The Checks and Balances in Our System of Government
After achieving independence from England in the Revolutionary War, our founding fathers adopted the Articles of Confederation to provide a central government for the 13 colonies. The Articles of Confederation, however, created no separation of powers and contained no checks and balances, causing many to fear the consolidation of power in the hands of a single person or small group of individuals. As James Madison put it, “The accumulation of all powers… in the same hands… may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Accordingly, the U.S. Constitution, which was proposed and ratified to replace the Articles of Confederation, establishes three distinct branches of government and contains many “checks and balances” to prevent any single branch of government from amassing too much power or control.
The Duties of the Legislative Branch
Congress, made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, drafts proposed statutes for approval by the President. The Senate has the power to approve or reject nominations for federal agencies and judgeships. Congress also has the power to declare war, although in recent decades, it has become common for the U.S. military to engage in armed conflicts abroad without formal declaration of war.
The Duties of the Executive Branch
The executive branch, comprising the president, vice-president, cabinet, and federal agencies, has the ultimate responsibility for carrying out and enforcing all laws enacted by Congress.
The Duties of the Judicial Branch
The judicial branch, which includes the Federal District Courts, the U.S. Courts of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court, has the power to review all federal laws and strike down any provisions that violate the U.S. Constitution. The courts also ensure that the actions of the executive branch are within the authority given to it by the Constitution or Congress.
Constitutional Checks and Balances
Provisions of the Constitution limit the absolute powers of all three branches of government, forcing them to work together:
- The legislature may draft and pass laws, but those laws must be signed by the president to become law. However, although the president may veto a law, a presidential veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress.
- Within certain limits, the president may issue executive orders, which can have the force of law. However, executive orders cannot overturn laws passed by Congress, and Congress has the authority to overturn executive orders. The courts (judicial branch) also may declare an executive order unconstitutional.
- The judicial branch may rule that a statute enacted by Congress and signed by the president violates the Constitution.
- Though Congress can create federal agencies, the executive branch oversees all federal agencies and has responsibility for enforcement and administration of all federal laws.
- The president has the authority to nominate federal judges, but those nominations must be approved by the Senate. Furthermore, Congress may impeach and remove a federal judge from office.
- The legislative branch has the “power of the purse” and must approve the federal budget.
- The legislative branch can impeach and remove the president or vice president from office. Congress may also impeach and remove any presidentially appointed agency head or officer.
To prevent the consolidation of power in a single person, small group, or single branch of government, the United States Constitution creates three distinct branches of government, each with its own duties and responsibilities. It also establishes a number of checks and balances to ensure that no individual branch may exercise too much control or power.