“Checks and balances” refers to the Constitutionally mandated separation of powers that results from divided branches of government.
The U.S. Constitution divides power among the three branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — to prevent any one from having too much power. Each branch is said to have the ability to check the power of the others, thereby maintaining a balance in the government.
Though it’s sometimes said the United States has three “equal” branches of government, in reality the power of each has fluctuated throughout history.
Examples of checks and balances include:
- The president (Executive) is commander in chief of the military, but Congress (Legislative) approves military funds.
- The president (Executive) nominates federal officials, but the Senate (Legislative) confirms those nominations.
- Both the House and the Senate have to pass a bill in the same form for it to become law.
- Once Congress (Legislative) passes a bill, the president (Executive) has the power to veto it.
- The Supreme Court (Judicial) and other federal courts can declare laws or presidential actions (Executive) unconstitutional.
The idea of checks and balances in government dates back to ancient times, as described by History.com: “In his analysis of the government of Ancient Rome, the Greek statesman and historian Polybius identified it as a ‘mixed’ regime with three branches: monarchy… aristocracy…and democracy. These concepts greatly influenced later ideas about separation of powers being crucial to a well-functioning government.”
Years later, in his work “The Spirit of the Laws” in the 18th century, Enlightenment author Montesquieu codified the idea of “checks and balances” when he warned of the threat of despotism by suggesting that there should be different parts of the government to exercise legislative, executive and judicial authority, all under the rule of law.
Montesquieu’s suggestion was later adapted by James Madison who, often described at the Father of the Constitution, wrote: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
Most historians agree that, like with any part of living history, the system of checks and balances has served our country well but goes through periods of stress, particularly during events like government shutdowns. As noted by Politico: “Our forefathers in their wisdom established a system of checks and balances in our Constitution to limit power in any one branch of government. That system has worked effectively for more than 200 years to limit power, but it also led to periods of legislative gridlock. We are in one of those periods of total gridlock with the current partial shutdown of the federal government. Each of the parties has dug in.”
Throughout the years, many have argued that the system of checks and balances is failing, as noted here, in reference to NSA’s controversial practice of telephone surveillance of U.S. citizens.
During the Trump administration, the system of “checks and balances” came under intense scrutiny, with a litany of articles suggesting the 45th president, with help from Congress, had placed too much power in the hands of the Executive branch.
The Bulwark: “The Trump administration’s radical expansion of executive power is beckoning what the Founders called “the very definition of tyranny.”
The Atlantic: “By the letter of the Constitution, and by the unwritten norms of American separation-of-powers governance, the main restraint on an overreaching, dishonest, or incompetent executive is a resolute legislative branch. But today’s legislative leaders—Mitch McConnell and his slim Republican majority in the Senate, Paul Ryan and his large Republican majority in the House—are ostentatiously refusing to play that check-and-balance function.”
Many blame the rise of intense partisanship over the last 20 years to further erosion of our system of checks and balances.