Executive Branch

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The branch of the U.S. government that is composed of the president and all the individuals, agencies, and departments that report to the president, and that is responsible for administering and enforcing the laws that Congress passes.

The U.S. government is composed of three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive. The legislative branch consists of the U.S. Congress, which is responsible for creating laws. The judicial branch is composed of the federal courts, which are responsible for ruling on the validity of the laws that Congress passes and applying them in individual cases. The executive branch differs from both in scope and function.

The Executive Branch and the Constitution

The executive branch has undergone tremendous changes over the years, making it very different from what it was under GEORGE WASHINGTON. Today's executive branch is much larger, more complex, and more powerful than it was when the United States was founded.

When the writers of the Constitution were initially deciding what powers and responsibilities the executive branch?headed by the president?would have, they were heavily influenced by their experience with the British government under King George III. Having seen how the king and other European monarchs tended to abuse their powers, the designers of the Constitution wanted to place strict limits on the power that the president would have. At the same time, they wanted to give the president enough power to conduct foreign policy and to run the federal

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government efficiently without being hampered by the squabbling of legislators from individual states. In other words, the Framers wanted to design an executive office that would provide effective and coherent leadership but that could never become a tyranny.

The Framers outlined the powers and duties of the executive branch in Article II of the Constitution. The specific powers given to the president are few, and the language that is used to describe them is often brief and vague. Specifically, the president has the authority to be commander in chief of the armed forces; to grant pardons; to make treaties; and to appoint ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and other government officers. More generally, the president is responsible for making sure "that the Laws be faithfully executed" (§ 3), though the Framers did not specify how the president was to accomplish this goal. The Framers also made no specific provisions for a staff that would assist the president; the Constitution says only 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" (§ 2).

To ensure that the president could never become too powerful, the Framers made many PRESIDENTIAL POWERS dependent upon the will of Congress. For example, the president is given the power to make treaties with foreign countries, but those treaties must be approved by the Senate by a two-thirds majority. Similarly, the power of Congress is limited by the need for presidential approval. Congress can create laws, but those laws generally must be signed by the president; if the president refuses to sign a bill, it still can become law if Congress votes to override the president's VETO by a two-thirds majority. The Framers did not divide powers among the branches so much as they required the separate branches to share power, resulting in a complex system of checks and balances that prevents any one branch from gaining power over the others.

Modern presidents have greater powers than did their predecessors, as the executive branch has grown over the years to take on more tasks and responsibilities. For the most part, however, the power of the executive branch at any given time has depended on the leadership skills of the current president; the particular events and crises faced by the president; and the country's desire for, or resistance to, strong executive branch power at that point in history. Though the executive branch does have specific legal...

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