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People in the United States live within a federal system. This means that they are governed by several different governments at the same time. Each of the governments has a different set of powers and responsibilities. This can be difficult to understand, but one way to think about it is to consider how similar it is to a student’s life. A student has parents or guardians that have authority over the student and responsibilities to the student. When the student goes to school, other authority figures can enforce rules and are responsible for providing education for the student. Schools and parents govern different parts of the student’s life and different responsibilities. This is similar to how our federal system works for people who live in the United States. There is the United States government (also called the federal government), the state government, county and municipal governments, and, sometimes, a tribal government that have authority and responsibilities to the people in the US.

Power is divided in a very specific way among these kinds of governments. If the Constitution specifically states that the federal government may do something, that is called a delegated power. Some powers were specifically reserved for states. These are called reserved powers. On some matters, the federal government and the state governments have the same powers. These are called concurrent powers. Because tribal nations are sovereign, their governments also have power over their land and people. The power the states and tribal nations have are only limited by federal law and the Constitution.

Government Power in the Federal System

Enumerated power to the federal governmentThese are powers the federal government that are specifically described in the constitutionExamples are coining money, regulating commerce, declaring war
Implied power to the federal governmentThese are powers the federal government has that are implied by the enumerated powersExamples: If the federal government is authorized to coin money, it is implied it may create an agency (the Mint) to manage the process
Powers denied to the federal governmentThese are powers the federal government may not exerciseExamples: The federal government may not infringe on the freedom of speech or try a person twice for the same crime
Reserved powers of the stateThese are powers that are reserved to the statesExamples: States determine licensing requirements and the rules that make marriages and divorces legal
Concurrent powers of the federal and state governmentsThese are powers that the federal and state governments share.Examples: Both the federal and state governments may collect taxes. They may both incarcerate people convicted of some crimes.

Governments in the United States

The United States Government

The United States is a constitutional federal republic. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, establishing the rules of operation for the government. “Republic” is a word that describes a representative government. “Federal” means a national government with certain specific powers and responsibilities, and state governments with a different set of powers and responsibilities. The federal government has limited power over the fifty states, and the state government has power within the state guided by federal guidelines. The United States government is organized into three branches with different areas of responsibility: the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary.

Oklahoma’s State Government

The State of Oklahoma’s government is similar to the United States government in that it has a constitution and all the same branches; however, it has different power than the United States government. The State of Oklahoma must follow the federal Constitution and its own state constitution.

Gray stone building in an ornate style with a dome. On top of the dome is a sculpture. In the foreground of the building, there are three Oklahoma flags and a US flag.

The United States and Oklahoma state flags fly outside the Oklahoma State Capitol (image courtesy State of Oklahoma).

Tribal Government

The many tribal nations located within the state boundaries of Oklahoma are sovereign, meaning they are the highest authority in some matters over their membership and land. Tribal governments work with the state and federal governments to promote their people’s interests. Similar to the federal and state governments, tribal governments are democratic and representative, although the forms of government can vary widely between nations. Tribal governments have jurisdiction over their tribal citizens and tribal reservations.

A brick sign in a green field showing the Kickapoo tribal seal. In larger letters below, it reads Kickapoo Tribal Police and Kickapoo Tribal District Court.

The Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma operates a tribal police department and court system (image courtesy Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma).

County Government

The state constitution organized the state into smaller subdivisions called counties. In Oklahoma, county governments center around three elected county commissioners in each county. County governments have a different set of powers and responsibilities than the federal and state governments. County governments have significant responsibilities for road construction and maintenance, court systems, and collecting property tax. Counties typically have an elected sheriff and maintain a jail. This level of government funds libraries. County governments serve both the urban and rural residents within the county border.

Map showing the counties and county seats in Oklahoma.

What county do you live in? (Image courtesy Geology.com)

Municipal Government

In some parts of Oklahoma, the population elects some form of municipal or city government. Municipal governments do not cover the entire geographic area of the state. They are usually formed when a place sees significant population growth and enough citizens vote for a municipal government. The form of government can vary, but most adopt a mayor-council or council-manager format. They create a charter, which is similar in function to a constitution. The charter explains how the government should work. Individuals are elected by sections of the municipality and serve on the council. The municipal government offers a number of services, often including sewage, water, trash, parks, and building permits. They operate police and fire departments.

A green garbage truck emptying a dumpster. On the side is a side with the letters WM and on the back is a sign with the letters WM and a caution sign below that.

A swimming area with several areas surrounding the pool. There are about four water features in the pool. There are about twenty people in the pool.

A dam that is open allowing water to flow through.

Sanitation, parks, and water service are provided by municipal governments (images courtesy Houston Chronicle, City of Oklahoma City, and LawtonOK.gov).