The executive branch is one of three primary parts of the U.S. government—alongside the legislative and the judicial branches—and is responsible for carrying out and executing the nation’s laws. The president of the United States is the chief of the executive branch, which also includes the vice president and the rest of the president’s cabinet, 15 executive departments and numerous federal agencies, boards, commissions and committees.
Branches of Government
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the framers of the U.S. Constitution worked to build the foundations of a strong federal government. But they also wanted to preserve the liberty of individual citizens and ensure the government didn’t abuse its power.
To that end, the first three articles of the Constitution establish the separation of powers and three branches of government: the legislative, the executive and the judicial.
Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution states: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” The president not only heads the executive branch of the federal government, but is also head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
The modern presidency differs greatly from what the framers intended; initially, they debated the wisdom of having a single president at all, and delegated many of the powers of the executive to Congress.
But the vision of a strong national leader favored by Alexander Hamilton and his fellow Federalists eventually triumphed over opponents like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who favored a relatively weak, limited executive branch.
What Does the Executive Branch Do?
The vice president supports and advises the president and is ready to assume the presidency if the president is unable to serve. The vice president is also president of the U.S. Senate, and can cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
Initially, electors did not vote separately for president and vice president, but cast a single vote; the candidate who came in second became the vice president. But in 1804, after two highly contentious national elections, the 12th Amendment changed the voting process to the current system.
The federal government has 15 executive departments (including Defense, State, Justice, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services and so on). Each of these departments is led by a member of the presidential cabinet, who serve as advisors to the president.
The heads of numerous executive agencies (the Central Intelligence Agency, Environmental Protection Agency, etc.) are not formally members of the Cabinet, but they do fall under the president’s authority. The executive branch also includes more than 50 independent federal commissions, including the Federal Reserve Board, Securities and Exchange Commission and many others.
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Another integral part of the executive branch is the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which was created in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Headed up by the White House chief of staff, the EOP includes the Office of Management and Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the National Security Council and the White House Communications and Press Secretary.
Who is in Charge of the Executive Branch?
Article II of the Constitution specified that a president—who is in charge of the executive branch—should be elected to a term of four years. According to its terms, only natural-born citizens of the United States of at least 35 years of age, who have lived in the United States for at least 14 years, are eligible for the nation’s highest executive office.
Only one president in U.S. history—Franklin D. Roosevelt—has served more than two terms in office. In 1951, six years after FDR’s death during his fourth term, Congress ratified the 22nd Amendment, which limited presidents to two terms. This restriction serves as an additional check on the power of any one person over the nation’s government.
The vice president is also elected to a four-year term, but vice presidents can serve an unlimited number of terms, even under different presidents. The president nominates members of the Cabinet, who must then be approved by at least 51 votes in the Senate.
Powers of the President and Executive Branch
Among the president’s most important responsibilities is signing legislation passed by both houses of Congress (the legislative branch) into law.
The president can also veto a bill passed by Congress, though Congress can still make the bill into law by overriding that presidential veto with a two-thirds vote of both houses. Both the presidential veto and Congress’ ability to override the veto are examples of the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution.
The executive branch is also responsible for conducting diplomacy with other nations. The president appoints ambassadors and other diplomats and can negotiate and sign treaties, which two-thirds of the Senate must then ratify. The president also appoints federal judges, including justices to the Supreme Court, and has the power to pardon those convicted of federal crimes, except in the case of impeachment.
In addition to signing bills passed by Congress into law, the president can also issue executive orders, which direct how existing laws are interpreted and enforced. In an executive order, the president must identify whether the order is based on the U.S. Constitution or a law.
Executive orders are recorded in the Federal Register and considered binding, but they are subject to legal review and the federal courts can knock them down. This is another way the system of checks and balances can function.
Virtually every president back to George Washington has made use of the executive order. (The only president not to sign one was William Henry Harrison, who died after just one month in office.) Partly due to his extended tenure in the Oval Office, Franklin D. Roosevelt holds the records for most executive orders, with 3,721.
Some of the most notable executive orders issued over the years include Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War (1861) and his Emancipation Proclamation (1863); FDR’s New Deal, which created the Civil Works Administration and other federal programs (1933), but was followed by his internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (1942); and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s sending of federal troops to integrate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas (1957).
The Executive Branch, WhiteHouse.gov.
Executive Branch, USA.gov.
Executive Orders, The American Presidency Project.
“The president was never intended to be the most powerful part of government,” The Washington Post, February 13, 2017.