The Three Branches of Government, Explained in Terms Simple Enough for a Child

From how checks and balances work to which branch makes our laws, a mom and veteran political strategist breaks down the three branches of government for kids (and, ahem, adults) by answering their most common questions.

The way the federal government works is complicated. If you get confused about what cases the Supreme Court hears, who implements Congress' rules, or how each branch of government works together, you are not alone.

An illustration of the three branches of government
Illustration by Yeji Kim

I've spent more than 15 years as a political strategist—interviewing people like Hillary Clinton, Stacey Abrams, and Nancy Pelosi for my podcast Your Political Playlist. One popular topic on my podcast and social media is explaining what the three branches of government are through bite-sized policy interviews that give listeners a chance to better understand how this complicated system works. Based on these conversations and the hard-hitting political questions I get from my 2- and 4-year-old, I've broken down the branches of government.

What Are the Three Branches of Government?

The federal government, which runs the whole country, includes three different groups, or branches, that are separate but have equal power. Each branch functions differently and together they are responsible for making and implementing rules for the entire country.

The executive branch

The executive branch includes the president and a series of departments that are responsible for implementing the rules under the president. The entire country elects the president through the electoral college.

The legislative branch

Next is the legislative branch, which is Congress. In Congress, there are two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Congress has the power to make rules that affect the entire country once they are agreed to and signed by the president.

The judicial branch

Finally, there is the judicial branch, which includes courts. There are different levels of judges and courts, starting with District Courts and going all the way up to the Supreme Court. The president nominates judges, and then they are confirmed (i.e., voted on) by the Senate.

What Stops One Branch of Government From Being Too Powerful?

Two things keep any one branch from being too powerful: "separation of powers" and "checks and balances." Separation of powers refers to the three separated branches (powers) of government. Checks and balances mean that each branch gets the same amount of power.

For example, if the president, who is just one person, decides to make a rule, Congress can vote to override the president's rule and pass their own rule. The new rule from Congress will then become law.

But, if the president doesn't like the law that Congress creates, they can decide whether or not to sign it.

And finally, the judiciary branch has a check on the legislative and executive branches because they interpret the Constitution to make sure the Congress and the president have the power to make the rules they created.

The check on the judicial branch is that the president appoints the judges, and Congress can vote to impeach a federal judge, and they can be removed from office. Additionally, if the judicial branch deems a particular law unconstitutional, Congress can create a new law instead.

Which Branch of Government Makes the Laws?

The executive and the legislative branches work together to make laws. When Congress passes a bill, the president has to sign it into law. After a law is passed, the executive branch does the day-to-day work of executing it. The judicial branch does not make laws, but they decide on cases that are in front of them and the impact of their decision can create a new law or force a law to be revised.

Which Branch of Government Enforces Laws?

Both the executive branch and judicial branch have responsibilities for enforcing laws. In the executive branch, departments like the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are responsible for ensuring the laws are followed. If someone makes a complaint, the judicial branch can decide if laws are being implemented the right way.

Which Branch of Government Interprets Laws?

The judicial branch sorts out arguments over laws. They'll decide if a law is constitutional, and they'll determine how it should be applied. However, the executive branch must also interpret the law and put it into practice because they're the ones that have to execute it and make sure everything runs properly.

Does the President Have All the Power?

Although the president holds a lot of power, they don't have complete power. In order for something to become a law, Congress must vote on it before the president signs it into law. Congress can also override rules the president makes, and the judicial branch can decide if the president did not have the power to create the rule they made.

Who Is in Congress, and What Is the Difference Between the Senate and the House?

Congress is divided into two parts, called the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each state, no matter how big or small, has two senators to represent its citizens in the Senate. Since there are 50 states, there are 100 senators.

In the House, each member is elected to represent a portion of their home state called an electoral district. There are 435 members in the House, and the number of elected representatives from each state depends on the total number of people living there. Members of the House keep their job for two years until they face another election, and members of the Senate stay in their position for six years until they have to get re-elected.

The House and Senate together are called Congress, and their main job is to create and pass bills into law. However, they do have a couple of differences:

  • The House can impeach, which means to accuse a person of an illegal act.
  • The Senate holds the hearing/trial on that accusation or impeachment.
  • The Senate also votes on presidential nominations to cabinet positions and Supreme Court justices.

How Do You Get Onto the Supreme Court?

First, you are nominated by the president. Then, the Senate, part of the legislative branch, votes on whether to give you the Supreme Court job. If the majority of the Senators vote for you, then you get to stay on the Supreme Court for the rest of your life (or until you choose to retire).

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