When a form of government separates powers into multiple layers which can regulate or overturn a decision from one layer to the next it is referred to as a check and balance system of government. These worksheets look at how checks and balances work in the American government. Students will explore the history behind this system and how it made its way to its modern form. We look at the limitations and procedures that were put in place because of running a system like this. Each of the branches are explored and we look at the powers and limitations of each branch. We will also explore the concepts of impeachment and veto power.
The U.S. Constitution created a government composed of three distinct branches so that no one branch of the government would become too powerful. In order to protect against a possible imbalance of power.
Who does the main work of enforcing and administering federal laws?
Marbury vs. Madison was a case about the presidential appointment of judges. Right before he left office, President John Adams appointed forty-two justices of the peace on March 2, 1801. The next day, which was Adam' last day in office, the Senate confirmed these nominations.
The Supreme Court found in favor of Marbury, ruling that his right to his commission had been violated.
Impeachment is the act of calling the integrity or value of something into question. Impeachment dates back to 14th century England, where it was used by the newly created Parliament to keep the king's advisor's accountable for their actions.
Since 1789, approximately half the impeachment trials conducted in the Senate have resulted in impeachment.
The Constitution is the document that established the United States federal government. It is the foundation of all U.S. law, and the highest level of law in the country.
The founding fathers knew that the Constitution needed to be powerful enough to run the country, but that it also needed to leave as much power as possible to both the individual states and the people themselves.
In the U.S. Constitution, power is divided equally between an Executive branch, a Legislative branch, and a Judicial branch.
Power is balanced between the Executive and Legislative branches as follows. When Congress produces legislation, it is the President's job to sign it into law.
The Judicial branch is a system of federal courts and judges. When hearing and deciding cases, these federal judges apply the law to real-life situations.
The lowest level courts are the U.S. District Courts, which operate across the different regions of the country and handle most federal cases.
While laws are actually created by the Legislative branch, they are enforced by the Executive branch.
War powers are also divided between the Executive branch and Legislative branches. The President is the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military forces, but it is the Legislative branch that has the power to declare war, and to raise and support the military.
America's founding fathers are the military leaders, rebels, politicians, and writers who both fought for America's freedom from British rule and established the system of government we have in place today.
After months of debate and months of writing, the Constitution needed to be formally accepted (ratified) by the 13 states.
When the founding fathers convened in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation, through the course of debate it became clear that the country needed a new Constitution entirely.
During the Constitution, there were basically two opposing sides. One side, called the Federalists, supported a federal system of government in which power was shared equally between the national government and the state governments.
A veto is the power to reject and completely stop an official action. The term is typically used in relation to the power of one entity to reject and stop enactment of a law.
While the Constitution does not actually use the term "veto," Article 1 of the Constitution does require that every bill, order, resolution or other act of legislation approved by the Legislative branch be presented to the President for their approval.
What Does "Checks and Balances" Mean?
A system is needed for any organization or institution to function effectively and eliminate the threat of authoritarianism. Specifically, a system that ensures all power is equally distributed and all parties are held accountable for their actions. This system is called checks and balances.
In the United States the constitution split the democracy into three branches of government. The form of governing has both benefits and drawbacks. The main benefit is that when a decision is made it reflects the opinion of the body at large. Due to all of the oversight and need for cooperation it does complicate and slow the process of governing. This form of managing large organizations has made its way into most modern large corporations. It helps ensure that the initiatives that a business takes on in the best interest of the company and cannot be driven by a single individual or small group of people.
Checks and balances refer to a separation of power in an organization or a government. The system of checks and balances stops any parts of an organization from becoming too powerful. This system of checks is most notable in governments.
The Origin Story
The system of checks and balances existed in the government of Ancient Rome.
Polybius (a Greek statesman and historian) believed that the checks and balances system was the strength of the Roman Constitution.
The Roman regime at that time consisted of three branches:
- The Consul (monarchy)
- The Senate (aristocracy)
- The Assembly (the people)
Polybius emphasized the necessity of having a separation of powers to prevent tyranny in a government.
Many other philosophers, such as Baron de Montesquieu and political scientists down the centuries, came to hold the same ideology as Polybius. In turn, the framers of the U.S. Constitution also came to value this ideology of separations of powers highly.
Much like the Ancient Rome constitution, this concept of separation of power is evident in the modern-day United States Federal Government.
The Three Branches of the U.S. Government
- The Legislative branch: The Legislative branch is in charge of creating the laws of the United States. This branch of the government includes Congress and consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
- The Executive branch: The Executive branch is responsible for carrying out and enforcing the laws. This branch includes the President, Vice President, and most federal agencies.
- The Judicial branch: The Judicial Branch's role is to interpret and review the country's laws. It consists of the Supreme Court and other federal courts.
How They Operate in Three Government Branches
- Congress can pass laws; however, the President has the power to veto them.
- The President can veto laws but can overrule the veto if they can pass it with a 2/3 majority.
- Congress and the President may approve of the laws; however, the Supreme Court can declare a law unconstitutional.
- The President has the power to appoint judges and government officials; however, the Senate (part of Congress) has the authority to approve or deny presidential nominations for heads of federal agencies, federal judges, and the Supreme Court.
- Supreme Court judges can hold office for life; however, they can also be impeached.
As you can see from the powers they hold, the three branches may be separate, but they are equal in strength. Below are a few examples of checks and balances at work in U.S. political history.
Checks and Balances at Work
- President Andrew Johnson vetoed over twenty bills after the Civil War.
- The Supreme Court in 1935 and 1936 declared the two New Deal Programs (NIRA and AAA) passed by the Roosevelt administration unconstitutional.
- In 1987, President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court was denied.
- In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). This federal law defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
- However, in 2015, the Supreme Court overturned this law declaring it unconstitutional.
- In 2016, Congress overrode President Obama's veto of the 9/11 bill, which would have allowed families to sue Saudi Arabia.
Checks and balances are the fabric of a well-functioning institution, especially in national governments. The equilibrium of power in the three branches of the U.S. Constitution is evidence of this system of power serving its intended purpose.