Checks and Balances and the US Constitution

United States Constitution

The first three Articles of the United States Constitution detail and discuss specific powers reserved to the three branches of government that enable a balance of power.

United States government represents a system of separation of powers, influenced by the French Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu. This “balance of power” is detailed in the first three Articles of the US Constitution and is frequently referred to as a system of “checks and balances.” Of the three branch of government – Legislative, Executive, and Judicial, none has the power to overcome the other. Throughout American history, one branch may have dominated during certain periods, yet Constitutional safeguards ensure that each branch shares the responsibility of governance.

The Legislative Branch of Government Makes the Laws

Described in Article One, the Legislative Branch or the Congress is comprised of two chambers. Today, both chambers are popularly elected (this was not true when the Constitution was first ratified). Section Two describes how the House of Representatives is to be constituted and Section Three discusses the Senate. Both chambers are given specific or express powers.

Section Seven outlines the procedure for passing bills and resolutions. Here we find a good example of “checks and balances.” A bill might arise in the House and passed with a simple majority. If then passed by the Senate, it goes to the President for signature. Once signed, the bill becomes law. However, if the President vetoes the bill, both chambers can still pass the bill with a two-thirds vote. This is referred to as a vote to “override” the veto.

A bill can still be deemed “unconstitutional” after passage if a party injured by the bill’s passage seeks redress through the federal courts system, the federal “judiciary.” This action, however, need not end the issue. Congress and the President can still opt to “amend” the Constitution, a difficult and arduous procedure, and thereby circumvent the ruling of the federal courts.

The Executive Branch of American Government

Covered in Article Two, this branch of government relates to the President. Contrary to currently held opinion, the Constitution does not give the President the power to declare war; this is a right of the Congress as found in Article One, Section Eight, Sub-section eleven.

The President is, however, the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. With the “advice and consent” of the Senate, he can engage in treaty making, nominate persons to his Cabinet, the federal judiciary, and make ambassadorial appointments. During times of Congressional recess, the President can make appointments without the advice and consent of the Senate. The current 110th Congress, manipulating this rule to deny President Bush recess appointments, never formally adjourned.

Congress can remove a President through impeachment. Covered in Section Four, removal from office occurs if the President is convicted of, “treason, bribery, or other crimes and misdemeanors.” Two Presidents have undergone impeachment proceedings: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Neither was convicted.

The Judicial Branch of United States Government

The federal courts are discussed in Article Three. Congress has the power to set up the federal judiciary but the President appoints the judges who serve for life. Montesquieu stressed the importance of a fully independent judiciary in his book, Spirit of the Laws. Both the Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court have the power to rule on the constitutionality of federal and state laws. Although possessing concurrent powers with state courts, the Supreme Court is the final court of appeal.

Unpopular court decisions have incurred both Presidential and Congressional ire in history. Thomas Jefferson was not pleased with the early decisions of John Marshall; Republicans in 1857 decried the Dred Scott Decision; during Franklin Roosevelt’s second term, a concerted effort to enlarge the high court was thwarted at the last minute.

The Triumph of the Constitution

The United States Constitution provided very direct safeguards to the freedoms of all Americans. Chief among these is the system of checks and balances.