Three Branches: Laws in Action


It Starts With an Idea

Let’s say YOU are an IDEA.  But you are not just any old idea. You are an idea for a new law. You’re going to be making your way through the process of actually becoming a law that everyone has to follow! So who needs to act to make you transform from a great little idea into a big strong law? The President? A member of Congress? The U.S. Supreme Court?  

The answer is that none of these people have the power to make you into a law all by themselves. The U.S. government was created in a way that divides the power to make decisions. Why, you ask? So no one person in the government could become all-powerful.

Why is this system known as “checks” and “balances”?

Three Branches

The U.S. government is divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Each branch has specific responsibilities it must carry out. Let’s see how this works when it comes to turning you from an idea into a law!


Agenda Setting

As it turns out, you are an idea in the head of the U.S. President.  He proposes you in his yearly State of the Union address.  In this speech every year, the President sets the agenda for the nation. That means he proposes new ideas just like you to be considered by Congress that year.

Pictured to the right is President Barack Obama delivering his State of the Union address in 2010.


Passing Bills

You may be a really wonderful idea in the head of the President, but only Congress has the ability to write and pass bills. And that is how our laws get made. Congress is our government's legislative branch, and it includes two parts, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Members of Congress must gain support for the ideas in a bill and make compromises so that, when it comes time to vote, enough people vote yea!

Click on the link to see a description of how bills are made and passed.

Veto Power

Wait a minute, if Congress makes the laws, it must have all the power, right? Not so fast! After you – the idea – are passed as a bill, the President has a choice. He or she can approve you and sign the bill into law. Or the President can veto you, which means the bill is not approved.

The Referee

So, you are now a real law that everyone has to live by. But wait! Remember that all three branches have a say. Now it’s the judicial branch’s turn. The judicial branch doesn’t review all laws, but when it does it can make some very important decisions. Someone has said that you – now a law – go against the Constitution, our official rulebook! The U.S. Supreme Court will make the final decision.

There are two outcomes that can happen. The Supreme Court may uphold you as a law, and you will be carried out. Or, if the Supreme Court finds you unconstitutional, you’ll be struck down. That means the process starts all over, and Congress needs to pass a new bill.

Click on the link to learn more about the Supreme Court.