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Understanding the Checks and Balances System With Apt Examples

Akshay Chavan May 12, 2019
The system of 'checks and balances' simply advocates a partitioned form of government to ensure that tyranny does not rear its ugly head. But what is its use? Here are several examples of the checks and balances system as stated in the US Constitution.

Did You Know?

After the US Civil War, President Andrew Johnson vetoed more than 20 bills passed by Congress. In response, Congress overruled all the vetoes!
The term checks and balances, by definition, indicates a counterbalancing mechanism designed to protect a system or organization from concentration of excess power in one of its departments.
This system owes its existence to the ideas of the French philosopher Montesquieu, who formulated the theory of Separation of Powers. This theory, which advocates the splitting up of the government into different branches to prevent despotism, was formally adopted into the constitutions of many countries.
The framers of the US constitution had intricately devised a form of government, which was based on the checks and balances system. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, published the Federalist Essay No. 51, which advocated splitting up of the government to ensure that a tyranny of the majority does not occur.
This system is an important aspect of tripartite and bipartite government systems, where government is subdivided into three and two departments, respectively. Concept of checks and balances is also present in authoritarian form of government, like a dictatorship, where different organs of the government compete to wield more power and limit each other.

Checks and Balances

Checks and balances is a system in which any limb of the government is prevented from becoming too powerful. This is especially important in a tripartite system of government, such as that of the US. In this system, the government is divided into three parts:
  • The Legislative
  • The Executive
  • The Judiciary
The Legislative: It makes new laws.
The Executive: It implements the laws passed by the legislative.
The Judiciary: It decides whether the new laws passed are constitutional or not.
Under this system, each of these departments is given their own powers. However, a particular department may try to exploit its powers if it goes unchecked. To prevent this, all departments have been given certain constitutional powers to prevent undue exploitation of powers by any one department.
These constitutional powers mostly involve overriding some actions of another department, which also fall into the ambit of one's own department. These powers prevent one governmental department from trying to influence another and gain more power, since the other departments also have proportionate powers to keep the encroaching department in its limits.
The system of checks and balances is designed such that it forces the legislative, executive, and the judiciary to reach a consensus by cooperation. In fact, along with stopping encroachment of one department on another, it also encourages selective interference of departments on one another, to reduce the chances of any single one having absolute power.
Due to this mechanism, the departments moderate their own decisions to ensure that they don't give other departments any reason to overrule their actions. The system allows each department to place checks on itself for self-moderation. Importantly, it even provides an opportunity to the common public to influence the legislative, executive, and judiciary.

Examples of Checks and Balances

Checks by the Legislative

On the Executive:

◆ The House of Representatives can pass a law even if the President has vetoed it, by a two-thirds majority of votes.

◆ The legislative can impeach the President if he is found guilty of misdemeanor.
◆ It decides the allocation of funds for any operations of the executive.

◆ It has the power to levy taxes and approve the budget.

◆ Any treaties signed with foreign nations become effective only after their approval by the legislative.

◆ By a joint resolution, the legislative can curtail powers of the President, such as the power to declare war.
◆ It can select the President or the Vice President, when there is no majority during an election.

◆ Despite the President being the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, only the legislative has the power to declare war.

◆ The President is required to give an annual 'State of the Union' address to the Congress.
On the Judiciary:

◆ The legislative has the power to decide the jurisdiction of a court of law.

◆ It can decide what the composition of a court will be.

◆ It has the power to create federal courts.

◆ The appointment of judges by the President (Executive) is subject to legislative approval.
◆ It can impeach a judge if he is found guilty of treason, high crimes, or misdemeanor.

◆ To override the judiciary's power of judicial review of laws, the legislative can amend the constitution.

◆ It can modify the size of the supreme court.
On Itself:

◆ Each house of Congress keeps a check on the expenses of the other house.

◆ Bills have to be approved by both houses of Congress.

◆ Neither of the houses can adjourn proceedings for more than 3 days without the consent of the other houses.
◆ Each house is required to periodically publish its house journal.

◆ The senate can amend the revenue bills which originate in the house of representatives.

Checks by the Executive

On the Legislative:

◆ The President can veto, i.e., override any act of the legislative.

◆ The Vice President serves as the President of the Senate.

◆ It can call special sessions of Congress.

◆ The President can recommend legislation to Congress.

◆ The President's compensation cannot be reduced during his entire term.
On the Judiciary:

◆ The President is in charge of the appointment of judges to courts.

◆ The President has the power to pardon anyone convicted of a federal crime.
On Itself:

◆ The Vice President, together with the cabinet, can declare the President disabled if he is incapacitated.

Checks by the Judiciary

On the Executive:

◆ It can declare a presidential act to be unconstitutional by judicial review.

◆ Once appointed, judges are independent from any interference by the executive, as they serve life terms.

◆ The Chief Justice serves as the President of the senate during impeachment proceedings of the President.
On the Legislative:

◆ It decides whether laws passed by the legislative are constitutional or not, by the process of judicial review.

◆ The compensation received by judges cannot be reduced during their term.

◆ They serve for a life term because of the good behaviour clause.

Powers Given to the People

➤ Citizens have the power to vote for electing people's representatives (legislative) every 2 years, members of senate (legislative) every 6 years, and the President (executive) every 4 years.

➤ Since the above departments influence the appointments of judges, it can be said that the citizens control the judiciary as well.
➤ The people, via their state representatives, can strike down any amendments to the constitution as proposed by the federal legislature, by a three-fourths majority.

➤ If the people find a law passed by the legislature to be unjust, they can file a lawsuit against it before a court, which decides if it is constitutional or not.
There has been some criticism that the system of checks and balances has slowed the government machinery. Nevertheless, this is the price to ensure that no department exceeds its brief, and the concept of liberty is upheld.