What is Central Government? - Definition & Roles

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  • 0:01 Central Government Defined
  • 0:23 Basic Structure
  • 1:10 Roles
  • 3:23 Evolution of the Roles
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laurel Click

Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.

While you may not realize it, you are affected everyday by actions taken by the government. Learn about how the central government of the United States is structured and the roles the central government serves in our daily lives. Check your understanding of this topic with a quiz.

Central Government Defined

The central government is the political authority that governs an entire nation. The United States is a federal system of government in which power is shared between the central (sometimes referred to as national or federal) government and state governments. In the U.S., power is given to the central government, located in Washington, D.C., by the United States Constitution.

Basic Structure

As outlined in the Constitution, power of the central government is separated and carried out into three branches.

  • The legislative branch, a two house Congress made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, makes federal laws, which apply to the entire nation.
  • The executive branch, with the President as the chief executive, carries out and enforces federal laws using a cabinet, federal departments and agencies, and regulations.
  • The judicial branch, the federal courts, interprets the laws by hearing arguments about the meaning of laws and how they are carried out. The Supreme Court also has the power of judicial review, that is to determine if a law agrees with the Constitution or not.


Okay, so just what is the central government in charge of, besides taking federal income tax out of my hard-earned paycheck? Actually, the central government oversees many areas which impact our daily lives. The powers originally assigned to the central government by the citizens of the United States are enumerated (sometimes referred to as delegated) in the Constitution. Those powers not assigned to the central government are reserved, or left up to the states. Let's break down some of the central government's enumerated powers.

  • Finance: assesses and collect taxes; borrow money; coin (or print) money and regulate its value; and punish counterfeiters
  • Commerce: regulate interstate (between states) and foreign trade; establish rules for bankruptcy; establish post offices and post roads; grant patents and copyrights
  • National defense: declare war; raise and maintain the armed forces; call up state militia to enforce federal laws; suppress insurrections and repel invasions; and punish piracy
  • Foreign affairs: conduct diplomacy and authorize treaties with foreign countries
  • All laws 'necessary and proper': in addition to powers above, the Constitution gives Congress the power to make all laws necessary and proper. This is known as the elastic clause because it allows Congress flexibility to expand its powers as necessary to carry out its roles.

So wait a minute, if taxation is a role of the central government, why do I have to pay federal and state income tax? While it may not be enjoyable, paying taxes is a fact of life in the United States. You see, different roles are performed by the central and state governments. Some roles are concurrent or shared, such as the power to tax. It is also important to note that the central government has national supremacy. If a conflict arises regarding the authority of the central or state government, the central government takes precedent (or wins). This is because the Constitution states that the central government is the 'supreme law of the land.'

Evolution of the Roles

In the time since the Constitution was written, the roles of the central government have expanded considerably. Social and economic issues have prompted increased federal government regulation. Most of these expanded roles of the central government are not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. These roles provide regulatory oversight and protection of the rights of citizens of the United States.

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