What Does the Executive Branch Do?
The Executive Branch
In this video I’m going to fully and completely explain every single aspect of the American Executive Branch. Just kidding – this will be a quick-ish overview. To fully understand any of the three branches of our government would take an entire college-level course, if not more. If you’re curious to learn more after you’ve watched this video, we have a handful of other videos relating to American government and history.
But onto our topic: In order to comprehend any aspect of American governance, one must begin at the almost-beginning: the United States Constitution, which began the ratification process in 1787. Remember that when the British colonies in America rebelled and left the empire, they were intentionally leaving a system of governance that had one absolutely sovereign person in charge of virtually everything (theoretically at least). There are advantages to a monarchy, but there are also disadvantages, and the framers of the Constitution decided that they would like a different system – one with built-in checks and balances. Hence the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. The president and vice president (and all of their ever-growing number of staff) form the executive branch. The House of Representatives and Senate are the legislative branch, and the Supreme Court (and all of the lower federal courts) comprise the judicial branch
Those three groups must work together. For example, there are certain things the President cannot do without direct approval by Congress (the name we use when we’re talking about both the House of Representatives and the Senate), and any laws that Congress passes must be signed by the President. Those laws can then be challenged, interpreted, or nullified in the court system. This system is designed so that no one person, or group of persons, is able to exercise an inordinate amount of authority.
Article 2 of the Constitution created and defined the executive office. You should go read the whole thing, but I’ll quote some important sections here so we can begin to understand the office of the president. Article 2 begins with “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows . . .” Then paragraph 2 through 4 explain the electoral college – another check and balance that serves a purpose but is often confusing. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to go into that right now.
Paragraph 5 decrees that “no person except a natural born citizen . . . shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of 35 years. . . .”
Paragraph 6 describes the transfer of power from the president to the vice president in the event of an extenuating circumstance: “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President… ”
Paragraph 7 allows for the president to be paid, and paragraph 8 prescribes this oath of office: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Section 2 begins to enumerate the duties and powers of the President: “The president shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” and “he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”
In paragraph 2 of section 2 you can see the checks and balances that the framers implemented: “[The president] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.”
Okay, I know this has been a lot. And it’s all written in 230+ year old language that you’re probably not familiar with. But this is absolutely crucial to understanding our government and our country. There’s just a couple more short things I want to pull from the Constitution and then I’ll attempt to explain some of these elements and talk about more modern history.
The third section of Article 2 reads as follows: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.”
That last part has become something very often used: the executive order. There’s no specific mention of so-called “executive orders” in the Constitution, but they seem to have begun with George Washington, and built up over time into the form they take now. Abraham Lincoln was the first president to use them as we currently do. In fact, his Emancipation Proclamation, a tactical maneuver during the Civil War, was an executive order. Currently, they carry the full weight of the law, but the Supreme Court has decreed the executive orders must align with current legislation, and some have been reversed if they ventured too far into the new legislation category: the president is supposed to execute on Congressional law, not create his own.
The last section in article 2 describes impeachment.
But we can’t forget the vice president. Although to be fair, the VP hasn’t always been regarded as a particularly memorable position. John Adams, this country’s first federal vice president complained to his wife that “my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived… ”
Constitutionally speaking, the vice president has an extremely limited function. His main role is to assume the presidency in case something happens to the President. Which, while it’s happened a few times, mostly means a lot of waiting around. The VP is constitutionally the President of the Senate, except he has no vote unless there’s a tie vote. But as you can imagine, with the growth in size and scope of the federal government, the vice president has found ways to keep himself busy.
While the president and vice president are probably the most well-known members of the executive branch, the Cabinet also plays an important role. This is the advisory body that consists of the heads of the 15 executive departments and several other agencies that report directly to the president – in some ways, they form the president’s inner circle. The executive agencies are: “Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, and the Attorney General. Additionally, the Cabinet includes the White House Chief of Staff and heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Management and Budget, United States Trade Representative, United States Mission to the United Nations, and Small Business Administration.” The members of the Cabinet may change with the president. Side note: these departments have mostly been created within the past hundred years by Acts of Congress.
So, next time you see a news headline, or have a test question about the executive branch, you’ll know what’s up.
Thanks for watching and, until next time, happy studying