Federal Government

A federal government is a system of government that divides the power between a larger central government, and the local and regional governments beneath it. In the United States, the federal government’s powers were established by the Constitution. Perfect examples of federal governments are those that function best in large countries with a broad diversity amongst its citizens, though where a common culture still exists, which ties everyone together. To explore this concept, consider the following federal government definition.

Definition of Federal Government


  1. A system of government in which power is divided between a central, larger government, and the local, regional, or state governments beneath it.


1635-1645       Latin   foederal – (league)

What is a Federal Government

A federal government is a system designed to take power from the rich and give it to the poor, so to speak. Power is divided among the larger, stronger, central government of a nation, and the smaller state and regional governments within that nation. This is done by assigning certain responsibilities to each sector so that the central government has its own job to do, as do the state and local governments.

In the United States, the Constitution dictates that the federal government can maintain control over things like the creation of currency, the granting of patents, and the creation of the lower courts, to name a few. Another example of a federal government responsibility includes the power to declare war. These are known as “delegated powers,” and are specifically listed in Article 1of the U.S. Constitution.

Branches of Federal Government

Even though the Constitution splits powers between the federal government and the states, the framers of the Constitution wanted further assurances that the central government could not gain oppressive authority. To that end, three branches of federal government were created, each with its own powers and responsibilities, and each one having the authority to check up on the others. This is known as a system of checks and balances

The Legislative Branch

The legislative branch of the United States federal government is another name for Congress, and Congress is divided into two houses: the Senate, and the House of Representatives. The main function of the legislative branch is to create laws.

Individual members of the House and Senate may write draft laws, referred to as “bills,” and present them to Congress for discussion and voting. Bills that are approved by vote in both houses are then sent to the President for his signature. Should the President refuse to sign the bill, or “veto” it, the bill goes back to Congress where they may vote to override the President’s decision.

The Senate is comprised of 100 senators total, with two senators from each of the country’s 50 states. The House of Representatives consists of 435 members, and the number of members from each state varies based on the total population of the states they represent. So for example, a larger state like Texas would have more representatives in the House than the smallest state in the country, Rhode Island.

The Executive Branch

The President heads up the executive branch of the federal government, which is the branch that approves and carries out the laws that are created by the legislative branch. In addition to the President, the executive branch consists of the Vice President and members of the presidential cabinet. The cabinet helps the President make decisions on the more important issues, and consists of 15 major departments. Included in the presidential cabinet are the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of the Treasury, among others.

The Judicial Branch

The judicial branch presides over the country’s court system, and it uses court cases to interpret and express the meaning and importance of the Constitution and the laws of the land. The U.S. Supreme Court heads up the judicial branch, and its chief responsibility is to rule on whether or not something is permitted under the rules of the Constitution, meaning whether it is constitutional or unconstitutional.

There are nine justices (judges) on the Supreme Court: eight associate justices and one chief justice. The President selects the justices individually, and the Senate then approves the President’s picks. Unlike the lower courts, justices on the Supreme Court do not have set term limits, and can serve for as many years as they like. In fact, many of them serve the rest of their lives. The rulings made by the Supreme Court are irreversible, and they set precedent for all related cases going forward.

Superiority of the Federal Government

Article VI, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution specifically establishes the federal government as the superior law of the land, as it states:

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

This means that, while the states maintain a great deal of autonomy, when it comes to issues over which the federal government does have control, the states are bound to conform to federal law. In addition, should a conflict arise between federal and state law, federal law rules.

For example, in 1819, James McCulloch never realized that he would be making history when he took a job as a cashier at the Baltimore branch of the United States Bank – a bank that Congress had chartered. McCulloch was sued for refusing to comply with Maryland’s state tax laws, which he did because the bank was a federal bank. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately determined that Maryland’s tax laws were invalid, as they attempted to make the state superior to the national government, which violated the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.

Cooperative Federalism

This case is a perfect example of the need for what is referred to as “cooperative federalism.” Cooperative federalism refers to the coming together of national, state, and local governments to solve a common problem, as opposed to making separate policies, or being unable to agree on a policy in a system ruled by the national government. Both state and national governments have the right to levy taxes; but, while the national government can levy a tax on the states, states cannot levy taxes on the national government, and this concept was solidified in the case of the McCulloch lawsuit above.

Dual Federalism

Another example of operations in a federal system of government is that of dual federalism. Under dual federalism, clearly defined separations exist that allow a state government to exercise its authority, while remaining free from any possible interference from the national government.

A well-known case that perfectly illustrates the concept of dual federalism is the 1847 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Dred Scott was a Missouri slave who had been brought to the state of Illinois by his owner, Peter Blow, before the Civil War. Upon the death of his owner, Scott sued the executor of the estate. Scott claimed that he was a citizen of Illinois and, as such, he should be free.

Sadly, Scott was ultimately denied his freedom on the basis that the Constitution was “clear” on their definition of “all men” which did not include slaves, as slaves were considered to be property, not men. Therefore, Scott could not possibly become a citizen if he was not even recognized as a “person.”

Federal System of Government

The United States’ federal system of government is built on the concept of federalism, which is the term for a “mixed” or compound government consisting of a larger, central government, and regional governments working together in one system. Federalism differs from confederalism, in which the central government must answer to the regional governments. It also differs from devolution, which is the exact opposite of confederalism, as the regional governments must bend to the will of the central government.

In a federal system of government, the central government has its own jobs to do, as do the regional governments, and never the twain shall meet, though they co-exist in one system together. Examples of federal governments that exist in other parts of the world include the governments of Germany, India, Australia, Canada, and Switzerland.

Federal Government Jobs

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of September of 2015, nearly 22 million United States citizens were reported as being government employees. In 2014, the federal Office of Personnel Management (“OPM”) reported the number of people holding federal government jobs alone totaled over four million.

Interviews for federal government jobs are conducted after a candidate passes a civil service written exam, and those jobs range from administrative positions, to pharmacists, and contract specialists.  The civil service exam is a test that that measures just how proficient applicants are in the skills required by the particular job offered. Those with the highest scores are permitted to go on to the next step in the interview process.

Insofar as federal government jobs for elected officials are concerned, members of Congress are employed for varying periods of time, depending on which house they belong to. Members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms, while those in the Senate serve six-year terms. All members of Congress may be re-elected for an unlimited number of terms. The President typically serves a four-year term, but can be re-elected for an additional four years, for a limit of two terms. Justices appointed to the Supreme Court typically serve lifetime terms, once they are selected by the President and approved by the Senate.

Federal Government Shutdown

A federal government shutdown occurs when Congress creates a “funding gap” by either refusing to pass, or being unable to pass, funding needed to continue governmental operations. A funding gap can also occur when Congress passes a bill for funding the government operations, and the President vetoes the bill.

If the funding gap goes on long enough that money runs out, a shutdown to begins. The law requires that non-essential personnel be granted a leave of absence, which is called a “furlough,” and that governmental activities and services be suspended until the shutdown is over. While shutdowns normally occur at the federal level, they have also occurred at state and local levels.

The United States experienced a federal government shutdown in 2013, when Congress could not agree on a budget for the coming fiscal year. The 16-day shutdown is largely blamed on a conflict over funding for the Affordable Care Act, widely known as “Obamacare.” Republicans offered an overwhelming push to defund the program, and Democrats and the President rejected all budgetary proposals that failed to provide the necessary funding for Obamacare.

The consequences of this federal government shutdown were catastrophic:

  • Nearly 800,000 federal workers were out of work
  • Nearly one million additional workers had their paychecks delayed
  • Nonessential employees were furloughed, including those employed at national parks, which led to the National Park Service experiencing over $75 million of lost revenue per day
  • Millions of veterans feared an interruption in their V.A. benefits, as funds ran out

The shutdown ultimately cost the country nearly $25 billion – that’s about $1.5 billion for each day of the shutdown. For these reasons alone, it is understandable why a federal government shutdown should be avoided whenever possible.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Federalism – A system of government in which power is divided between a central (federal) government, and various regional governments.
  • Devolution – The transfer of power, responsibilities, or rights to another.
  • Legal Precedent – A principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is either binding on, or provides persuasion for, a court when deciding subsequent cases with similar facts or issues.
  • Presidential Cabinet – The most senior appointed officers of the U.S. government’s executive branch.

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