The Separation of Power in the US System: Checks and Balances

Realized by: Mourad Hasbaoui

Undergraduate student in Political Sciences

Separating powers in a democracy is preventing respective abuse and safeguarding freedom to all. The accumulation of decisions by a single person or single political party is the greatest threat to democracy. History has proved that when a group with a specific ideology is in power, tyranny and dictatorship soon follow.

The separation of power with checks and balances are the most fundamental basics of democratic political system. As early as 350 B.C, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle distinguished in his book “Politics” that every government, no matter its form, performed three distinct functions: the deliberate (legislative), the magisterial (executive) and the judicial (law interpretation). He pointed out in his book that these are the basic powers common to all government and political systems, yet he did not implicitly suggest that they should be operated separately. The purpose is that each branch performs identifiable and appropriate functions;

This principle of separation of power would be deeply studied centuries later, thanks to the French Enlightenment philosopher Baron de Montesquieu. He used the models of ancient Rome and the British system to speculate the ideal dispersion of the governmental powers between three branches.

The US system is considered  one of the most developed democratic systems, fully implementing  the principles previously presented, which ensures the country’s leadership and sustainable prosperity. This paper  briefly unveils the pillars of US system with few illustrations of its well functioning

The United States takes great pride in its separation of powers, the famous” checks and balances” that the founding Fathers insisted on. Having just won independence from King George III and his executive dictatorship, the Founding Fathers set one branch of government as a check against the power of another. It was a very clever arrangement and has preserved America from tyranny.

The three Powers: Legislative, Executive, Judiciary:

  1. The Legislative branch: the US Legislative branch is composed of two house congresses, also known as a bicameral legislative. The two chambers are the Senate and the House of Representatives. Article 1, Section I of the US constitution underlines the Congress’s power to create and pass laws of the entire country, with the power to attribute the funds to execute those laws, veto the President’s laws and  declare war[1].
  2. The Executive branch: it enforces the laws created by the legislative branch and fortifies the federal laws using federal agencies and departments. The President is the chief executive of this branch according to the constitution. According to Article 2, Section I[2], he has the power to declare the state of emergency, and appoints federal judges, cabinet’s advisors and other departments officers with the approval of the Senate. Furthermore, he is the head of the State and the commander in chief of the armed forces.
  3. The Judicial branch: it composes several courts and the Supreme Court. It interprets the laws by hearing arguments during sessions. The Supreme Court reviews the constitutionality of laws, and how they are carried out and determines which laws apply to specific cases. Judges cannot be deposed nor assigned other positions against their will.

Sharing of Power and Checking on another:

The principle of checks and balances can be defined as power distributed among three branches of the US government, therby allowing each branch to limit the application of power of the other and as well as the expansion of power of any given branch. With recent events, Internal revenue services (IRS) targeting the Tea Party, the Department of Justice mishandling the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown and the drone program scandals, the checks and balances system becomes very crucial.

To better understand this concept, let us assume the case where US Congress intends to create a specific law with no way to oppose it. Yet, they are two safeguards; if the executive branch disagrees with the law, it could be vetoed or a lawsuit can be brought against it, the judicial branch could decide if the law is constitutional or not. Another example to shed the light on this aspect, let us assume the President nominates an official for a specific position, but this official is not qualified or has a proven record of corruption, then the Senate can reject the nomination to ensure the integrity of the system. For instance, in 2005, Harriet Mires was nominated for Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court by former President George Bush to replace the retiring judge Sandra O’Connor. Immediately the nomination drew great criticism from the Congress, because there was little known about Miers’s position in important issues such as abortion, gay’ rights, and the 2nd amendment.

The federal government of the US is the cornerstone of the central government established and protected by the constitution. The constitution nowhere contains and expresses injunction to preserve the boundaries of the three distinct powers it grants.  It expressly enjoins maintenance of a system of checks and balances. However, it does grant to three separate branches the power to legislate, execute, and adjudicate; It also provides throughout the documents and the means by which each branch could resist the blandishments and incursions of the other.

Last but not least, the separation of power in US is enforced by other principles such as transparency, accountability and respect of laws, which ensure imminent participative democracy.

Work Cited:

[1] Aristotle, “Politics”.350BC. Print. Trans. Benjamin   Jowett. June. 2015

[2] US Const.art1.sec1.constitutionus.Web.June 2015.

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