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Checks and Balances and Separtation of Powers

Page history last edited by jordan 14 years, 1 month ago


 previous section 'Amendments'                                                                                                                                   next section 'Types of Power'


Checks and Balances

           In September, 1787, a system of checks and balances was developed to be included in the Constitution with the purpose of limiting the ability of the three branches of government to control, or take over. the other branches and the American government. The idea of checks and balances resulted from the out of control monarchy of Great Britain that tyrannically ruled the colonists, thus sparking the Revolutionary War in 1775. In the minds of the colonists, the British  government had no such checks and balances, but the American government needed them! The American system of separates powers and leads to checks and balances.  See the image.      (1)

This model of government with three separate branches (Legislative, Executive and Judicial) was much like that of the Roman Republic, which also divided its government into three main branches( Senate, Assemblies and Magistrate) with specific tasks and functions for each to carry out. The system works because each branch, though technically not all given "equal power,", requires the others' approval before governmental actions can take place. In this way, each branch works as a checkpoint on the road of government policy.


Examples of Checks and Balances


The Executive Branch, or the president and the bureaucracy, seemingly has the most restriction and regulation put on policies before they can be carried out. In other words, this branch must jump through the hoops of the Legislative Branch. The president is the best example of checks and balances within the government. The following are some of the president's duties where checks and balances are evident. 


The president must execute the instructions of Congress. He must also have less than a 2/3 majority of Congress for the laws that he vetos to remain vetoed, otherwise Congress can over ride them.


The president declares a state of emergency and publishes executive orders and regulations.

The president appoints judges among other executive heads with the approval of the Senate.


He executes the spending as it is authorized by Congress.


The president executes the instructions of Congress when war is declared.


So much regulation or checks and balances of the president's activities, though it seems overbearing, ensures that America remains a democracy and that no single person holds all the power in government as in the British monarchy in the 1700's. 



Separation of Powers

          The separation of powers refers to the distinct and uniqueness in duty and function of the three branches of government to prevent one branch from assuming and abusing power specified to the other branches. If the powers given to each branch are specific and unique, the branches cannot easily over step the line of government functions that the Constitution outlines. The idea of "separation of powers" was first coined(3)

by 18th century French philosopher, Baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu. Montesquieu's ideas about government, written in his book Spirit of Laws, influenced the Founding Fathers considerations when writing the Constitution.

                                                                              Did You Know?

Montesquieu was a meteorological analyst, who believed that the temperature of a region dictated the type of people that came from it. For instance, he thought that people that came from very cold regions, were stiff, and stubborn, while those that came from hot places were 'hot-tempered.' Of course, he thought that France emanated the best people, because of its temperate climate. (5)


For a better understanding of how all the branches are linked, check out my Venn Diagram!!! Venndiagrampbworks.xls It shows how much the branches relate and intertwine in their duties, to ensure that no one branch becomes to powerful. 


The Legislative Branch:

Makes all laws

Has the sole power to declare war

Makes rules for the government

Investigates and oversees the rules for the government, and its people

Confirms the executive head, and the judicial apointees

Ratifies treaties

Tries cases of impeachment



How is the Legislative Branch kept in Check?  

          It may seem that the Legislative Branch could easily overtake the other two branches since they don't appear to have to "answer" to anyone and because they do infact have more power than the other branches. However, the Legislative Branch is kept in check in the following ways;

Since the legislature is made up of hundreds of people, no single one of them can act as president, or leader, thus dividing power, and only making the branch strong collectively. Further still, is that the legislature is divided into Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The legislature must literally fight with itself to make policies by the agreement of 2/3 the majority on a bill.  Also, the legislature makes up many representatives that ultimately represent the American people. To get re-elected, they must maintain policies that reflect the people, thus preventing them from imposing their laws on the people without the fear of not getting re-elected. The representatives must be very cautious by what they do if they want to be re-elected, so in one sense, they are kept on a leash by the people to express and represent their wishes. Because the president can veto the bills of the Legislative Branch by means of 2/3 majority the legislature is limited to what laws they can suggest for fear of a veto or not getting re-elected.  If the president veto's the bill, there is a significantly lower chance that the bill will ever become a law.  For a more in depth process of how bills become laws from Schoolhouse Rock, go to this site. (4) (Yes I know we watched this in class, but it is really catchy and helpful!) One of the duties of the judicial branch is to determine if a law is unconstitutional, further keeping the Legislative Branch in check.


The Judicial Branch:


Determines the jurisdiction of cases


Administers Constitutional law and and apply it to disputes over the Constitution


Judges when a law is unconstitutional


Determines the disposition of prisoners


Legally compels testimony and the production of evidence as the law provides


Administers policies through the appeals process, but gives discretion in individual cases to low-level judges

Oversees and administers members of the judiciary



          The Judicial Branch is not in a position as susceptible to a governmental power overthrow as the Legislative and Executive Branches may be. They act as mediators to interpret and judge laws made by the Legislature, and to uphold the Constitutio. The Judicial Branch makes sure the Legislative Branch does not get out of control with its lawmaking, just as the Legislative Branch monitors the Executive Branch against tyranny! 


 previous section 'Amendments'                                                                                                                                   next section 'Types of Power'


Work Cited

(1) MegaFilter network Inc.  "Venn Is that You?"<ask.metafilter.com/ 112096/Venn-Is-that-you> (1999-2010)

(2) Cassutto, George "Checks and Balances Flow Chart" <www.cyberlearning-world.com/ lessons/checks_an...(1994-2009)

(3) curleyhistorypage.blogspot.com/ 2008_01_01_arc.  

(4) E Notes <http://www.enotes.com/law/q-and-a/what-does-legislative-branch-do-98141> (2010)

(5) Bok, Hilary "Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat" July 18, 2003 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montesquieu/> (2010)                                                         


Comments (2)

mberry said

at 12:54 pm on Oct 29, 2009

I am glad to see you have some citations Jordan! Thanks. But...#1 I wonder about the sources themselves. Are they really the best sources? Who is the author of curleyhistorypage?!?! Do you know for certain that Curley knows anything at all about Montesquieu? Did you corroborate that sources with a more legitimate, peer reviewed site? Please do! #2 - be sure to put citations in correct Chicago Manual of Style format (not necessary until final draft! :~).

mberry said

at 2:18 pm on Dec 14, 2009

The content here is very good, but your sources seem a bit non-academic. Guard against that in research so that you can be certain facts have been checked and arguments peer-reviewed!

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