Checks And Balances

The Constitutional Structure For 
Limited And Balanced
Government


The Constitution was devised with an ingenious and intricate built-in system of checks and balances to guard the people's liberty against combinations of government power. It structured the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary separate and wholly independent as to function, but coor­dinated for proper operation, with safeguards to prevent usurpations of power. Only by balancing each against the other two could freedom be preserved, said John Adams.

Another writer of the day summarized clearly the reasons for such checks and balances:

  • "If the LEGISLATIVE and JUDICIAL powers are united, the MAKER of the law will also INTERPRET it (constitutionality).

  • Should the EXECUTIVE and LEGISLATIVE powers be united... the EXECUTIVE power would make itself absolu te, and the government end in tyranny.

  • Should the EXECUTIVE and JUDICIAL powers be united, the subject (citizen) would then have no permanent security of his person or property.

"INDEED, the dependence of any of these powers upon either of the others ... has so often been productive of such calamities... that the page of history seems to be one continued tale of human wretchedness." (Theophilus Parsons, ESSEX RESULTS)

What were some of these checks and balances believed so important to individual liberty? Several are listed below:

  • HOUSE (peoples representatives) is a check on SENATE - no statute becomes law without its approval.

  • SENATE is a check on HOUSE - no statute becomes law without its approval. (Prior to 17th Amendment, SENATE was appointed by State legislatures as a protection for states' rights - another check the Founders provided.)

  • EXECUTIVE (President) can restrain both HOUSE and SENATE by using Veto Power.

  • LEGISLATIVE (Congress - Senate & House) has a check on EXECUTIVE by being able to pass, with 2/3 majority, a bill over President's veto.

  • LEGISLATIVE has further check on EXECUTIVE through power of discrimination in appropriation of funds for operation of EXECUTIVE.

  • EXECUTIVE (President) must have approval of SENATE in filling important posts in EXECUTIVE BRANCH.

  • EXECUTIVE (President) must have approval of SENATE before treaties with foreign nations can be effective.

  • LEGISLATIVE (Congress) can conduct investigations of EXECUTIVE to see if funds are properly expended and laws enforced.

  • EXECUTIVE has further check on members of LEGISLATIVE (Congress) in using discretionary powers in decisions regarding establishment of military bases, building & improvement of navigable rivers, dams, interstate highways, etc., in districts of those members.

  • JUDICIARY is check on LEGISLATIVE through its authority to review all laws and determine their constitutionality.

  • LEGISLATIVE (Congress) has restraining power over JUDICIARY, with con­stitutional authority to restrict extent of its jurisdiction.

  • LEGISLATIVE has power to impeach members of JUDICIARY guilty of treason, high crimes, or misdemeanors.

  • EXECUTIVE (President) is check on JUDICIARY by having power to nominate new judges.

  • LEGISLATIVE (Senate) is check on EXECUTIVE and JUDICIARY having power to approve/disapprove nominations of judges.

  • LEGISLATIVE is check on JUDICIARY - having control of appropriations for operation of federal court system.

  • LEGISLATIVE (Peoples Representatives) is check on both EXECUTIVE and J U DICIARY through power to initiate amendments to Constitution subject to approval by 3/4 of the States.

  • LEGISLATIVE (Senate) has power to impeach EXECUTIVE (President) with concurrence of 2/3, of members.

  • The PEOPLE, through their State representatives, may restrain the power of the federal LEGISLATURE if 3/4 of the States do not ratify proposed Constitu­tional Amendments.

  • LEGISLATIVE, by Joint Resolution, can terminate certain powers granted to EXECUTIVE (President) (such as war powers) without his consent.

  • It is the PEOPLE who have final check on both LEGISLATIVE and EX­ECUTIVE when they vote on their Representatives every 2 years, their Senators every 6 years, and their President every 4 years. Through those selections, they also influence the potential makeup of the JUDICIARY.

It is up to each generation to see that the integrity of the Constitutional structure for a free society is maintained by carefully preserving the system of checks and balances essential to limited and balanced government. "To preserve them (is) as necessary as to institute them," said George Washington.


Footnote: Our Ageless Constitution, W. David Stedman & La Vaughn G. Lewis, Editors (Asheboro, NC, W. David Stedman Associates, 1987) Part III:  ISBN 0-937047-01-5