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Executive Branch of Government: Definition, Responsibilities & Power

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  • 0:00 Defining the Executive Branch
  • 1:00 Powers of the Executive Branch
  • 2:03 Executive Orders
  • 2:38 War Declaration
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
The executive branch of government is responsible for enforcing the laws of the United States. Learn more about the executive branch, its responsibilities, and the extent of its power. Afterward, take a short quiz to check your understanding of the executive branch.

Defining the Executive Branch

Picture our federal government as a tree with three branches: the judicial branch, the legislative branch, and the executive branch. Each branch is connected to the same trunk and together they make up the United States federal government. Separately, each branch of the tree is responsible for different things and is led by different people. The executive branch of government is led by the president of the United States.

Imagine you lived in a world where everyone could do whatever they wanted without repercussions. Yikes! Travel, work, or even staying safe would become much more difficult. Luckily, we don't have to worry about these dangers because we have laws in place that make certain crimes illegal.

Of course, laws are pointless if there's nobody around to make sure people follow them. This is why we have the executive branch of government. The main responsibility of this branch is to enforce laws. The president of the United States is the head of the executive branch. However, this branch of government also includes many other departments and agencies.

Powers of the Executive Branch

Article II of the U.S. Constitution gives the executive branch the power to enforce laws. Although government agencies, such as the FBI, CIA and FDA are all included in the executive branch of government, the ultimate power and responsibility to enforce our nation's laws belongs to the president.

While our president has power to enforce the laws of the government, he must make sure he doesn't overstep his authority and do things that the other two branches of the government are responsible for. The president must also make sure that the other two branches of government do not try to do things that only the president can do. The process of one branch of government overseeing other branches of government is known as checks and balances.

Presidential powers explicitly listed in the U.S. Constitution include:

  • Being able to veto, or reject, a proposal for a law
  • Appoint federal posts, such as members of government agencies
  • Negotiate foreign treaties with other countries
  • Appoint federal judges
  • Grant pardons, or forgiveness, for a crime

Executive Orders

The president of the United States does not have the power to pass laws but can pass something called an executive order. An executive order has the full force of law with some exceptions.

Executive orders can be passed to manage other executive branch agencies or because permission has been granted by the legislative branch, or Congress. An example might be when the Congress deems the United States to be in a state of emergency. Even then, these permissions only last for a certain length of time. Executive orders can also be struck down in federal court if the judicial branch thinks the order is against the constitution.

War Declarations

Article I of the U.S. Constitution, also known as the War Powers Clause, gives Congress the power to declare war. Congress used this power five times to declare the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Once Congress has declared war, the president is responsible for waging the war.

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