Editor’s note: A Democracy’s Primer is a collaboration between the journalism and legal communities to aid the public’s understanding of how government works with citizen engagement. Volunteers for the Indiana Bar Foundation will write the articles for distribution by the Hoosier State Press Association Foundation. More about both organizations may be found at inbf.org/ and hspafoundation.org/.
Our founders drafted a Constitution that created a national government with three branches: the legislative, the judicial and the executive branches.
There are checks and balances among those branches. It has been debated for more than 200 years of our nation’s history which branch is the most powerful, and which one, if any, should be the most powerful. But it cannot really be debated which one is the “biggest.” It is the executive branch.
There are 535 members of Congress. There are federal courts in every state. There is only one president, which might lead a person to think the executive branch is the smallest of the three. The opposite is true.
More than 4 million men and women work in the executive branch. It is far and away the largest branch of our national government.
Article II of our Constitution created the executive branch. The president has very important powers. The president can veto laws passed by Congress, issue executive orders, grant pardons, and can negotiate and sign treaties on behalf of our country.
The president is the commander in chief of our armed forces. The president also is charged with making sure that the laws Congress enacts are executed, which means carried out.
That is why it is called the “executive” branch. That may not sound as important as some of the other powers, but it is a big deal. To carry out the laws enacted by Congress requires a lot of work.
As an example, our Constitution gives Congress the power to “raise and support Armies” and to “provide and maintain a Navy.”
The laws Congress enacts to create and support our armed forces are carried out by the executive branch through the Department of Defense. That one department employs more than 1.3 million men and women on active military duty, plus 1.1 million men and women who serve in the National Guard and Reserve military forces.
On top of that, the Department of Defense employs nearly 700,000 civilian personnel. That is more than 3 million men and women working in just one department within the executive branch of our national government.
The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for patrolling our nation’s borders, protecting travelers and transportation infrastructure, enforcing immigration laws and responding to emergencies and disasters. It employs 216,000 people.
The Department of the Interior oversees 500 million acres of land — about one-fifth of all of the land in the U.S. The Department of the Interior also manages hundreds of dams and reservoirs, protects endangered species and oversees our national parks system. It takes a lot of people to do all of that. The Department of the Interior employs around 70,000 people, and its annual budget is around $16 billion.
The Department of Agriculture oversees a wide variety of programs that ensure food safety, protect natural resources and combat hunger among other things. To do all of that, the Department of Agriculture employs more than 100,000 people, and it has an annual budget of about $95 billion.
Other departments within the executive branch employ hundreds of thousands more people and have annual budgets of hundreds of billions of dollars. And that is only the national government’s executive branch.
In Indiana, the governor serves as the chief executive branch, and the executive branch includes approximately 125 boards, commissions and agencies that provide a variety of services to all Hoosiers. Those boards, commissions and agencies employ tens of thousands of people.
Also, every county, city and town in Indiana has an executive branch, and in every case that branch oversees boards and commissions that serve constituents.
It takes a lot of work — and a lot of workers — to carry out or “execute” the laws enacted by the legislative branches of our nation, state, counties, cities and towns.
Millions of Americans play a part in performing that work. In that respect, the executive branch exemplifies the fact that our government does not simply serve us, or impose upon us. It is us — we, the people.
Carl A. Hayes is a board member of the Indiana Bar Foundation and an Indianapolis attorney. Send comments to email@example.com.