The Basics of Government


Government is the system through which leaders make and enforce laws and oversee national security, economic security and public services. Governments vary widely in their size, power and structure. Some nations have a single government while others have many governments based on different styles of government, including democracy, republic, socialism, communism, oligarchy and monarchy.

Most governments have legislative, executive and judicial branches that have distinct powers, functions and duties. Governments also have a constitution, which sets out their governing principles and philosophy.

In the United States, Congress is the body that makes laws and provides basic services for all citizens. It is composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as a number of special agencies and offices. Congress must pass a budget each year to fund its operations, and it can raise money by levying taxes or tariffs or by authorizing borrowing. Congress can also direct specific spending on particular items, which is known as earmarking.

The legislative branch is responsible for enforcing laws that the President and Congress approve, as well as providing oversight of the executive and judicial branches. This includes the approving presidential nominations for cabinet-level positions, federal judges and other high-level jobs, and regulating interstate and foreign commerce. It can also make laws about immigration, taxes and other financial matters.

A large part of government’s work involves protecting common goods such as natural resources. For example, it can protect fish in the sea and clean drinking water from over-extraction by a few people that would leave too little for everyone else. Government also helps ensure that everyone has access to certain basic services such as education, mail service, police and fire protection, food, housing and health care.

Governments have a variety of ways to organize their officials and staff, but they all must be able to communicate and collaborate with each other. In the United States, this is done through a complex network of committees and meetings. It is important to know how the process works and how to navigate it, particularly if you want to participate in the policymaking that occurs in Washington.

Government is a complicated and vital institution. The opinions of the American people on its role are relatively stable over time, with clear majorities of Americans saying that the government should play a major role in areas such as fighting terrorism and helping poor people out of poverty. To help students understand these concepts, use this Levels of Government Ladder (handout). The national level, framed by the Constitution, is at the top of the ladder, followed by the state and then local levels. Each rung in the ladder cannot pass laws that contradict those passed at the levels above it. At the same time, each rung in the ladder can add new layers of complexity to its policies. These additional layers can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of a policymaking process. But they must be weighed against the need to ensure that all Americans are protected equally.