In case you’ve missed it, which is probably pretty unlikely at this point, there’s a Presidential election coming up next month. Even if politics isn’t your thing, it’s hard to miss a Presidential election.

Continuing our series on elections and how our government is organized, the Executive Branch is the third and last branch of government to cover. Previously, we walked through the Legislative and Judicial Branches.

The Executive Branch contains the President, Vice President and all of the Federal Agencies that he oversees. Most people don’t realize how big the Executive Branch is. There are over 4 million people employed under this branch’s umbrella.

The President

While the President of the United States is quite possibly the most visible political figure in our country’s government, his power is somewhat limited by the other branches. This is a good thing that was put in place by our country’s founders to prevent a dictatorship or monarchy from having too much control.

The President’s main job is to execute (that’s where the name Executive Branch comes from) the laws of the country. Since he oversees all of the Federal Agencies (more on this later), he has the duty to implement the bills Congress passes and he signs into law, along with all the laws in place prior to his Presidency.

He (or maybe she in the future) does not have the authority to write legislation. The President’s staff can work with Congress to come up with legislation that is in line with the President’s policy agenda, which he in turn would sign into law. This being said, he does have power to issue an Executive Order, which is a public statement that must be adhered to.

The President also has veto power if he deems that any bill Congress passes isn’t something that should become a law. He is a political balance on Congress and their lawmaking. Congress likely won’t pass laws that can’t get signed by the President.

He is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and has the responsibility to appoint various positions within the Executive Branch. This includes judges, diplomats, ambassadors, and various independent commissions like the EPA, CIA, SEC, and the Federal Reserve Board.

The President’s office and residency are located within the White House and the building next door, the Old Executive Office Building. More information on specific Presidential duties required by the Constitution can be found on the White House’s website.

The Vice President

Most people know that the Vice President is the backup President, should anything happen to him. But did you know that the V.P. is also the President of the U.S. Senate? They cast the tie breaking vote in the Senate, but otherwise rarely preside over that chamber.

The V.P. serves wherever the President asks them to, which has varied over time. The current Vice President, Mike Pence, has been in charge of President Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, among other duties. The V.P. can be a surrogate speaker who advocates for the President’s agenda, he can work with Congress on passing legislation that the President supports, or he can be silent and sit in the background. It’s really a job that’s not defined and can be whatever suits the office holder and the President whom they serve.

The Cabinet

Think of the Cabinet as the Board of Directors of the United States. The head of each of the fifteen federal departments sits in the President’s Cabinet. Each has the title of Mr./Mrs. Secretary. They meet with the President, discuss various items of concern, and implement his agenda and the laws of the nation. They are all appointed and serve at the will of the President, meaning that he is their boss and can fire them if he chooses.

What are these Departments and what do they do, you ask? Here’s a little rundown…

Department of Agriculture – Oversees food and crops, but also the Forest Service and 15 other agencies.
Department of Commerce – All about economic development and business industry.
Department of Defense (DOD) – Includes all of the military branches and is headquartered at The Pentagon.
Department of Education – Like the name says, it oversees the country’s education programs and federal tuition assistance.
Department of Energy – Promotes energy independence and security, which includes advancing renewable energy and nuclear security.
Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) – Oversees the general health and wellbeing of all Americans in terms of healthcare, which also includes Medicare, Medicaid, and the FDA.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – Charged to prevent terrorist attacks and was founded in 2002 following the attacks on 9/11/01. Includes agencies like U.S. Customs Service, the Coast Guard, TSA, and FEMA.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) – Oversees and enforces housing laws, provides housing assistance, and other housing issues.
Department of the Interior – Oversees all conservation efforts and public lands, currently about one fifth of the land in the U.S.
Department of Justice (DOJ) – Comprised of 40 different organizations including the FBI, U.S. Marshals, and Prisons.
Department of Labor – Focuses on employment issues, retirement and job security and OSHA.
Department of State – Deals with everything related to foreign policy. The Secretary of State is the main foreign policy advisor to the President.
Department of Transportation – Obviously deals with all transportation organizations, but also safety within this area of government.
Department of Treasury – Financial organizations, such as the U.S. Mint, the S.E.C., and the IRS are under this department.
Department of Veterans Affairs – Responsible for administering benefit programs to veterans, including retirement and health care.

Limited Power

Some people think the President of the United States has all the power. Sure, the President has more political power and leverage than any other single person in our government. However, when you’re looking at the three branches – legislative, judicial, and executive – they’re all balanced and the power truly is spread out across thousands of agencies, organizations and individuals.

I won’t go too into the weeds about the balance of powers here, but each branch is balanced – or ‘checked’ – by the other branch(es). For example:

  • The President’s key appointments require U.S. Senate confirmation, including Supreme Court nominees.
  • Laws passed by Congress require the President’s signature before they can become law.
  • Any such law can be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Congress can impeach the President or a Supreme Court Justice.
  • The President can veto a bill passed by Congress.
  • Congress can override a Presidential veto with 2/3 majority vote in both chambers.

And round and round it goes.

Hopefully by now, you have a birds-eye view of how our system of government is structured. For more details about the Executive Branch, you can visit the White House’s website. You can also visit the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives sites or the Supreme Court to learn more about those branches, as well.

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