The United States is a constitutional democracy, a type of government characterized by limitations on government power spelled out in a written constitution. Written in 1787, the U.S. Constitution is both the oldest and shortest written constitution in the world. It serves as the supreme law of the United States.

The Constitution outlines a federal government with three separate branches: the legislative branch (Congress), the executive branch (the presidency), and the judicial branch (the courts). Over time, however, other key elements of government have developed and become just as important, such as the federal bureaucracy, political parties, interest groups, the media, and electoral campaigns. We will cover these components in detail in upcoming chapters.

The Legislative Branch

Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government and is responsible for creating laws. Congress consists of two chambers, an upper chamber called the Senate and a lower chamber called the House of Representatives. Congress has the sole authority to make laws, levy taxes, declare war, and print money, among other powers. Congress also controls the federal budget.

The Executive Branch

The presidency is the executive branch of the federal government. The president is elected every four years and is responsible for enforcing the laws that Congress makes. The president is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has the power to conduct foreign relations.

The Judicial Branch

The federal courts make up the judicial branch of the federal government, which consists of regional circuit courts, appeals courts, and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is the highest legal authority in the country and has assumed the power of judicial review to decide the legality of the laws Congress makes.

The Bureaucracy

The term bureaucracy refers to the various departments and agencies of the executive branch that help the president carry out his or her duties. There are fifteen departments within the executive bureaucratic branch, including the Department of State, the Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Education. Each of these departments is also responsible for a number of small government agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.