The United States Constitution is the document on which American government is based. Drawn up in the summer of 1787 by fifty-five delegates, and ratified between 1788 and 1790, the Constitution presents distinct powers for the U.S. Congress, the president, and the federal courts. This division of power is known as the system of checks and balances. The system “ensures that none of the branches of government can dominate the others” while establishing and limiting “the authority of the federal government over the states” as well as defining the “freedoms and liberties for U.S. citizens.”
According to the Constitution, there are three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. In simple terms, the legislative branch is responsible for making the law, the executive branch is responsible for enforcing the law, and the judicial branch is responsible for interpreting the law. However, it is not just that simple. Each branch has very specific powers, all of which must be carefully monitored so that there is no imbalance of power.
The legislative branch of government is covered in the first article of the Constitution. This branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and they are invested with the power to pass laws that they deem “necessary and proper.” However, none of these laws can be passed without either group having a majority of members present to vote. The first power listed in the Constitution that both groups have can be found in section three of Article 1. It is the power to “impeach senior government officials.” Other powers that the House and Senate – Congress – have are found in section eight. They include the following: the raising and imposing of taxes, maintaining a military, declaring war, managing a postal system, creating a judicial system, borrowing money and spending money, and regulating immigration as well as interstate commerce and foreign commerce.
Congress, however, cannot do a host of things. It cannot suspend “the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” unless the situation requires it. It cannot pass a “bill of attainder or ex post facto law.” This means that Congress cannot pass a law that declares someone guilty of a crime or that makes a past crime illegal. It cannot impose direct taxes unless they are proportionate to the population, nor can it create laws that favor “the ports of one state over those of another.” Money can only be spent if approved by law, and a record of all money used must be recorded. Finally, the U.S. cannot name a king or any other royalty, and American officials cannot accept money or titles from other countries without approval from the Congress.
Clearly, there are checks and balances that affect Congress’s power. They include the president’s right to veto any legislation put before him by Congress, although his veto can be overturned by a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate, and the power of the Supreme Court to question the constitutionality of any law passed by Congress should it be challenged in a case brought before the Court. Thus, while Congress seems to have a great deal of power, in reality, both the president and the judiciary have the ability to curb some of that power.
The executive branch of the government is covered in the second article of the Constitution. It begins by stating that “the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” It continues by explaining the length of time the president will hold office, as well as pointing out that the vice president will serve the same amount of time. There is a further explanation of the requirements needed to become president, as well as the responsibility of Congress to set the pay rate of the president.
The executive branch is granted the following powers by the Constitution: “oversight of federal agencies that implement laws passed by Congress; power as commander in chief of the armed forces; power to make treaties, nominate judges to the federal judiciary, and appoint officers of the government, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate;” and the “power to pardon individuals convicted of federal crimes.”
Like the legislative branch, the executive branch also has checks and balances on its power. As mentioned above, the Senate has the authority to ratify treaties signed by the President, as well as the power to either consent or deny presidential nominees for “federal judgeships” and other governmental posts. Also mentioned previously is the authority Congress has to impeach and convict the President for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” This also applies to the “Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States…”
The final branch of the government – the judiciary – is covered in the third article of the Constitution. It begins by stating that judicial power in the United States “shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” In other words, the Supreme Court has a degree of control over the legal system, but it is Congress that will decide how many courts are necessary, as well as other important issues relating to the judiciary. It goes on to explain the areas in which the Supreme Court has jurisdiction. These areas are the following: “(1) cases raising issues involving the Constitution, federal law, or treaties; (2) cases affecting ambassadors; (3) maritime cases; (4) controversies in which the United States is a party; (5) controversies in which two are more states are parties; (6) controversies involving residents of different states; and (7) controversies in which residents of the same state make a claim on land in another state.” In short, the power of the judiciary is to decide whether or not laws passed by Congress are or are not constitutional. They can also declare presidential orders as invalid based on their constitutionality or lack of it.
Yet, there are many limits on the power of individual judges within the judiciary system. Judges have to explain their decisions in the form of written opinions. They must follow precedents established by the decisions of a higher court. For example, a state court must abide follow precedents set in the Supreme Court. Finally, all decisions are subject to review by a court of appeals.
As with the other two branches, there are checks and balances on the Supreme Court. All federal courts staffed by judges that are nominated by the President. The courts are reliant upon the executive branch to enforce their decisions. Congress controls the budget of the judiciary, but cannot reduce the salary of a judge. Congress can also begin the process of amending the Constitution if it disagrees with judiciary interpretation of the Constitution.
Aside from the checks and balances imposed by each branch of government on the other two, there are outside sources that also provide checks and balances on all three branches. They include the press, which can investigate and report on the actions of the government; non-governmental organizations that will advocate various interests; and finally, the people who hold the power “in whom government authority ultimately rests.”
This final point is most likely the most important to remember. The power of the government is ultimately in the hands of the people. Without their votes and general involvement, the strength of the government would be greatly diminished. In the end, the Constitution accomplished its goal of creating a more stable government than the one in existence in 1787. It has remained the foundation on which the United States continues to rest.
FindLaw. U.S. Constitution. (http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/articles.html)
Lieberman, Jethro K. Constitution of the United States.
Talking Points: Separation of Powers. (http://www.abanet.org/publiced/lawday/talking/tpseparation.html)