What are Checks and Balances?
Checks and balances are a collection of safeguards written into the United States Constitution to ensure no single branch of government becomes too powerful.
Checks and balances can apply in any organization, but the term most commonly refers to governments. In the U.S. Constitution, the framers (aka founding fathers) included several checks and balances. They spread the power across the three branches so that they could keep each other in check. These safeguards are meant to prevent any single person or branch from centralizing too much power. They help to ward off corruption and create accountability within the government. Within the system of checks and balances, each of the three branches of government (the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch) has certain powers. But in addition to those powers, each branch has oversight from the other two branches.
One of the most common examples of checks and balances comes with passing legislation. The legislative branch (aka Congress) is responsible for passing bills. Bills must pass through both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But before the bill can become law, the President (executive branch) has to sign it. He or she can choose to sign it, or they can decide to veto it. If the President decides to veto a bill, Congress can still exercise their own oversight by overriding the President’s veto. The Supreme Court then has the power to review the constitutionality of bills passed by the other two branches.
Checks and balances are like speed limits…
Everyone is allowed to use the roads for transportation, as long as they follow the rules. Your local government has created checks to make sure no one goes too fast, putting themselves and others in danger. Like with speed limits, the checks and balances in government protect everyone from one branch of government moving too fast and putting our government and country at risk.
The system of checks and balances that exists in the United States dates back long before the United States even existed. The government of Ancient Rome, like that of the U.S. government today, had three distinct branches. Those branches were the monarchy, the aristocracy (the Senate), and the democracy (the people).
Over the next several centuries, philosophers and historians like Polybius, Baron de Montesquieu, William Blackstone, and John Locke argued the merits of this type of separation of powers among different branches of government.
In 1787, when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution looked to the words of those philosophers when developing the government we have today. The Framers created a government with three distinct branches: the legislative branch (Congress), the executive branch (the President), and the judicial branch (the courts).
Built into the Constitution is a separation of powers, where each branch of government has distinct powers and responsibilities. Additionally, the Framers created a series of checks and balances. This system gives each branch of government the ability to keep the other branches in check and ensures that no single branch holds too much power in the government.
Since the creation of the Constitution, the checks and balances have come into play many times. Each branch has had to challenge the power of another. There have also been changes to the Constitution and to the laws to clarify certain powers of each branch.
For example, in 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act, which limited the President’s ability to take our country to war without the authorization of Congress. President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode his veto to pass the bill into law. This law has been tested again and again, as presidents have sent the U.S. into military conflicts with and without congressional approval.
The system of checks and balances also played a role during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was serving during the time of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court struck down a historic number of bills during that time. It got to the point where President Roosevelt asked Congress to allow him to appoint additional members to the court (to pack the court with loyalists who would override the existing members), which they did not permit him to do.
Checks and balances continue to play an important and prevalent role in government today. According to an analysis from the Washington Post, federal courts ruled against the actions of President Donald Trump’s administration 65 times during his first two years in office.
Another important test of our system of checks and balances took place at the end of 2019 when the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump. Impeachment is one of the checks and balances the Constitution grants to Congress. This unique situation shows the checks and balances that occur just within the legislative branch, as the House of Representatives votes to impeach a President, but only the Senate can remove him or her from office. The Senate acquitted President Trump after a brief trial in February of 2020.
The purpose of checks and balances is to give each branch of government the ability to limit the powers of the other branches. The Framers created the government this way to ensure that no single branch could become too powerful. They had seen the danger and tyranny that could come as a result of a concentration of power, and they wanted to ensure the United States escaped that type of government overreach.
The U.S. government has three branches of government. The legislative branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which make up Congress. Congress has many responsibilities. They write and pass the laws, create rules, and oversee federal spending and borrowing. They are also the only branch allowed to ratify treaties and authorize spending.
The executive branch consists of the President and the administration, which includes various departments. The executive branch is primarily responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws that Congress passes. This branch also oversees the armed forces, has the power to create executive orders, and appoints many federal officials.
The power of the executive branch has increased significantly since the writing of the Constitution. For example, the Constitution does not specify executive orders as a power of the President. And technically, the President is not allowed to make laws or appropriate funds. However, it is up to the courts to ensure that the President is acting within the limits of his or her authority.
The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and the lower courts. The job of this branch is to interpret the laws that Congress passes, apply them in the courts, and ensure that each act is on the right side of the Constitution.
The Constitution gives each of these powers to the different branches of government. In the system of checks and balances, it also outlines mechanisms where each branch can challenge the powers of the other branches.
There are many checks and balances built into our Constitution that allow the different branches of government to limit the power of the other branches. Here are some of the checks and balances that exist today:
In the Federalist Papers, James Madison wrote the following about the system of checks and balances. “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” According to Madison, checks and balances ensure that the government controls itself.
After having seen what can come from a centralization of power, the Framers of the Constitution wanted to make sure that no single person or branch of government could become too powerful. That is the most significant advantage of our checks and balances system.
For example, the separation of powers prevents any president from acting like a dictator. Congress, not the President, can pass bills. And though the President can sign executive orders, the judicial branch can overturn them if they go outside the scope of what the President is supposed to do.
The most significant advantage of checks and balances also creates the biggest disadvantage. The structure of the U.S. government ensures that no single person or branch of government can make decisions without oversight from the other branches. Especially in years of divided government, this oversight can lead to gridlock that can result in very little change happening. Significant policy changes can take years or even decades to occur.
However, the opposite issue could also exist. During years when one political party controls all three branches of government, it is possible that the checks and balances won’t be as strong as they might otherwise be.
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