Saturday, February 4, 2017

Checks and Balances

Given the current political goings-on, I decided to refresh my memory concerning what the branches of our federal government are actually supposed to be doing. Here’s a quick overview of what I learned/relearned, without (much) commentary. I hope you find this as refreshing and enlightening as I did!

Our federal government’s powers are separated into three branches: the legislative, the executive, and judiciary. They are listed in this order in the Constitution because the framers considered them to be in this order of importance.

The legislative branch is described in Article 1 of the Constitution. It is embodied by Congress, which itself is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Its main job is to make laws.

The executive branch, described in Article 2 of the Constitution, is supposed to execute the laws created by the legislature. It is embodied principally by the President of the United States.

The judiciary is described in Article 3 of the Constitution. It is made up of the Supreme Court as well as the federal courts. Its job is to interpret the laws created by the Congress and executed by the President.

Given that the powers are separated into these three branches, each branch also has the ability to limit (or check) the other two branches to some degree. This ability is what helps create and maintain the balance of power between the branches.

The legislature has the greatest number of checks against the other two branches. The framers of the Constitution were concerned with the possibility of the President becoming a dictator in the manner of King George III (their former sovereign).

To check the executive branch, the legislature can:

  • Impeach the President (House of Representatives)
  • Remove the President (Senate: if 2/3 vote for impeachment)
  • Reject appointment of officials
  • Override vetoes (2/3 vote in both houses required)
  • Refuse to pass laws the President wants
  • Refuse to appropriate funds for Presidential programs

To check the judiciary, the legislature can:

  • Impeach and remove judges
  • Reject judicial nominees
  • Change the court system by adding or removing federal courts
  • Change the jurisdiction of federal courts
  • Pass new laws that override Supreme Court decisions (as long as the decisions weren’t based on the Constitution)
  • Propose amendments to the Constitution

The executive branch has the next highest sets of checks. To check the legislative branch, the executive can:

  • Veto Congress’s laws
  • Call Congress into special session (but can’t force them to pass new laws)
  • Carry out laws in ways that are contrary to the intent of the Congress
  • Break ties in the Senate

To check the judiciary, the executive can:

  • Nominate Supreme and federal court justices
  • Pardon people convicted by the courts
  • Refuse to carry out court decisions

Finally, the judiciary has really limited checking power. To check the legislative branch, the judiciary can:

  • Declare laws unconstitutional
  • Preside over impeachment trials (remember, they’re carried out in the Congress)

To check the executive branch, the judiciary can:

  • Declare executive actions unconstitutional
  • Issue warrants in federal crime cases

(I'm sure there's a pretty picture that lays all this out at a glance, but I'd already typed it out before I began searching for images...)

These concepts are described in greater detail in The Federalist Papers, No. 51, written by James Madison. Read through it when you can — it’s worth a gander.

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