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Know Your Government: The Basics

Use this guide to refresh your knowledge of US government. Links provided to various useful government resources.

Need a Refresher?

Think you know how our government works? Here are some troubling statistics.

The Civics Knowledge Survey published September 17, 2014 by the Non-member Public Policy Center ( polled 1,416 American adults. It found that:

  • Barely a third (36 percent) were able to name all three branches of the U.S. government
  • 35 percent could not even name one.
  • Only 27 percent know it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to override a presidential veto.
  • One-fifth of Americans  wrongly believe that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration. (APPC 2014)

Find the appendex to the study here.

Maybe we could all use a refresher? Check out this guide to get the basics of United States government.


Branches of Government

Checks and Balances

Preamble to the Constitution

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


Branches of Government: Explained

The Constitution of the United States separates the federal government into three parts (branches). The idea is to make sure no one branch gains complete control of the federal government. Click the tabs above to explore each branch in depth.

Balance of Power

The three branches of government interact through various checks and balances. These interactions allow the US government to avoid a complete takeover by one or another party, and also ensure that each branch may be held accountable by other branches. These checks and balances include:


v. legislative The president can suggest and veto laws passed by congress, and also call special sessions.

v judicial The president appoints justices, and through the attorney general (who is a member of the president's cabinet) represents the government in court.


v. executive Congress may override vetoes with a 2/3 majority, and has the power to initiate impeachment proceedings against the president.

v judicial Congress must approve federal judges.


v. executive The Judicial Branch can declare executive acts to be unconstitutional.

v. legislative Laws created by the congress may be challenged in court. The Judicial Branch can declare laws to be unconstitutional.