Power Divisions in Branches of US Federal Government

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This memo responds to your request for information about government in the United States. In this report we will discuss the branches of American government and how power is divided within the government. We will also discuss local government in Wyoming and compare Wyoming government to other states.

The Branches of American Government

 

To ensure a separation of powers, the United States Government is made up of three branches: the legislative, executive and judicial branches. By dividing powers, it creates a system of checks and balances in which no one branch can make significant changes completely on their own. Each branch has its own distinct powers and responsibilities. The legislative branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the United States Congress. The executive branch includes the president, vice-president, and the cabinet members (“Branches”, 2019). The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and other federal courts.

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Article I of the United States Constitution outlines the powers and the limits that Congress has. The primary function of Congress is to make laws. This is often accomplished through significant debate and compromise. Congress is composed of two separate chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives. This structure is known as a bicameral national legislature (“Bicameral System”, 2019). Bicameral legislature has been an effective system for providing a balance of power, although this balance has resulted in challenges and delays in the approval of legislation when the two chambers have differences.

This system also ensures a balance of power by preventing the enactment of laws unfairly impact or favor certain factions of the government. The powers granted to Congress in the Constitution are known as enumerated powers. These powers were designed to ensure that the government could not have more power over the people (Enumerated Powers”, 2019). Implied powers are enumerated powers that are not specifically outlined in the Constitution but are considered “necessary and proper” for Congress to be able to fulfill its duties . Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution places three important limits on Congress and its powers. Congress cannot pass ex facto laws, which outlaws acts after they have been committed. They also cannot punish individuals outside of the court system, or suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus, which orders the government to charge individuals arrested for crimes.

There are three types of legislation that Congress can legislate; bills, joint resolutions, and simple resolutions. A majority of legislation that Congress handles is in the form of bills.When introduced to the House, bills are prefixed with H.R. and when introduced to the Senate prefixed with S.  Private bills affect corporations and private entities while public bills involve issues that involve the general population. When the bill passes both chambers and is signed by the president the bill becomes law. Joint resolutions differ from bills in that they do not need the president’s signature. They are designated as H.J Res. or S.J. Res. followed by a number. With only two-thirds approval from both chambers or three-fourths approval from the states, a joint resolution can become part of the constitution (“Types of Resolution”, 2019). Joint resolutions often deal with continuing or emergency appropriations, or amendments to the constitution.  Simple resolutions only involve one chamber of Congress. Simple resolutions do not require approval of the other chamber or the president. This type of legislation cannot become law but may involve standing rules of that particular chamber.

U.S and State Congress Data

U.S. Senate

Wyoming Senate

New Jersey Senate

Utah Senate

U.S. House of Rep

Wyoming House of Rep

New Jersey House of Rep

Utah House of Rep.

Total # of seats

100

30

40

29

435

60

80

75

Term length (yrs)

6

4

2-4-4 year cycle

4

2

2

2

2

(“New Jersey Legislature”, 2019) (“Utah State Legislature”, 2019) (“Wyoming Legislature”, 2019) (“United States Congress”, 2019)

Article II of the U.S. Constitution establishes the powers and duties of the president who is part of the executive branch of government (“The Executive Branch”, 2019). This article defines the office of the president, vice-president, the electoral college that elects them, and sets the term length to four years.

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For much of the 19thcentury, political leaders believed that political power should center on Congress and the role of the president was to execute decisions made by Congress (“The History”, 2019). The role of president was dubbed “clerk in chief” for this reason as it was less of a leadership role and more of a steward to Congress. This role has most certainly evolved to what it is today, in which recent presidents have taken much more of a leadership role. The president has many different leadership roles today including Chief Executive, Chief Legislator, and Commander-in-Chief, all of which will be discussed below.

As Chief Executive, the president presides over the executive branch and has specific powers within this branch. The president has the power to implement policy, supervise the executive branch of government, prepare executive budget for submission to Congress, and to appoint and remove executive officials along the guidelines of the Appointments Clause. The Appointments Clause gives the executive branch and the president, not Congress, the power to appoint federal officials (“Appointments Clause”, 2019). The president has the power to appoint federal judges, ambassadors, and other “principal officers” of the United States, subject to Senate confirmation of such appointments.

The president can appoint federal judges, ambassadors, and other “principal officers” of the United States, subject to Senate confirmation of such appointments.Another specific power of the president is the ability to pardon a criminal charged with a federal offense. The act of pardoning is an “executive forgiveness of crime” in which the conviction is essentially removed from one’s record (“Pardon vs Commute”, 2016). Similarly, the president also has the power to “commute” charges of a federal offense and while they are still charged with a crime, the penalty is reduced, or punishment made to be less severe (“Pardon vs Commute”, 2016). Both pardons and commutations are investigated and reviewed by The Office of the Pardon Attorney who prepares the documentation of the final disposition of each specific case.

As the Chief Legislator, the president has the capacity to bring a proposal before the full legislature to be voted on.  The president also can accept or veto any bills that Congress pass on to him that he may or may not approve of. There are two types of vetoes, a signed veto and a pocket veto. A signed veto is when Congress sends the bill to the president and if the president disapproves, the president signs the veto. A pocket veto is a situation in which the president has a bill during a time that Congress has adjourned. After 10 days, the bill becomes “dead” as a pocket veto. A pocket veto cannot be overridden by Congress simply because they are not even present. When Congress is in session and the president has signed a veto, it then goes back to Congress and has the possibility of being overridden if it passes a two-thirds vote in each Chamber (“Pocket Veto”, 2019). A successful override is statistically unlikely as it has occurred in less than 10% of all presidential vetoes. Harry S Truman has the second highest veto history (behind Franklin D Roosevelt) with 180 vetoes. Andrew Johnson holds the record for having the most overridden vetoes and Congress had overridden 15 of his vetoes (“List of United States presidential vetoes”, 2019).

Put simply, proposal power is the ability to structure the terms of a possible settlement. It is distinct from receivership, which is the ability to say yes or no to any particular offer.

the power or right vested in one branch of a government to cancel or postpone the decisions, enactments, etc., of another branch, especially the right of a president, governor, or other chief executive to reject bills passed by the legislature (“Powers of the President”, 2019) .

As Chief Diplomat, the president of the United States represents the United States both at home and abroad. This role requires the president to conduct negotiations between representatives and states in an effort to find solutions to common global and domestic challenges and to seek diplomacy to gain strategic advantage (“The President’s Many Roles”, n.d.). Using treaty power, the president has the ability to make treaties “with the advice and consent of the senate” with foreign countries. The president can form and negotiate the treaty, although it must ultimately be consented by a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Once approved by Senate, the president may ratify the treaty and it becomes binding law for all the states under the Supremacy Clause.  Another role of the Chief Diplomat is to send, receive, and appoint ambassadors using “appointment power” with U.S. Senate approval (“Appointments Clause”, 2019).

Article II, Section 2 states that “The president shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several states, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” (“The President’s Many Roles”, n.d.)  The wording of this section provides the president with constitutional powers over all military forces, powers shared with Congress; With this power they can use force if an attack is imminent, use force without declaration of war, and execute treaty obligations involving armed forces when necessary.

Article III of the Constitution establishes the judicial branch of the government. This article separates this branch from both the legislative and the executive branches of the government. District courts are and are the first level of appeal. The circuit courts are the next level and the United States Supreme Court is the final level of appeal.

The federal court system consists of three tiers: district courts (the trial court), circuit courts which are the first level of appeal, and the Supreme Court of the United States, the final level of appeal in the federal system. United States District courts were established by Congress and are where civil and criminal cases are filed (“Introduction”, 2014). There is a district court in each district of the United States and there are 89 districts within the states and more in US territories totaling 94 districts. These courts hold trials, hear motions, issue injunctions, and are the starting point for almost all civil or criminal case within the justice system. The outcome of cases heard in district courts are often decided by a jury and are presided over by one judge.

These 94 districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, and within these circuits are a total of 13 appellate courts (“Court Role”, n.d.). Circuit Courts are the intermediate level of the court system in the US. These courts hear challenges to district court decisions and those involving patent laws and trial cases that are being appealed. Circuit cases do not have juries and may have multiple judges presiding over the case.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the Constitution established the Supreme Court and gave Congress the power to establish a system of lower courts. According to the Office of the United States Attorneys, the Supreme Court receives thousands of petitions of cases but selects less than 1% of these cases (“Introduction”, 2014). The types of cases that are decided on in the Supreme Court are of great public importance, maybe involving the Constitution, or civil rights. There are nine justices on the US Supreme Court and each was nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Before being confirmed they go under scrutiny of the Senate during confirmation hearings in which the nominee and witnesses make statements and answer the questions given to them by the Senate Judiciary Committee before they are voted on and then either confirmed or rejected for a seat on the Supreme Court. If confirmed, they hold the seat for the remainder of their life or until they resign or are impeached.

Within the federal court system are a number of specialized courts. One such specialized court is the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. This court was established in 1978 and is composed of eleven federal district court judges who are designated by the Chief Justice. Each judge serves for seven years. Much of the work of this work involves classified national security information involving surveillance or other investigations for foreign intelligence purposes.

Local Government

 

Under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, powers not granted to the federal government are divided between state and local government. Police, libraries, schools are all functions that fall under state and local government which will be discussed in this section. The Constitution does not require State government to be three-tiered as the federal government is but it does mandate that states uphold a “republican form” of government which give the powers of sovereignty to the people. Mayors, city councils, and other local governing bodies are directly elected by the people. Most states have divided government into a two-tiered system involving counties and municipalities. These are further divided up into special districts including water districts, fire districts, and public health needs including hospitals (“Local Government”, 2019).

Today there are 23 counties in the state of Wyoming along with 99 unincorporated municipalities consisting of cities and towns.  Counties are geographical designations created by the state government. As agents of the state, counties collect taxes, assess property values, records public documents, and issue licenses among many other duties. Counties are overseen by  a board of county commissioners.

Municipalities are the cities and towns that are overseen by a mayor, city manager or other elected official and have local government that may include a city council and commissioners. Municipal governments may be responsible for local water systems, local police, roadways and parks at the local level. Traditionally, cities and towns have been viewed as political subdivisions of the state that only have powers that are explicitly given to them by the state. This is known as Dillon’s Rule, named after a Supreme Court Justice who emphasized the important role of the state in checking local overreach, corruption, and waste. Although state constitutions vary in the level of power that they grant to local government, Dillon’s Rule states that if there is reasonable doubt whether a power has been conferred to a local government, then the power has not been conferred (“Cities 101”, n.d.).

 

Special districts are special-purpose government units that exist to perform a specific function. To be classified as a special district government as opposed to a subordinate agency, they must possess three attributes. They must exist as an organized entity, have governmental character, and have substantial autonomy (“Special District”, 2019). Special districts have many of the same powers as states, counties, and cities. They can employ workers, impose taxes, levy assessments, and charge money for their services. Often, gas, water, and electric utilities are a form of a special district government and may have their own elected board of directors.

School districts are another type of special districts which are governed by school boards. These districts are governed by a school board who appoints a superintendent who carries out the executive functions and policy implementations for the school district (“School District”, 2019).

As far as government support from its constituents, according to one poll, people generally trust their local government more than their state governments (McCarthy, 2018). Trust in state government seems to vary and in times of economic boom trust seems to have a direct correlation.

Conclusion

 

In this memo, we have evaluated the branches of federal government in the United States and how power is divided. We have also discussed the three-tiered court system both at the local and federal levels. We have also compared Wyoming government to New Jersey and Utah state governments. The structure of our government has evolved throughout our nation’s history to create a government by the people and for the people. The carefully balanced system has been crucial to maintaining democracy in our great nation.

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