To understand the division of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, one must also be familiar with the term “checks and balances”. Decisions are not so easily taken, and are certainly not taken by one person, not even by the President. This is for a reason.
Pre-reading: Discuss the following in small groups.
What do you think it means to balance power?
Is the President the most powerful man in the US?
You can find and easy version of the text here: Checks and Balances – Text in Brief
The US government is divided into three branches: The Executive (The President), The Legislative (Congress) and The Judicial (The Supreme Court). Each branch has its own specific duties. The division of power is part of what is called the system of “checks and balances” which was established to prevent any one single branch from doing anything without the approval or check of at least one of the other two. In this way balance is obtained. This system provides citizens with a comfort that actions and decisions, even as drastic as declaring war, will be discussed, debated and properly approved by the elected officials.
The following video clip (12:05), produced by the US Government, focuses on the history and founding of the US nation. It presents the important rights and responsibilities of US citizenship.
“Checks and Balances”
The three branches, forming a triangular shape, connect with one another, yet have their separate corners. They each have a main role/duties specific to their branch.
- The Executive Branch: The President carries out the laws, and he also proposes and lobbies for new legislation in Congress.
- The Legislative Branch: It is up to Congress to make and pass the laws.
- The Judicial Branch: When a law has been passed, the Supreme Court examines it to control that no part of it is unconstitutional.
No single branch of government can do anything without receiving the approval, or check, of at least one of the other two. In this way balance is obtained. Here are some examples:
- The courts can declare actions of the President, or his/her subordinates, unconstitutional.
- Congress can also check the federal courts. It has the power to remove a judge from office.
- If Congress passes a law that the President does not approve, he/she can block or veto it. However, Congress can override his/her veto, providing that two-thirds of both houses vote against the President.
- The President has executive privilege to withhold information from Congress, and Congress can mount an investigation to obtain information from the President.
- Congress can check the President by removing him/her from office.
- If a war is to be declared, Congress needs to approve. But in an emergency, the President can “press the button”. This is one of the President’s emergency powers.
The system of checks and balances provides citizens with a comfort that actions and decisions, even as drastic as declaring war, will be discussed, debated and properly approved by the elected officials that they have put their faith in.
Tasks and Activities
Study the 3 diagrams above and then try the inteactive tasks in the link collection.
What reasons would the Founding Fathers of the Constitution have had in creating three branches of government?
Write one paragraph in which you explain the term "checks and balances." Include its purpose and provide one example.