive, judiciary, and legislature — each of which has its own independent
institutional base and its own enumerated and implied powers. The branches, moreover,
share responsibility for policymaking at the national level. As a consequence of these
characteristics, the Constitution issues an “invitation to struggle” over the direction of
American public policy, as one of its foremost students, Edward S. Corwin, has observed.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The Constitution, replacing the Articles of Confederation in 1789, strengthened the
national government. Article III declares that “This Constitution, and the Laws of the
United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which
shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the
Land.” Despite this enhancement, the Constitution limited the power of the national
government, recognizing the independence and powers of the states. It also established
a new government regime that divided authorities among three branches, rather than
consolidating these powers in a single entity, as existed under its short-lived predecessor.
The Constitution is a brief document, compared to many other national and state
constitutions. It is not an elaborate blueprint, detailing the organization of government.
Instead, it is a broad framework — sometimes referred to as a living constitution — that
has allowed the national government to adapt its organizational arrangements and
structures to the changing characteristics, needs, and demands of the American people
over more than two centuries. The Constitution, moreover, is difficult to amend. An
amendment requires a favorable two-thirds vote in the House and in the Senate, along
with ratification by three-fourths of the individual states. The document can be amended
in one other way: the legislatures of two-thirds of the states may call for a convention to
propose amendments, which would then require ratification by three-fourths of the states.
However, no national convention has been established under this approach; consequently,
no constitutional amendment has been approved through this process.
Partly because of this structure, the constitutional system has achieved a high degree
of stability. The U.S. Constitution is today the oldest written democratic charter for a
national government. Since the Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments — was ratified
in 1791, the Constitution has been amended only 17 times, most recently in 1992. And
one of these amendments canceled another (the 21st Amendment, in 1933, repealed the
18th Amendment, which in 1919 had established the prohibition of alcohol).
Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court have separate and distinct political
bases under the Constitution, to foster each branch’s independence and integrity. The
ultimate purpose behind this separation, James Madison argued in the Federalist Papers,
is to prevent a “faction” — that is, a group “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to
the permanent and aggregate interest of the community” — from gaining control over the
Restrictions on Serving in Another Branch. The institutional autonomy and
integrity of the legislature is supported by a constitutional prohibition: “No Senator or
Representative shall, during the time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil
Office ... which shall be created or the Emoluments [salary and fees] whereof shall have
been increased during such time” (Article I, Section 6). The Constitution also prohibits
any executive or judicial officer from being a Member of Congress. Two narrow caveats
to this ban, however, call upon officials from other branches to participate in
congressional proceedings. One allowance is for the Vice President, who, while serving
in the executive branch, is also “President of the Senate”; he may also vote there, but only
to break a tie. A second is for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who presides over
the trial in the Senate of a President who has been impeached by the House.
Independent Electoral Bases. The elected officials — President, Vice
President, Senators, and Representatives — have different terms of office, constituencies,
and modes of election that reinforce their independence from one another. The full
election cycle for the President and all legislators requires three elections to complete, and
each of the three involves a different configuration of open offices.
The President is now limited to two elected four-year terms in office (or a maximum
of 10 years if he fills less than half of an unexpired term of another President). The
President is chosen every four years, formally through the electoral college. These votes
are now cast on a winner-take-all basis in each state (except in Maine and Nebraska,
which use a system compounding statewide and congressional district returns) and the
District of Columbia. All electoral college votes for each state, which equal the number
of Senators and Representatives for the state, plus three electoral college votes for the
District of Columbia, customarily go to the candidate who receives the most popular votes
in the state or in the District of Columbia. Consequently, the possibility exists that the
presidential candidate who receives a majority (or plurality) of the popular votes
nationwide would not receive a majority of the electoral college votes. This has occurred
only four times in U.S. history, most recently in the 2000 election.
In the event that no presidential candidate receives a majority in the electoral college,
the newly elected House of Representatives, voting by state delegations and not by
individuals, decides who will become President. In the event that no vice presidential
candidate receives a majority in the electoral college, the Senate chooses the Vice
President, with each Senator in the new Congress having one vote.
Members of Congress — 100 Senators, two from each of the 50 states, and 435
Representatives, whose seats are apportioned among the states according to population
— have electoral constituencies and schedules that differ from the President’s and
between House and Senate members. Senators are elected to six-year terms. These are
staggered, so that only one-third of the full Senate is up for election every two years and
so that no two Senate seats from the same state are up in the same election (except when
a special election to fill an unexpired term coincides with the regularly scheduled
election). Senators were originally selected by their respective state legislatures, but since
the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, they are required to be directly elected.
Representatives are elected every two years from individual districts in the states where
they reside (or at-large in the seven least populous states with only one Representative).
Split or divided party government — where the President’s party lacks control of one
or both houses of Congress — can and does result from these different constituencies,
terms of office, and modes of election. In fact, this pattern has become common in the
contemporary era. Over the 34-year period from 1969 (with the beginning of 91st
Congress) to 2003 (with the end of the 107th Congress), party control was divided for all
but 6 years and 4½ months. Of the seven Presidents during this time, only one (Jimmy
Carter, 1977-1981) had his own party as a majority in both chambers for his entire
presidency; and that comprised but a single term. Only two other Presidents had a
majority in both houses for a portion of their terms of office (Bill Clinton for two years,
1993-1995, and George W. Bush for the first 20 weeks of his presidency in 2001). Three
of the seven Presidents (Richard Nixon, 1969-1974; Gerald Ford, 1974-1977; and George
H.W. Bush, 1989-1993) lacked party control of either house during their entire
incumbency. One President (Ronald Reagan) encountered opposition party control of the
House during his entire two terms (1981-1989) and of the Senate for two years (19871989), while Bill Clinton faced opposition party control of both houses for six of his eight
years in office (1995-2001). Unified party government returned — temporarily — in
2001, when George W. Bush became President on January 20. The House was under his
party’s leadership; and an evenly split Senate was controlled by the same party, because
of Vice President Cheney’s position as President of the Senate. On June 5, 2001,
however, a Republican Senator left the GOP, reducing its number to 49 and giving the
Democrats a 50-seat majority. Unified party government has returned again during Bush’s
presidency in 2003; following the previous midterm elections, Republicans regained
control of the Senate and retained control of the House for the 108th Congress.
Judicial Independence. The federal judiciary has its own constitutional base of
independence. Supreme Court justices and lower federal court judges — all of whom are
appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate — serve for
life or “during good Behaviour” (U.S. Constitution, Article III). They can be removed
from office only by Congress through the arduous process of impeachment by a majority
of the House and conviction by two-thirds of the Senate.
Institutional Supports. Each branch has its own institutional supports. Among
these are professional staff in each branch, who provide information and advice, conduct
research and analysis, investigate perceived problems, organize meetings and briefings,
and carry out various other assignments on behalf of the President, Members of Congress,
and justices and judges.
Members of Congress hire their own professional staff, as does each committee,
subcommittee, chamber office (such as the Speaker of the House and President pro
tempore of the Senate), and political party organization of the House and Senate. In
addition, the legislature is assisted in its legislative, oversight, representative, and
constituent-service responsibilities by three agencies: the Congressional Budget Office,
Congressional Research Service, and General Accounting Office. Congress, furthermore,
can create commissions and task forces to conduct studies and make recommendations.
The presidency also has its own supporting cast. In addition to various counselors
and personal aides to the President, the Executive Office of the President provides a
variety of capabilities and services through a number of entities. These include the White
House Office, Office of Management and Budget, Office of the Vice President, Council
of Economic Advisers, Council on Environmental Quality, National Security Council,
National Economic Council, Office of Homeland Security, Office of National Drug
Control Policy, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Office of Science and
Technology Policy, Office of Policy Development, and Office of Administration.
Presidents, moreover, can create task forces and advisory commissions to conduct studies
and make recommendations on policy matters. The chief executive can also call upon
cabinet officers and agency officials to assist in policy formulation, as well as to secure
support for administration programs in the public and in Congress. Separate from these
formal arrangements, Presidents may consult with political colleagues and trusted friends,
who might form an informal group of advisors or “kitchen cabinet.”
Checks and Balances and Shared Responsibilities
Under the Constitution, the three branches have both enumerated and implied powers
that reinforce their institutional independence and political power. Accompanying these,
however, is shared responsibility for public policy and a system of checks and balances.
These “auxiliary precautions,” as Madison called them in the Federalist Papers, are
designed so that the “several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the
means of keeping each other in their proper places ... [and] may be a check on the other.”
Lawmaking. The key function of lawmaking is shared, with the President able to
veto legislation passed by both chambers of Congress; to override his veto requires a twothirds vote in each house. Further, the Supreme Court, through its implied power of
judicial review, can declare a statute or a part of it unconstitutional, as it did initially, two
centuries ago, in Marbury v. Madison (5 U.S. (1 Cr.) 137 (1803)).
National Security Policy. Control of national security policy is also divided.
While the President is commander in chief of the armed forces, Congress has authority
to declare war, raise and support armies, and make rules governing the land, air, and naval
forces. While the President holds the sword, as commander in chief, Congress holds the
purse strings, through the appropriations process. The Supreme Court too can affect the
military capacity of the United States, as the Court did when it overturned the President’s
seizure of the steel mills during the Korean War (Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v.
Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952)). Treaties are also a shared responsibility. Negotiated by
the President, they must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. Their implementation,
moreover, often requires new legislation and appropriations, both of which involve the
House of Representatives. Separately, public law may be used instead of a treaty to
accomplish the same ends, as with the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Executive and Judicial Appointments. Civil officers, Supreme Court justices,
and federal judges are nominated by the President but must be confirmed by the Senate.
Under the 25th Amendment, moreover, both houses of Congress must confirm the
President’s nominee for Vice President, when that post is vacant, as occurred when
Gerald Ford in 1973 and Nelson Rockefeller the next year were confirmed.
Investigations. The executive can investigate suspected criminal conduct by
legislators, who may be prosecuted in federal court, while Congress can investigate the
activities and conduct of personnel and officials in the other branches. These
congressional efforts, in turn, can result in evidence that could be used in subsequent
judicial proceedings. Congress, through the impeachment process, can also remove the
President, Vice President, and U.S. officers for treason, bribery, and other high crimes and
misdemeanors, or justices and judges for violating the “good Behaviour” standard in the
Constitution. Although the President is responsible for seeing that the laws are faithfully
executed, Congress oversees their implementation and the President’s stewardship. The
courts, moreover, can check the legislature’s or executive’s investigative powers to ensure
that they are not used to violate the other’s constitutional prerogatives.
Dispersed and Decentralized Organization
Although “executive power is vested in a President” by the Constitution (Article II,
Section 1), he shares official responsibility for enforcing, implementing, and
administering public law and policy with other officers and offices. Individual agencies
and subordinate officers in the executive branch and elsewhere have been delegated duties
and authority directly by statute. One of the first acts of the First Congress — the 1789
act creating the Treasury Department — for instance, ordered the comptroller (and not the
President or the head of the department) to direct prosecutions for all delinquencies of
revenue officers and for debts due to the United States.
The Constitution does not establish specific departments or agencies; these are
created and sustained by legislation. As a result, a wide range and variety of organizations
administer public policy. These include not only the cabinet departments — which now
number 15, with the new Department of Homeland Security — but also other executive
branch agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Central
Intelligence Agency. Implementation of policy also extends to independent regulatory
commissions, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Trade
Commission; public and quasi-public corporations, such as the U.S. Postal Service; and
various foundations, boards, institutes, and government-sponsored enterprises. The
Supreme Court, moreover, has upheld the constitutionality — and independence — of
these entities that carry out public policy. The most important of these decisions —
Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602 (1935) — applied to independent
regulatory commissions, which were seen as possessing legislative (rule-making),
executive (implementation), and judicial (adjudication) powers. Similarly, a 1988 ruling
(Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988)) recognized the constitutionality of independent
counsels; these positions, authorized under a statute that lapsed in 1999, were created to
investigate and prosecute alleged wrongdoing by high-ranking officials.
The constitutional system — through its founding premise of limited government
and an intricate system of separated institutions, checks and balances, and shared
responsibilities — strives to meet two core values of democracy. One is to ensure
majority rule, through, for instance, the popular election of officials who make public
policy; the other is to protect individual rights and civil liberties, through specific
constitutional safeguards and indirectly through restraints on and competition among the
Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers, 1787-1788.
New York: Mentor Books, 1961.
de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence.
Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1969.
U.S. Congress. Joint Committee on Printing. Our American Government. 106th
Congress, 2nd session. H. Doc. 106-216. Washington: GPO, 2000.