Checks and Balances

Our federal government was designed with a system of checks and balances to keep one branch of government from amassing too much power. One branch of government uses these checks and balances to limit another.

Example 1

  • Congress (the legislative branch) passes legislation;
  • The president (the executive branch) can veto that legislation;
  • Congress (the legislative branch) can override the president's veto;
  • The Supreme Court (the judicial branch) can rule that laws passed and signed by the president are unconstitutional.

Example 2

  • The president (the executive branch) nominates Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, federal judges, and ambassadors, and makes treaties.
  • The Senate (the legislative branch) must approve those nominations and treaties.

The Executive Branch

The President

The president is the Chief Executive of the United States. He sets goals for his administration; his staff and cabinet work to achieve those goals. The president cannot introduce legislation. He can and often does propose legislation, but a member of Congress must introduce it for him. However, once Congress has passed legislation, it is sent to the president for his approval. The president can sign a bill into law or he can veto--refuse to sign--it. A presidential veto means that the legislation may never become law. A two-thirds vote by both chambers of Congress can override a veto and the bill would become law without the president's signature.

As Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military, the president can authorize the use of troops overseas without declaring war but Congress must approve an official declaration of war.

In addition, paralleling the duties of a foreign minister, a cabinet level position in parliamentary governments, the president meets with the leaders of other countries and is empowered to make treaties with them; the Senate must approve the treaties. With the approval of the Senate, he appoints ambassadors, Supreme Court justices and federal court judges, cabinet secretaries and other federal officials.

In order to be elected president, one must be at least 35 years old, a natural-born U.S. citizen, and must have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years. The president serves a term of four years and is limited to serving two terms.

The Vice President

The Constitution provides that the vice president "shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be evenly divided." Recently, the role of the vice president has evolved into an executive branch position--a part of a president's administration. He presides over the Senate only on ceremonial occasions or when a tie-breaking vote may be needed. The 25th amendment to the Constitution provides that on the death or resignation of the president, the vice president would become president. It also provides for the vice president to assume the duties of the president when he is unable to perform those duties himself.

The President's Cabinet

Members of the Cabinet attend weekly meetings with the president; they are his closest and most trusted advisors on matters relating to the jurisdiction of their departments. The Constitution states that the president "may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices." The Constitution does not set the duties or the number of executive departments.

The Cabinet traditionally includes the vice president and the heads of 15 executive departments. They are appointed by the president, and they must be confirmed by a majority vote of the Senate. They cannot be a member of Congress or hold any other elected office. Cabinet appointments are for the duration of the administration, but the president may dismiss any member at any time, without approval of the Senate. They are expected to resign when a new president takes office.

The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; the Director of the Office of Management and Budget; the Director of National Drug Control Policy; the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security; and the U.S. Trade Representative hold cabinet-level rank. The president's Chief of Staff, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, the Counselor to the President, the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Administrator of the Small Business Administration, and the U.S. Representative to the United Nations may also be asked to attend these weekly meetings.

After the vice president, the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate precede Cabinet members in the line of succession because they, unlike Cabinet Secretaries, are elected officials. Succession to the presidency then moves through the cabinet secretaries in the following order.

Department of State advises the president on the formulation and execution of foreign policy and promotes the long-range security and well-being of the United States.

Department of the Treasury formulates and recommends domestic and international financial, economic, and tax policy; participates in the formulation of broad fiscal policies and; manages the public debt.

Department of Defense provides military forces to deter war and protect the security of the country.

Department of Justice serves as counsel for its citizens. It represents them in enforcing the law in the public interest.

Department of the Interior protects and provides access to our nation's natural and cultural heritage and honors our trust responsibilities to tribes.

Department of Agriculture works to improve and maintain farm income, to develop and expand markets abroad for agricultural products, and to curb and to cure poverty, hunger, and malnutrition.

Department of Commerce encourages, serves, and promotes the nation's international trade, economic growth, and technological advancement.

Department of Labor fosters, promotes, and develops the welfare of the wage earners of the United States; works to improve their working conditions and ; advances their opportunities for profitable employment.

Department of Health & Human Services advises the president on health, welfare, and income security plans, policies, and programs of the federal government.

Department of Housing & Urban Development is responsible for programs concerned with housing needs, fair housing opportunities, and improvement and development of the nation's communities.

Department of Transportation establishes the nation's overall transportation policy. It has jurisdiction over highways; mass transit; railroads; aviation; and the safety of waterways, ports, and oil and gas pipelines.

Department of Energy provides the foundation for policy to achieve efficiency in energy use; diversity in energy sources; a more productive and competitive economy and; improved environmental quality.

Department of Education establishes policy for, administers, and coordinates most federal assistance to education. The Department ensures equal access to education and promotes educational excellence.

Department of Veterans Affairs operates programs to benefit veterans and members of their families: compensation for service-connected disabilities or death; pensions; education; rehabilitation; home loan guaranty; burial; and a medical care program incorporating nursing homes, clinics, and medical centers.

Department of Homeland Security works to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce America's vulnerability to terrorism, and minimize the damage from potential attacks and natural disasters. The Secretary of Homeland Security is not currently included in the succession to the presidency.

Executive Branch Information Resources

White House

Official US Executive Branch Web Sites
Library of Congress guide to the Executive Branch

USAGov Federal Executive Branch: Executive Office of the President; Executive Departments; Independent Agencies and Government Corporations; Boards, Commissions and Committees; Quasi-Official Agencies; Learn More About the Executive Branch

Government Printing Office
Executive Branch Resources on GPO Access: Regulatory Process; Presidential Materials; Executive Publications; Additional Resources

Presidential Nominations and American Democracy: Written for an international audience that is not familiar with U.S. election practices and traditions, this publication provides an introductory overview of the American electoral process. By Stephen J. Wayne

The Legislative Branch

The Constitution established a bicameral (two-chambered) Congress, providing a system of checks and balances within the legislative branch. A major issue in creating the legislative branch was how representation in the legislative body would be determined. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention from larger and more populated states favored the Virginia Plan that based representation on a state's population. Delegates from smaller states favored the New Jersey plan which gave equal representation to every state. Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut, proposed a legislature composed of two chambers--the House of Representatives, based on the population within each state and the Senate, with equal representation for each state.

Prior to 1913, Senators were chosen by their state legislatures because the Senate was viewed as the representative of state governments, not of the people. Senators were responsible for ensuring that their state was treated equally in legislation. Members of the Senate are now directly elected by the people of the state they represent.

Committees and Subcommittees of the House and Senate

The public often overlooks or is unaware of the work done by committees and their subcommittees. They play a vital part in the legislative process. They hold the hearings that provide the public an opportunity to voice their opinions on a bill and amend (mark up) a bill before sending it to the full chamber for consideration on passage. Many members are nationally recognized experts in the specialty of their particular committee or subcommittee. Members usually seek to serve on a committee with jurisdiction over a field he or she is most qualified or interested in. For example, the Committee on the Judiciary traditionally is composed almost entirely of lawyers.

Membership on the various committees is divided between the two major political parties. The majority party determines the proportion of the members of the majority party to the minority party. The chairman of a committee would most likely be a member of the majority party with top seniority status among the other majority members. Commonly, the member of the minority party with the most seniority of the minority members would be the ranking minority member.

Each committee is provided with a professional staff to assist it in the consideration of bills.

The following are agencies of the legislative branch:
The Government Printing Office (GPO) disseminates official information from all three branches of the Federal Government.

The Library of Congress (LOC) is the nation's oldest federal cultural institution and serves as the research arm of Congress. It is also the largest library in the world, with more than 130 million items on approximately 530 miles of bookshelves.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assists the House and Senate Budget Committees, and the Congress more generally, by preparing reports and analyses.

The General Accountability Office (GAO) is the government's accountability watchdog. It serves Congress and the public interest by keeping a close eye on virtually every federal program, activity, and function.

The Architect of the Capitol provides historic and current information on the function and architecture of the Capitol.

The House of Representatives

There are a total of 435 members in the House of Representatives. Each member represents a congressional district. Each state is guaranteed at least one seat. After every decennial census, the population of each state determines the number of districts in that state--some states may lose a district while some states may gain a district. Five additional members-from Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia-represent their constituencies in the House. While they may participate in the debates, they cannot vote.

Representatives serve a two-year term. They must be at least 25 years old, a citizen for at least seven years, and a resident of the state, but not necessarily the district, from which they are elected. Traditionally representatives live in the district which they represent.

Only the House can originate tax laws and initiate an impeachment process.

For an overview of the 1st through the 109th Congress, Congressional Profiles, information on the Leadership, Officers and Pages (1789-Present), and other items:

Committees of the House of Representatives

There are 20 standing (permanent) House committees in the 110th Congress:

  • Agriculture; Appropriations; Armed Services
  • Budget
  • Education and Labor; Energy and Commerce
  • Financial Services; Foreign Affairs
  • Homeland Security; House Administration
  • Judiciary
  • Natural Resources
  • Oversight and Government Reform
  • Rules
  • Science and Technology; Small Business; Standards of Official Conduct
  • Transportation and Infrastructure
  • Veterans' Affairs
  • Ways and Means

plus the Joint Committee on Printing; Joint Committee on Taxation; the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and; the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Joint committees are made up of members from both the House and the Senate. Each committee is made up of several subcommittees.

Committee membership, jurisdiction, hearing schedules, and other information

House Leadership

Speaker of the House

The Speaker is the presiding officer of the House of Representatives and the leader of the majority party. The Speaker is second to the vice president in the line of succession to the presidency.

The duties of the Speaker of the House include:

  • planning and implementing the legislative agenda of the House;
  • exercising administrative control over the operations of the House;
  • controlling appointments to special committees and delegations; and
  • referring legislation to committee, placing deadlines on committee action, and chairing the committee that appoints majority party members to their committee assignments.

Majority Leader; Minority Leader

The majority leader schedules legislation for the floor, acts as a spokesman for the party position during floor debate, plans legislative and political strategy for his party, mediates political disputes among majority party members, and negotiates agreements with the minority, all under the direction of the Speaker.

The minority leader is his party's chief spokesman. He negotiates with the majority leadership and with the White House. He plans the party's legislative and political responses to the majority's initiatives and directs the process of assigning minority members to committees and conference committees.


The term "whip" comes from "whipper-in," a fox-hunting expression that refers to the member of the hunting team responsible for keeping the dogs from straying from the team during a chase.

Whips, who are elected by members of their party, are assistants to the floor leaders. The majority and minority whips are responsible for counting heads and rounding up party members for votes and quorum calls. In the absence of a party floor leader, the whip often serves as acting floor leader.

You will find links to the websites of the House Leadership for the 110th Congress at

Who's My Representative?

  1. You need your state and nine-digit zip code.
  2. If you don't know your nine-digit zip code (Zip+4), go to and enter the requested information (address, city, state, and zip code, if you know it) to find the Zip+4 that you will need to determine who your Representative is.
  3. Go to and enter the requested information.
  4. You will be given the name and district information of your Representative.
  5. There will also be information on constituent communication via e-mail with your Representative.

The Senate

There are a total of 100 members in the Senate. States each have equal representation in the Senate--two Senators. The vice president, who has formal control over the Senate and is known as the President of the Senate, is actually only present for important ceremonies and to cast a tie-breaking vote. Senators, who serve six-year terms, must be 30 years old, a citizen for at least nine years, and a resident of the state from which they are elected.

Only the Senate can confirm treaties drafted by the president; confirm presidential appointments, such as Cabinet officers, Supreme Court justices, and ambassadors; and hold a trial after the impeachment of a government official by the House of Representatives.

Historical information on the history of the Senate visit the Senate Historical Office

Information on the U.S. Senate: Contacting Your Senator; Senators' Home Pages and E-Mail Addresses; Biographies and Congressional Profiles; Internal Organization of the Senate; Appointments, Elections, and Political Parties; Salary and Benefits; Former Senators; Related Items

There are 19 standing Senate committees in the 110th Congress:

  • Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; Appropriations; Armed Services
  • Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Budget
  • Commerce, Science, and Transportation
  • Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works
  • Finance; Foreign Relations
  • Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs
  • Judiciary; Rules and Administration
  • Small Business and Entrepreneurship
  • Veterans' Affairs

plus the Special Committee on Indian Affairs and the Select Committees on Ethics, Intelligence, and Aging and the Joint Committees on Printing, Taxation, the Library, and the Joint Economic Committee. Joint committees are made up of members from both the House and the Senate. Each committee is made up of several subcommittees.

Committee membership, jurisdiction, hearing schedules, and other information

Senate Leadership

President Pro Tempore

The President Pro Tempore of the Senate presides over the Senate in the absence of the vice president of the United States and is third in the line of succession to the presidency, after the vice president and the Speaker of the House. In the absence of the vice president from the Senate, the president pro tempore is authorized to sign enrolled (passed) bills on behalf of the Senate and to administer oaths of office. The Senate tradition is to elect the majority party Senator with the longest continuous service to the post. Election to the post of president pro tempore is considered a mark of respect and honor within the Senate. It also earns the Senator holding the position additional salary, office space, and staff.

Senate Majority Leader; Senate Minority Leader

The Senate majority leader sets the pace for the Senate. Among his many duties, he selects the legislative priorities, schedules legislation for floor consideration, schedules the manner of debate and maintains the daily and annual schedule of the Senate.

The majority and minority leaders are elected by their respective party colleagues to be the spokesman for their party. Each leader seeks to define his party's policy agenda, ensures that the party's procedural rights are protected, and encourages unity among his party's Senators.


The term "whip" comes from "whipper-in," a fox-hunting expression that refers to the member of the hunting team responsible for keeping the dogs from straying from the team during a chase.

Whips, who are elected by members of their party, are assistants to the floor leaders. The majority and minority whips are responsible for counting heads and rounding up party members for votes and quorum calls. In the absence of a party floor leader, the whip often serves as acting floor leader.

Pictures of the Senate leadership and links to their websites

Who's My Senator?

To find your two Senators, go to Senators are listed alphabetically by State. You will find a link to a form for constituent communication via e-mail with your Senators.

Legislative Branch Information Resources

An alphabetical list of Representatives with links to their websites

An alphabetical list of Senators with links to their websites

These sites include information such as legislation they have sponsored, their voting record, links to other sites and databases, or provide information about their state or district. You will also find information on contacting the legislator, his Washington legislative office and his state or district office.

The House and Senate each have a web site. These sites contain information about committees, the schedule in each chamber, recent actions, links to Congressional offices and links to other sites (e.g., the Government Printing Office).
The House of Representatives
The Senate

FirstGov Legislative Branch
Information about the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, the agencies that support Congress and additional resources

Congress At Your Fingertips
Published by Capital Advantage, this pocket-sized spiral bound directory, organized by state delegation, contains the vital information you need to access Capitol Hill. Color photographs; committee lists, more. Less than $20.00; includes shipping and handling.

Congressional Elections
Actually written for an international audience that is not familiar with U.S. election practices and traditions, this publication provides an introductory overview of the American electoral process.

Ben's Guide to the U.S. Government for Kids: Legislative Branch
Good, simply written information even for adults.

Ben's Guide to the U.S. Government for Kids: Election Process
Good, simply written information even for adults.

How a Representative's District Office or a Senator's State Office Can Help You

Members of Congress are elected to represent his or her constituents and to provide assistance when they encounter problems with executive branch agencies. Ethics and other considerations govern what and how much they can do.

Representatives maintain offices in their home districts; Senators maintain offices in their home states. These offices handle constituent services. If you have a problem with a federal agency, if you can't get an answer in a reasonable amount of time, or if you have been treated unfairly, a Representative's district office or a Senator's state office may be able to help you. The best place to begin is on the web page of your Representative or Senator. Many of them have information on commonly-asked questions that may help you without having to ask for further assistance. Contact information for their district or state office(s) is available on their web sites, in the government pages of your local telephone directory, or from your local public library.

Some examples of how a Representative's district office or a Senator's state office can assist you.

  • They can assist you with problems with the Internal Revenue Service.
  • They can assist you with consumer protection problems; assist you in filing a complaint about consumer fraud, product liability, or identity theft.
  • They can help with Social Security problems: eligibility, benefits or missing checks.
  • Veterans can receive assistance for problems with eligibility, benefits, or replacement of medals earned.
  • District or state offices can help with immigration problems such as naturalization applications.
  • Travelers can receive assistance with getting passports in an emergency, or replacing lost passports.
  • Constituents can receive assistance with housing problems, nominations to the military academies, orders for flags flown over the capitol, student financial aid, or grant information.

District or state offices cannot

  • Guarantee or assist you in obtaining a federal grant or contract. That is forbidden by law.
  • Give you tax or legal advice. That is the job of your accountant or lawyer.
  • Do your homework or write your term paper. That is your responsibility. However, they may be able to assist you with finding information or obtaining copies of government documents.
  • Cosponsor state legislation. That is the job of your state legislator.
  • Change federal regulations. Regulations are written by executive branch agencies. However, your Representative or Senator can sponsor legislation that can change a program and thus the regulations governing that program.

Prepared September 2008