Campaign buttons for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, July 29, 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Campaign buttons for the U.S. presidential election in 2008, 29 July 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

This article is part of a News-Decoder series of “decoders” that explain crucial background to big issues. For more decoders, click here.

The United States seems a monolithic hegemon to many outside its borders. But its political system is a complex and often controversial balancing of powers among cities, counties, states and the federal, or national, government.

The 50 states traditionally have governed law enforcement, public education, public health, transport and infrastructure within their boundaries, sharing some responsibilities with cities and counties.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government, with its seat in Washington, DC, can collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce, manage the national currency, declare war and raise and maintain armed services.

But responsibilities often overlap, and the Constitution can yield vastly different interpretations.

Federal government

The Constitution, written in 1787, divided the national government into three branches, guaranteeing a unique system of “checks and balances”:

  • Legislative: Congress consists of two houses — the House of Representatives and the Senate — that pass federal laws.
  • Executive: The President has the power to sign laws created by Congress and leads the executive branch, which implements laws.
  • Judicial: The Supreme Court decides whether laws are consistent with the Constitution.


The lower house, or House of Representatives, has 435 members who are elected every two years. They represent state districts that are roughly equal in population.

The upper house, or Senate, has 100 members — two from each of the 50 states. They are elected to six-year terms, meaning one third of the Senate is elected every two years.

By attributing the same number of senators to each state, the Constitution guarantees that smaller states have an equal say in the Senate while giving more populous states greater power in the House.

While the President and Executive Branch can propose laws, only Congress can pass them. To take effect, laws must be signed by the President, who can veto legislation. However, a presidential veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in the Senate.


The President is the head of state and chief executive of the federal bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. The President, who lives in the White House, can serve up to two consecutive four-year terms.

The President enforces laws passed by Congress and can grant pardons. The President commands the armed forces and is responsible for negotiations with foreign powers.

While the Executive Branch does not pass laws, the President can influence legislation, for example by proposing an annual federal budget, setting goals in the annual State of the Union address and proposing laws to Congress.

If the President’s party holds a majority in both houses of Congress, it can be easier for the President and Congress to agree on policy. This was the case in 2009 when President Barack Obama pushed health care reform through Congress, where both houses were controlled by Obama’s Democratic Party.


The Supreme Court upholds laws passed by Congress and signed by the president, ruling whether they are consistent with the Constitution.

The President nominates the nine Supreme Court judges, who are then reviewed and voted on by the Senate — another “check and balance”.

Supreme Court decisions, which are final, can have a major impact on economic, political and social policy. An example is the June 2015 ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges, that made same-sex marriage legal throughout the United States.


The next elections for the Presidency and Congress will be held on Tuesday, November 8, 2016. The Congress that is elected then is set to start its term on January 3, 2017, and President Barack Obama’s successor is scheduled to take office on January 20, 2017.

(By Pauline Bock)

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