The Basics of Government


Government refers to the people and processes that manage an organized group of people in order to provide stability, security, goods, services, and opportunity for everyone. Government also provides a structure for the people to take part in the policymaking process and choose their leaders. The word “government” is derived from the Latin “governem” (to rule). Governments may be democratic, autocratic, monarchical, republican, parliamentary, or some combination of these.

The United States is a constitutional democracy with three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. The Framers of the Constitution understood that making one branch too powerful would lead to big problems, so they created a system in which each branch could be checked and balanced by the other two branches. This is called the separation of powers and forms the basis for all modern governments.

There are different ways to organize a government, but most countries have some type of multiparty system in which people who share the same political ideas run for public office as candidates from distinct, often competing, political parties. The members of these political parties then govern together once they gain control of a government office.

In the United States, Congress is the legislature (legislative branch). It passes laws that affect all of us and levy taxes on things like income, property, and sales. Congress also drafts budgets that determine how the money collected will be spent for services and programs. Local, state, and national government agencies are allotted funds based on needs. For example, on the local level, money is allotted to things such as education, police and fire departments, and maintenance of roads and public parks. On the national level, money goes to things such as Social Security and Medicare benefits, defense spending, management of national parks, and the federal judiciary.

The judicial branch (or, in the case of the Supreme Court, courts) interprets laws and judicial proceedings and judges crimes committed by individuals. The president, in the executive branch, nominates Supreme Court justices and judges for district and appeals courts, and Congress either confirms or rejects them. The Supreme Court can overturn any law that the legislative or executive branches consider unconstitutional.

Many states have a local government, such as city councils and county boards of supervisors, that govern cities and towns and oversee city services and projects. These governments may enact laws by passing ordinances that comply with state mandates. The judicial branch of these local governments hears cases involving low-level offenses, such as traffic tickets and disorderly conduct. Higher-level violations are handled by districts, circuits, and the state Supreme Court. Click the links in this paragraph to find more Web sites and children’s books that explain the three branches of the U.S. government and how bills become laws. This site from the University of Pennsylvania explains what governments do and why they need to be governed. It includes a map showing how the different systems of government operate around the world.