Checks and balances

A fundamental principle undergirding the design of American government is that of the separation of powers, which prescribes the parcelling out of the various powers and functions of government to separate and relatively independent levels and branches of the federal system in order to prevent their all being controlled at the same time by any potentially tyrannical political faction. But, to the way of thinking of the Framers of the Constitution, the long-term survival of free popular government would require more than simply a purely formalistic separation of governmental functions and powers into completely independent organizational jurisdictions. Ambitious and unscrupulous office holders in one or another of the various branches and levels of government could be expected to encroach upon the powers and authority of the other branches and levels from time to time, and this would gradually bring about a tyrranical concentration of powers unless the leaders in the other parts of the government could be given the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist the encroachments of the others. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man [the officeholder] must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place."

From this the Framers concluded there was a need for the Constitution to include a built-in set of "checks and balances" -- the necessary legal weaponry for each branch to defend itself against encroachments on its independence and authority by the others. In most cases, this contervailing power is purely negative, usually taking the form of some special constitutional grant of authority for one branch to say "no" to at least some of the specific decisions of the other branches in their own fields of specialization and then make it stick. (Some examples: The two houses of Congress may finally agree on a compromise to pass or repeal a law, but the President can veto it. President and Congress can agree on passing a law, but if the federal judiciary declares it to be unconstitutional the courts will refuse to treat the law as valid or enforceable. The courts can issue orders and injunctions for particular individuals to act or refrain from acting in particular ways, including public officials, but the power of the law enforcement agencies in the executive branch is needed to enforce them if the individuals in question decide to disobey. The Congress cannot control the way a judge will rule in a particular case before him, but Congress has the power to define and redefine the jurisdiction of the various federal courts. The President has general supervision of the conduct of foreign policy and military policy, but his treaties must be ratified by the Senate before they enter into force, and only Congress can appropriate public money to pay for such things as the raising of an army or the dispensing of foreign aid.) Under the system of checks and balances, each branch has primary authority to decide on certain kinds of issues, yet each branch often requires at least minimal voluntary cooperation from the other branches if its decisions and initiatives are to be successfully implemented. Since officeholders are assumed to be ambitious and jealous of their authority, policy cooperation and coordination across the various branches and levels of government can only be the product of hard bargaining and mutually acceptable delineation of authority -- therefore hopefully sustaining the constitutional separation of powers through maintaining a practical balance of power among rival powerholders. And since by virtue of the differing compositions of their constituencies the leading officeholders tend to be responsive to somewhat differing interest groups within society, the need for negotiated compromises among the various branches and levels of government in order to implement policy may also translate into a policy-making process that takes seriously into account the interests of many minorities along with those of majorities.

Criticisms of the separation of powers and checks and balances concepts point out that such arrangements make policy making more cumbersome and time consuming than it needs to be and that in fact it can result easily in a deadlock in which government is unable to take any action at all. Moreover, it is also said to be undemocratic, in that it places barriers to the absolute power of the majority to determine public policy by imposing on majorities the need to bargain with (and make concessions to) minorities that have managed to gain disproportionate influence on one or another branch or level of the federal system of multiple governmental institutions. For these reasons, political thinkers who see government as the primary instrumentality for the community to successfully combat or adjust to an on-going series of emergencies that have no other possible remedy tend to be very suspicious of such decentralized power arrangements. On the other hand, political thinkers that see society and the economy as largely self-regulating organisms that need relatively little in the way of new policy initiatives from government for their successful functioning tend to take a more favorable view of checks and balances.

[See also: separation of powers, veto, judicial review, appropriation bill, authorization bill, interest group, pluralist theory]