What Is the Executive Branch?

Donald J Trump cartoon
The Executive Branch is one of three branches of the United States federal government.

The United States Government is a complex system with various elected officials working across different buildings and branches. The Executive Branch sounds like it should be the most important, or at least the most powerful. What is the Executive Branch of the government, who is in charge, and just how much power does it have?

What is the Executive Branch?

The Executive Branch simply refers to the administration within the White House. It was established under Article II of the United States Constitution. The President of the United States holds the most power here and works with the Cabinet and advisors to run the country. They can do a lot within their many roles. However, the Legislative and Judicial Branches are on hand to stop any abuse of power from the executive office. 

The President of the United States

The Executive Branch begins with the President of the United States. The United States President is the leader of the nation, elected into power after a democratic vote across all 50 states. As the elected leader, they have a large say over the direction of the country and have the opportunity to implement promises made during their campaign with their executive power. The three-branch system of the federal government means this isn’t that straightforward, and some may be forced to go back on their word.

Stencil of JFK
Following the assassination of JFK in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson stepped into the role of President.

To become president, the candidate must first gain the nomination of their political party – ordinarily the Democrats or Republicans – and fight a protracted campaign with their running mate. Following the election in November, there is a transitional period until January 20th and the inauguration. Here, they finally take the oath of office and assume the role of the president of the United States.

Their running mate is sworn in as vice president. Should anything happen to the president within their 4-year term, which prevents them from performing their duties, the vice president becomes acting president. This has been the case following assassinations and resignations. Examples include the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. 

The Roles of the President in the Executive Branch

The president carries out their responsibilities either from the White House, out on official business, or during conferences or state visits abroad. They have many powers as part of their duties as head of state, leader of the party, and Commander in Chief. But, those roles are limited to avoid abuse of presidential power

The President’s Cabinet in the Wider Administration

Because the president has such a full schedule, it would be impossible for them to handle all business matters alone. They have a series of senior advisors to discuss matters in meetings and then carry out the hard work by dealing with other officials and visiting delegations. There is also a large Cabinet of ministers within the Executive Branch that can work on measures associated with their department.

There are 15 of these executive branch agencies, with their own staff, that work to implement the measures brought forward by the administration. These executive departments are the Departments of State, Treasury, Defense, Attorney General, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security.

The Three-Branch System of Federal Government

The Executive Branch is one of the three branches of the United States Government. The other two are the Legislative Branch and Judicial Branch. The Legislative Branch refers to Congress, which is responsible for drafting and passing federal law and determining federal agency spending and taxation. The Judicial Branch is the Supreme Court which presides over major cases and upholds the United States Constitution.

congress building
Congress forms the Legislative Branch of the federal government.

 

The United States government must have all three branches in place to allow for vital checks and balances between the three. No one federal government body or federal agency can become too powerful and exceed their remit because the rest are there to maintain order. In the case of the Executive Branch, it would be far too easy for the president to abuse their presidential power while in office and try and get away with something that shouldn’t be one person’s decision. 

The Executive Branch and Declarations of War

The president may decide that they want to declare war on another nation for whatever reason they deem fit. If there was a legitimate threat following an attack, this might be deemed reasonable. But, if they simply hold animosity towards or distrust a nation or have a hidden agenda for seizing control of a country, this would be unjust.

Vietnam War
Only Congress has the authority to make declarations of war.

So, this is where the Legislative Branch can step in and determine the right course of action. Congress has to make that final declaration of war for it to be official. This does lead to the risk of the president saying something or provoking a country before an official declaration. But, after that declaration is made, they get to take greater control in their role as Commander in Chief. 

The Executive Branch Is Bound by the Constitution

This is also essential for keeping the president in line with the Judicial Branch. The president may pass laws proposed by Congress that are unconstitutional. It is down to the Supreme Court to handle these rulings and protect the people of the United States from potentially harmful laws. The same is true for any Executive Orders the President makes that may be self-serving and damaging. 

The Limitations of Executive Branch Power

Essentially, the Executive Branch of the federal government cannot have absolute power, even with authority to issue an Executive Order, as much as some presidential nominees may wish that to be the case. There has to be a limit to what they can and cannot do.

Still, the powers of the president in the executive office and the tools at their disposal are vast regarding both the roles taken on and the many departments and advisors. They can do a lot as the leader of the party and the nation, head of state on the foreign stage, and commander in chief.

The agendas and actions of the Executive Branch will shape a lot of what happens politically, financially, and socially over a four or eight-year spell in the White House. However, the final laws and directions taken owe a lot to the powers and controls held by Congress and the Supreme Court. 

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