The Basics of Government


A government is a body invested with power to manage a political unit, organization or more often a State. The word “government” comes from the Latin term gubernare, which means to steer a ship or vessel. Governments make laws, collect taxes and print money. They have monopolies on the legal use of force and provide safety and other public goods (such as police, fire departments, and national parks).

Government leaders make decisions about today’s toughest issues like how to respond to terrorism or a pandemic. Where your government lies on the spectrum between democracy and authoritarianism determines whether your voice and that of your fellow citizens is magnified or minimized when it comes to tackling these challenges.

Local, state, and federal governments raise funds by collecting taxes from the people they represent. They then use those funds to make goods and services available to all citizens. These include schools, police and fire departments, roads, and postal service. They also protect common goods, which are things that all people may use but that have limited supply or are in danger of being used up, such as fish in the sea and clean drinking water. Governments have the responsibility to protect these resources from those who would take everything for themselves and leave others with nothing.

At the national level, the President and a group of his or her advisors, called the Cabinet, advise the president on all matters. The President nominates Supreme Court justices and judges for the other courts. Congress confirms these nominations.

The legislative branch of the government is composed of two chambers — one smaller, upper house and one larger lower house. Except for Nebraska, all States have a bicameral legislature. The members of the upper house are known as senators and serve for four years. The members of the lower house are called representatives and serve for two years. The two houses combine to make state laws and fulfill other governing responsibilities.

A new law starts out as a document called a bill. It is first introduced by a member of the House or Senate. The bill then goes to a small group of legislators, usually a committee, that makes changes in the bill. If the bill is approved by a majority of the members of the committee, it goes to the full House or Senate for a vote. If the bill passes both houses of the legislature, it becomes a law. If the President disagrees with a bill, he or she may choose to veto it. If the President vetoes a bill, it cannot become law until both houses pass it again by a two-thirds majority. In this way, a system of checks and balances is built into the structure of government.