The United States federal government is split into three different parts: the legislature, executive and judiciary. The executive branch is headed by the President of the United States (POTUS) and is considered the dominant branch of the government.
However, this is not how the constitution intended. The legislature is written as the dominant branch of the Federal Government and the executive was considered secondary. However, over the subsequent 250 years of American history, the Executive has grown in power and stature, coming to dominate the entirety of United States politics.
The Executive Branch
The Executive is predominantly known for its leader, the president. Whilst they dominate the executive branch, their power is often delegated across the entirety of the executive branch, which includes all Federal Agencies. The constitution states that the president must: “take care that the laws be faithfully executed”, and “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”; the essence is that the legislature makes the laws, the judiciary interprets the laws and the executive enforces the laws.
However, the power of the executive, and particularly that of the president, extends much further, most famously the president acts as the commander in chief of the United States. This means that the president is in charge of military operations in the United States, often overseeing operations from the ‘Situation Room’, in the White House basement. Although the president acts as commander in chief, they do not have the power to declare war, with that resting with Congress since the War Powers Act on 1973 – after President Nixon was criticised for acting too independently over the Vietnam War.
The president also retains power for approving or vetoing (rejecting) any of the legislation that gets approved by both the Senate and the House. If the president vetoes legislation, it is sent back to Congress where two thirds vote in both Houses can override the veto and pass the legislation into law. The president also has the ability to pardon anyone for any federal crime for any or no reason, along with the power to issue executive orders, which are directives that the president gives over how the executive branch will run; Donald Trump issued several infamous executive orders during his presidency, such as Executive Order 13769, which banned immigration into the United States from several Asian, Middle Eastern and African nations. These are less powerful than legislation and can be easily overturned by a new president taking office, but do allow the president to make significant policy decisions independent of Congress,
The vice president serves alongside the president and their main duty involves breaking ties in the Senate, when the 100 Senators are split 50-50 on a bill; the vice president presides over the Senate although rarely sits within the chamber, being represented by the ‘president pro-tempore’ during their absence. The VP also helps the President by travelling the world as another high-level representative of the US in other countries, effectively being the second most prominent diplomat in the nation, behind only the president – Joe Biden was frequently deployed as a diplomat by president Obama, acting as a key representative over the Paris Climate Accords.
The executive is also represented by the Cabinet, and a plethora of government agencies; such as the FBI, CIA, NSA and the Pentagon. The Cabinet Secretaries each head up one of the various departments of the executive government and are appointed at the pleasure of the president, although must be approved in a Senate confirmation hearing.
The Judicial Branch
Serving as a check on the legislative and executive branches, the judicial branch, which has the Supreme court and various federal and local courts, can invalidate laws or executive orders passed by the legislature or executive. The courts – primarily the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) can decide if legislation is not in line with the US constitution, striking it down. The Supreme Court is made up of nine members serving for life, nominated by the President and approved by the Senate, and are the highest court in the United States.
While the Supreme court gets thousands of requests a year for cases to be heard, they only ever end up taking a few hundred, which sometimes lead to lower courts making laws based on precedents of previous Supreme Court cases, rather than taking the literal interpretation of Congress’ legislation as law.
The Supreme Court is made up of nine members: Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Whilst there are nine current members of the Supreme Court, the number of justices is not specified in the constitution, and it is possible a president could expand the court to get more judges that agree with them, as was tried in 1937 by President F. Roosevelt, following the court ruling much of his New Deal legislation unconstitutional.
Though the Supreme Court sits at the top of the US court system, the majority of the time, the courts ordinary citizens and lawmakers deal with tends to not reach that level. The court system is divided into sections based on the state level and the federal level. Each state has three levels of courts that cases go to, with a loss at one level leading to an appeal to the higher-level court, which could eventually elevate a case to the Supreme Court. While states differ with the types of courts, most states have a district court, followed by a court of appeals, which leads to a state supreme court. On the federal level, there is the federal district court, followed by the appellate court, then 12 different circuit courts separated by geography, then at the top sits the Supreme court.
One of the major powers of the judiciary is that of ‘judicial review’, which has been responsible for many landmark changes in the law throughout America history. Judicial review is a power where the court is able to review decisions made by a oublic body, including previous rulings by themselves, allowing the interpretation to change. This occurred in 2015, when the Supreme Court heard the case of Obergefell vs Hodges, ruling that the existing law permitted same sex marriage at the federal level; the most famous case of judicial review was in 1954, when Brown vs The Board of Education, Topeka, resulted in the Supreme Court ruling segregation to be unlawful.