Executive Branch

The term “executive branch” refers to the branch of the U.S. government responsible for enforcing the country’s laws. For example, the executive branch consists of the President, the Vice President, and the President’s cabinet. If the President is unable to continue in his daily duties for whatever reason, such as mental incapacity, impeachment, or assassination, the Vice President is to take over the responsibility. To explore this concept, consider the following executive branch definition.

Definition of Executive Branch


  1. The branch of the U.S. government that enforces the country’s laws.



What is the Executive Branch?

The executive branch meaning refers to one of the United States’ branches of government. Specifically, the executive branch is responsible for passing the bills that Congress creates, making them into law. The executive branch, just like the other branches of government is subject to the system of checks and balances. Checks and balances ensure that no branch of government becomes more powerful than the other branches.

Head of the Executive Branch

The President of the United States is the head of the executive branch. As the head of the executive branch, the President can serve a maximum of two four-year terms. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is the only President in U.S. history to have served more than two terms. Six years after Roosevelt’s death, during his fourth term as President, Congress ratified the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, changing the Presidential term limit to no more than two terms.

The head of the executive branch is responsible for signing into law the legislation that Congress passes. The President has the right to veto a bill that Congress passes that he doesn’t agree with, but Congress can still make the bill a law with a majority vote. The President also acts as a kind of senior commander to the country’s military, and he is responsible for fostering diplomacy between the U.S. and other countries.

Examples of Executive Branch Powers

Executive branch examples of power include the authority held by the President, the Vice President, and the President’s cabinet. Some of these executive branch examples of power include the ability to appoint individuals to certain governmental posts, and the authority to appoint federal judges to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Another of these executive branch examples of power is the authority to grant a pardon, or forgiveness, to an individual accused of committing a crime. This power extends only to federal crimes, however. The President has no authority to pardon state crimes.

Checks and Balances

The system of checks and balances ensures that no branch of government becomes too powerful. The way checks and balances work entails the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government all sharing governmental power.

For instance, Congress, by way of the system of checks and balances, controls the money that funds any actions the executive branch wants to take. So, if Congress refuses to fund an action, the executive branch cannot execute it.

The President also has the power to veto a bill, keeping it from becoming law. However, Congress has the power to override the President’s veto with a super majority vote. This is an example of executive branch control kept in check by the system of checks and balances.

Duties of the Executive Branch

The duties of the executive branch deal mainly with enforcing the country’s laws. For instance, one of the duties of the executive branch is to command and oversee the U.S. military. Another of the duties of the executive branch is specific to the Vice President: he acts as President over the Senate and casts the deciding vote in the event of a tie.

Executive Branch Example Involving Steel Mills

An example of the executive branch becoming embroiled in a court case occurred in the matter of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952). Here, President Truman issued an executive order in April of 1952 directing Charles Sawyer, the Secretary of Commerce, to take over the majority of the country’s steel mills.

Truman executed this order as a way to thwart a major strike expected from the United Steelworkers of America. The strike, Truman believed, would put the country’s national defense in jeopardy.

The problem was, Truman did not rely on the law to make this order, only his powers as President. Truman reported his order to Congress, but Congress did nothing. This was because Congress had previously offered alternatives that Truman did not take. Ultimately, the steel companies sued Sawyer in Federal District Court, asking for an injunction.

Decision and Appeal

The District Court issued the injunction, and the Court of Appeals stayed it. The case then made its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, who had to decide whether the Constitution granted the President the power to seize and take over the steel mills. Ultimately, the Court ruled that no, the President did not have such power, and that he overstepped his authority in issuing such an order.

Said the Court:

“The President’s order does not direct that a congressional policy be executed in a manner prescribed by Congress — it directs that a presidential policy be executed in a manner prescribed by the President. The preamble of the order itself, like that of many statutes, sets out reasons why the President believes certain policies should be adopted, proclaims these policies as rules of conduct to be followed, and again, like a statute, authorizes a government official to promulgate additional rules and regulations consistent with the policy proclaimed and needed to carry that policy into execution.

The power of Congress to adopt such public policies as those proclaimed by the order is beyond question. It can authorize the taking of private property for public use. It can make laws regulating the relationships between employers and employees, prescribing rules designed to settle labor disputes, and fixing wages and working conditions in certain fields of our economy. The Constitution does not subject this lawmaking power of Congress to presidential or military supervision or control.

It is said that other Presidents, without congressional authority, have taken possession of private business enterprises in order to settle labor disputes. But even if this be true, Congress has not thereby lost its exclusive constitutional authority to make laws necessary and proper to carry out the powers vested by the Constitution ‘in the Government of the United States, or any Department or Officer thereof.’

The Founders of this Nation entrusted the lawmaking power to the Congress alone in both good and bad times. It would do no good to recall the historical events, the fears of power, and the hopes for freedom that lay behind their choice. Such a review would but confirm our holding that this seizure order cannot stand.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Impeachment – A misconduct charge against an individual who holds a public office, such as the U.S. President.
  • Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.