A government can be defined as the body, entity, invested with the power to manage a political unit, organization or more often, a State. Government, from the Latin locution gubernare - means steer a ship/vessel  - describes the governing authority in charge of running a State. That governing body is oftentimes constituted by officials, ministers forming an active agency invested with the executive power and responsible for the direction and supervision of public affairs. 

Different forms of government exist, and can be described as a monarchy, oligarchy, democracy (direct democracy, representative democracy), autocracy, communism, socialism, etc.

Usually, it is the Constitution of a State that defines the modality of designation, missions and the powers granted to the members of the government. The government sets the general rules of policy and takes all decisions and necessary actions for the proper functioning of the State. Each country and State has its own rules regarding the formation, powers and rules related to the government and its members.

U.S. Federal Government

The U.S. Federal Government is composed of three branches: the legislative, executive and judicial, whose powers are vested by the U.S. Constitution in the Congress (legislative), the President (executive), and the Federal courts (judicial), respectively. The division between the three different branches of the Federal Government exists to ensure that no individual or group has too much power.

  • The legislative branch makes the laws, it is composed by the Congress (comprised of the House of Representatives and Senate) and special agencies and offices that provide support services to Congress. Amongst the legislative branch’s powers, the following can be found: the power to confirm or reject presidential nominations for heads of federal agencies, federal judges and the Supreme Court, the authority to declare war, regulate interstate and foreign commerce, the power to control taxing and spending policies. The Senators and Representatives are elected by American citizens.
  • The executive branch carries out laws, it is composed by the President, Vice-President, Cabinet and most federal agencies (independent agencies, other boards, commissions and committees). The roles of the executive branch include the following:
    • The President leads the country and represents it on an international scene. The President is the head of state, leader of the federal government, Commander in Chief of the U.S. armed forces. The President is elected by American citizens and serves a term of four years, renewable once.
    • The Vice-President supports the President and becomes himself/herself the President if the President is unable to serve. In U.S. history, nine Vice Presidents have succeeded to Presidents in this way, eight through the President’s death (T. Roosevelt, C. Coolidge or H. S. Truman) and one through the President’s resignation (G. Ford). The Vice-President can also be elected and serves four-year terms, renewable unlimitedly.
    • The Cabinet: Cabinet members advise the President on all key decisions. The Cabinet includes the following: the Vice-President, Heads of Executive Departments, and other high-ranking Government officials . The members of the Cabinet are nominated by the President and approved by a simple majority vote of the Senate.
  • The judicial branch evaluates the laws and is composed by the Supreme Court and all other courts. The Supreme Court is composed of 9 Justices, a Chief Justice is the head of the judicial branch and eight Associate Justices, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Justices are appointed for life and serve and average of 16 years.

Each branch of the government has a power to challenge the acts of other branches, a mechanism known as the system of checks and balances. For instance, the President has the power to veto legislation adopted by Congress, and congress can remove the President from office in exceptional circumstances. Finally, the Justices of the Supreme Court can overturn constitutional laws and are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate (see:

An example of the Supreme Court’s power to overturn Constitutional laws can be found in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education under the Warren Court, in which the Supreme Court struck down segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine.

Comparative Constitutional Law

The rules governing the formation of the Government, its powers, the nomination of its members depends on the State or Country. Hence, a comparative law approach demonstrates that the rules relating to the U.S. Government are different than what other countries adopted. Some illustrations:

  • French Government: The French Government represents the executive power and determines and conducts the French policy, and has the administration and the armed forces under its power. The members of the French Government are appointed by both the President and the Prime Minister, the latter being the head of the French Government and dealing with the constitutional functions and powers of the Government. Under Article 20 of the French Constitution, it is the responsibility of the Government to "determine and conduct the policy of the Nation".

  • Chinese Government: the Government of China is an authoritarian political system under the exclusive political leadership of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and is composed by the following branches: legislative, executive, military, supervisory, judicial. The Chinese Congress is the highest state organ and controls the Constitution, the elections and the supervision of officials and all government organs.

  • Australian Government: The Australian Government is part of the Australian Parliament and is elected at a federal election, the party with the support of most of the House of Representatives becomes the Government of Australia. The party elected remains the Government until the support of the majority is lost, or after the next federal election.

[Last updated in April of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team