What Are the Levels of American Government?

Part of American Politics For Dummies Cheat Sheet (UK Edition)

For good or ill, government is everywhere in America and functioning at local, state and federal layers throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Local government in the US

The state governments confer authority on the local governments to deal with specific issues through state-made legislation. Americans have more contact with the local government than with the state or federal governments. Local government is organised in four main layers:

  • County: A county’s function is to administer state laws within a particular geographic location. It has a number of responsibilities including managing most public services such as parks, hospitals, fire services, libraries, schools, courts, roads and law enforcement. Births, deaths and marriages are also recorded at the county level.

  • Townships: These are traditionally rural geographic locations that are a subdivision of the county; sometimes they’re just a different name for a town or city. Most townships have an elected board that includes supervisors who run local services such as rubbish collection and road maintenance; some even include the fire and police services.

  • Municipalities: Similar in most states to townships, municipalities are usually a fancy name for an administrative area that’s a city or a town. Municipal governments often have elected mayors serving as the executive and elected councillors serving as legislators. They’re in charge of running most public services that an average person will come into contact with during their daily lives.

  • Special districts: These subdivisions of government provide a specialist function within a particular geographic location. Functions include education, waste management and transportation. They’re unique entities and even have tax-raising powers to provide the services they cover. School districts, for example, are run by school boards, which can be elected or appointed and are responsible for determining policy issues such as what textbooks the schools can purchase and the ratio of students per teacher.

State government

The US Constitution designates all powers not given to the federal government to the states and the people, including those not even thought of yet. The United States is comprised of 50 states, so 50 state governments exist; however, there are also two state-level governments operating in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. State governments are modelled similarly to the federal government system and include three branches:

  • Executive branch: The top executive official is the governor, who shares executive power with a number of other officials, including the lieutenant governor (second-in-command), secretary of state (business and election official), attorney general (chief legal officer who prosecutes those who violate commercial law), treasurer (runs the state’s finances) and commissioner of agriculture (promotes state produce and ensures safety in the industry). All governors are elected through popular vote (typically every four years); the other positions are elected in some states and appointed in others.

  • Legislative branch: Each state has its own legislature wherein the elected members can propose bills to become law, raise taxes and receive proposals for legislation from the governor. It plays the same role as does the legislature in the federal system.

  • Judiciary: This system deals with state constitutional issues and statutes (laws made by the legislative assembly), as well as US constitutional issues and statutes. The kinds of cases heard by these courts include most criminal cases, personal injuries, family law (marriage, divorce and so on), and most contract and probate (wills and estates of dead people) cases.

US federal government

Unlike the multiple numbers of local and state governments, only one federal government exists. And its role is to run, not just one small geographic location, but the entire country. It’s a big task, and one carried out by five divisions:

  • Executive Office of the President: Overseen by the president’s Chief of Staff, this office provides the president with the support he needs to make executive decisions. Its remit ranges from promoting US trade interests throughout the world to providing advice on national security. Currently 11 principal offices exist, including the White House Office.

  • Executive departments: These are cabinet-level offices headed up by a secretary who is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Each of the departments concentrates on particular policy areas and has its own budget and staff. Examples include Department of Defense and Department of Education.

  • Independent executive agencies: These agencies usually perform specialised functions, and are independent from executive control. They include the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which operates to protect the US from international threats.

  • Independent regulatory agencies: These agencies also perform specialised duties by administering laws and regulating important industries and businesses that affect the public. They’re typically run by a board or commission of people, and are independent from presidential influence. They include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which protects human health and the natural environment by making and enforcing environmental laws, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates business practices and monopolies. It also includes the National Labor Relations Board detailed above.

  • Government corporations: These are legal entities established by the federal government to provide public services. They’re commercial, for-profit enterprises completely independent from government, although they may receive federal funding as well as charge for services in order to operate. They include the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, otherwise known as Amtrak, which is the railroad service, and the US Postal Service.