What Does a Government Do?

Governments of all kinds do essentially the same thing: they establish, enforce and oversee the rules, laws and interactions of people living in their territory. They are concerned mostly with what happens in public life, though they sometimes regulate things that happen in private life too. They also protect a nation’s resources and provide goods and services that the population uses to live its lives.

The 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787 to determine a structure for the national government. They crafted a system of three branches (legislative, executive and judicial) and diffused power through a system of checks and balances.

The legislative branch is composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both chambers must approve a bill for it to become law. Congress must also pass budgets for the entire year to fund all the activities of the federal government. If it cannot raise enough money through taxes and tariffs, it can authorize borrowing to make up the difference. Congress may also direct spending on specific items—sometimes called earmarks—by specifying funds for a project rather than for a particular agency.

In the executive branch, the president makes sure that Congress’s laws are carried out. The president also carries out the country’s foreign policy and negotiates treaties with other countries. In addition, the president nominates federal officials and judges to serve in the courts. The Senate must confirm these nominations. The president can influence legislation by signing or vetoing bills passed by Congress or by issuing presidential proclamations and executive orders.

In the judicial branch, the Supreme Court decides whether or not federal laws are constitutional. The Court can also review and overturn decisions made by lower courts. It is important that citizens understand their rights to access information from government agencies. The first step is to find out which government entity has the information you want. Then, you can ask that government for it.

At the local level, governments levy taxes to pay for things like fire and police departments, libraries and parks. They also draft budgets and set priorities for where funds will go for services. On the state and national levels, governments allocate money to such things as public education, highway maintenance, and military defense. Governments also take care of the “common goods”—things that everyone can enjoy and use, but they are in limited supply, such as fish in the sea or clean drinking water. They protect these common goods so that some people can’t take them all and leave others with nothing.