Checks and Balances
The purpose of the designers of the Constitution was to avoid having a dictator or king who had absolute power. To prevent this event, they created two systems. One system they set up was federalism. This called for a balance between federal and state governments. Another system was the checks and balances written into the Constitution.
Checks and balances are an important part of the wonderful way the early leaders of the United States designed the Constitution. With these checks and balances, each of the three separate parts of our government has different roles and can provide a check on the power of any other. The powers of all three are balanced to work together.
The United States has three branches or parts of federal government. One branch is called the legislative branch which passes laws. The executive branch (the President) carries out the laws passed by the Congress. The judicial branch, the Supreme Court and several lower federal courts, interprets laws based on the constitution. This idea of three branches of government which can check each other is known as the separation of powers.
Each branch can be held in check by one of the other branches. Congress can pass a law, but the President can veto a law. This means he won't vote yes on it. It must go back to Congress. If they have a 2/3 vote, the Senate can pass it despite the President's opposition.
The Supreme Court may say that a law passed by congress is unconstitutional, that is it goes against what the Constitution says. The power of the Supreme Court is balanced because the justices must be approved by the Senate after being appointed by the President.
If Congress does not agree with how the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution on a certain issue, it can prepare and pass a new law. The Senate has a check on the executive branch because it must vote to approve any new Supreme Court justice or any cabinet member put forth by the executive branch.
The idea of the separation of powers of different parts of a government into a legislative, executive and judicial branch began with a French philosopher called Montesquieu. The authors of the Constitution knew his work and used it in setting up the United States Constitution.
Checks and balances prevent any branch from getting too much power and encourage cooperation among the branches. Even the two parts of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate, can check each other. Both parts must agree before a law may be passed.
Many examples of real-life checks and balances can be found. After the Civil War President Andrew Johnson vetoed 20 bills sent to him by the legislative branch. However, Congress overrode those 20 vetoes. President Ronald Reagan appointed Robert Bork to be a justice of the Supreme Court. He was not approved by the Senate. In 1935 and 1936, the Supreme Court said that two of President Roosevelt's programs were unconstitutional.
James Madison is known as the 'Father of the Constitution.' He felt very strongly about having checks and balances in government. In his book, The Federalist Papers, he wrote how the system of checks and balances would keep under control the desires of the various groups in government. This is very necessary in a large society because more groups would be trying to gain control.
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