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The Structure of the National Government

305 min

Guiding Questions

  • What are the Constitutional powers of each of the three branches of government?
  • To what extent do the respective powers of each branch limit the powers of the other branches?


  • Students will list and describe the major formal and informal powers of the three branches of government.
  • Students will analyze the extent of executive power.
  • Students will evaluate the value of checks and balances.
  • Students will compare the roles of each house of Congress.
  • Students will describe the process by which a bill becomes a law.
  • Students will explain how the courts check the other branches of government.

Educator Resources

  • Handout A: Executive Powers Answer Key
  • Handout C: Moot Court Procedures for Teachers

Student Handouts

  • The Structure of National Government Essay
  • Handout A: Executive Powers
  • Handout B: How a Bill Becomes a Law
  • Handout D: Supreme Court Case Scenarios

  • republic
  • Constitution
  • Founders
  • arbitrary
  • Seventeenth Amendment
  • virtue
  • justice
  • judicial review
  • Declaration of Independence
  • Articles of Confederation
  • Framers

Write this quote on the board and have students respond in Think-Pair-Share format:

 “But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department (branch), consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others…Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” – James Madison, Federalist No. 51

The Federalist Papers were written as a part of a series of papers advocating for the ratification of the United States Constitution.  Paraphrase Madison’s statement and briefly explain this quote.  Do you agree?  Explain.

  1. Students answer the warm-up question individually.
  2. Students share responses with their partner.
  3. A few students share with the whole class and teacher uses responses to guide a transition into the main activities.

Activity #1: The Executive Branch [70 minutes]

  1. Distribute Handout A: Executive Powers and a copy of The United States Constitution.
  2. Jigsaw.  Divide the class into pairs or trios and assign one section of the Constitution (in the first column of the chart) to each group.  Have students become “experts” on their section of the Constitution, and then jigsaw into new groups (of 10 this time) with one member representing each section.  “Experts” should teach their group mates about their section and all students should record information to complete the remainder of Handout A: Executive Powers.
  3. Discuss.  Conduct a large group discussion to answer the following questions:
    1. Does the President have any lawmaking power?  If so, how much?
    2. The President is charged with executing (or carrying out) the laws.  Why do you think the Founders gave this power to a separate branch of government rather than the branch that makes laws?
    3. Why do you think the Founders gave the power of enforcing the law to a separate branch of government than the branch that makes the laws, or the branch that interprets them?
    4. Does the President’s power as Commander in Chief empower him to use military force against American citizens?  If so, under what circumstances?
    5. Does the President have a responsibility to enforce all laws passed by Congress?  How do you know?
    6. How far can the President go in “tak[ing] care that the laws are faithfully executed”?  How far should he go?
    7. At the Constitutional Convention, some delegates worried that the President would become too much like a king.  A single executive, one worried, was the “fetus of a monarchy.”  In describing the executive power, did the Founders do a good job of preventing that possibility?

Activity #2: The Legislative Branch [60 minutes]

  1. Lecture/Discuss:  Review Article I of the Constitution with students to discuss the powers and structure of Congress.  Also be sure to highlight the different intended purposes of each house
    1. Ask students to list powers of the legislative branch and record them on the board. Add to and further explain the list to students. Be sure to point out for students which of the powers listed are reserved for only one of the two houses.
    2. Make sure to explain that the Senate was originally elected by the state legislators, but that the Seventeenth Amendment changed the mode of election to a vote by the people within each state.  Also explain that Senators are elected for six year terms (rather than two) and that they have some unique responsibilities including confirming appointments and ratifying treaties.
    3. Remind students that members of the House have always been elected directly by the people for two year terms.  Also explain that all bills for raising revenue must originate in the House of Representatives and discuss why students think the Founders made that distinction.  If students struggle, ask them to remember the rally cry of the Revolution (“no taxation without representation”) or to think about the major grievances of the colonists (or send them to look at the Declaration of Independence).  To help them connect this to the restriction of revenue bills to the House, you can ask students which house of Congress more closely represents the people.
    4. After students have a good understanding of the legislative branch and its powers, discuss the process of how a bill becomes a law with students.  Use Handout B: How a Bill Becomes a Law to have students follow along with the steps as you discuss them.
  1. Flow Chart: After you have discussed how a bill becomes a law, have students work in groups to create a flow chart on a large poster board to illustrate the steps.

Activity #3: The Judicial Branch [140 minutes]

  1. Lecture: Briefly explain the concept of judicial review as a power of the Supreme Court and a means of keeping the other branches in check.
    1. Explain to students that the concept of judicial review is not explicitly defined in the Constitution, but was codified in the court case, Marbury v. Madison (1803).
    2. Define judicial review and explain that it can be used to declare unconstitutional federal laws, executive orders, bureaucratic actions, and state laws.
    3. Explain that cases come to the Supreme Court when there is a question about the Constitutionality of a law and that the justices are charged with making the ultimate determination.
    4. Supreme Court justices study case briefs, listen to oral arguments, and ask questions to attorneys to come to a decision about whether a law is constitutional or unconstitutional.  These determinations guide whether laws stand, are rewritten, or are completely removed from the law books.
    5. Explain to students that they are going to engage in a Moot Court proceeding where they will simulate the process our courts go through in making these determinations.
  2. Have students do a role-play activity to learn how the Supreme Court works.  See the directions on Handout C: Moot Court Procedures for Teachers.
  3. Choose one of the Supreme Court cases you are about to discuss, have just finished discussing, or choose from the cases listed on Handout D: Supreme Court Cases Background Information.

Now that students have explored the powers of the three branches of government, they can effectively draw out how they work in practice to limit each other.

Students work individually to create a visual representation of checks and balances.  The visual representation should include 1) at least one check:

  • of the judiciary by the executive
  • of the judiciary by the legislative
  • of the executive by the legislative
  • of the executive by the judiciary
  • of the legislative by the executive
  • of the legislative by the judiciary

and 2) a historical, current, or hypothetical example of any three of the six included checks.

Example for instructors:  The judiciary is able to check the power of the executive branch by using judicial review to evaluate the constitutionality of executive orders.  The Supreme Court overturned five of FDRs executive orders including E.O. 6199 limiting the interstate transportation of petroleum.

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

National Government, Crisis, and Civil Liberties