School Improvement in Maryland
Clarifications: Each clarification provides an explanation of an indicator/objective to help teachers better understand the skills and/or concepts.

Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic A. The Foundations and Function of Government

Indicator 1. Investigate the evolution of the U.S. political system as expressed in the United States Constitution

Objective c. Compare how the powers and functions of the three branches of government are divided and how they are shared to protect popular sovereignty


One of the ways in which the Constitution limits the national government is by dividing powers and functions among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. By distributing power so that no branch is stronger than any other and instituting a system of checks and balances by which each branch can monitor and limit the power of the others, the separation of powers prevents the federal government from exceeding the authority granted to it by the people, who are the ultimate holders of political power.

The legislative branch, called Congress, has the power to make laws. Congress is comprised of two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Representation in the House of Representatives is determined by a state's population, and each state had two senators. Congress is granted the authority to lay and collect taxes, coin money, regulate trade with foreign nations and between the states, declare war, and raise and maintain armed forces. It is also given the power to make all laws necessary for it to carry out its designated functions.

The executive branch, headed by the president, has the power to enforce laws. The president is elected by the electoral college, consisting of electors selected by each state's voters, and serves for four-year terms. In addition to carrying out laws created by Congress, the president is granted the powers to conduct foreign relations, including wars, and grant pardons.

The judicial branch, headed by the Supreme Court and including lower federal courts, interprets the laws. The federal judiciary is granted the power to decide cases involving disputes between state governments, laws passed by Congress, or the Constitution.

To prevent any one branch from dominating the federal government and the federal government itself from becoming too powerful, the Constitution dictates that some powers are shared among two or more branches. For example, the power to appoint Supreme Court justices (judicial branch) is shared by the president (executive branch), who can nominate people to fill the positions, and the Senate (legislative branch), which can confirm or reject the nominees. Both steps must occur for an appointment to be valid. Also, lawmaking powers are shared between the executive and legislative branches. While Congress actually formulates the laws, they must be approved by the president to be valid. The president can choose to veto a bill, but Congress then has the power to override the veto if two-thirds of the members of both houses vote to do so. War powers are shared, too. Although the president is commander-in-chief of the military forces, only Congress can declare war and appropriate money for the fighting.

The Constitution also provides mechanisms for each branch to check the power of the others. For example, Congress is given the authority to impeach the president and remove him from office. Also, although not expressly set forth in the Constitution, it has evolved that the Supreme Court has the power to rule on the constitutionality of federal laws and executive actions.

Resources for Objective 1.A.1.c: