The power to govern is divided among three branches of
government in the United States Constitution. This separation of powers
establishes a system of checks and balances to prevent any single group from
wielding too much power.
What Are the Three Branches of Government?
The framers of the United States Constitution established
three branches of government to work in harmony and balance with one another.
While each branch has distinct powers under the government's blueprint, they
use these distinct powers to achieve a common goalâ€”upholding the United States
Constitutionâ€”and to govern according to the rule of law. The three branches of
the United States Government are as follows:
1. The executive branch: This branch, which includes
the President, Vice President, and the fifteen executive members of the
cabinet, is in charge of approving and enforcing the law. The President of the
United States has the authority to declare a state of emergency or grant a presidential
pardon to a criminal. The President has the authority to veto legislation,
appoint judges to the United States Supreme Court, and issue executive orders.
The powers of the executive branch are outlined in Article II of the
2. The judicial branch: The judicial branch, which
includes the Supreme Court and other federal courts, interprets the law. The
Supreme Court examines each law passed by the legislative branch to determine
whether it is in accordance with the US Constitution. Federal judges are also
responsible for reviewing the actions and criminal investigations of members of
the executive and legislative branches. Article III of the Constitution defines
the judiciary's judicial powers.
3. The legislative branch: The legislative branch makes
laws and limits the President's executive power and the judicial power of
federal courts. The House of Representatives and the Senate make up the
legislative branch. With a two-thirds majority vote, these groups of elected
officials share the legislative authority to declare war, balance the budget,
and overturn the President's veto. Article I of the Constitution defines the
legislative branch's authority.
What Are Checks and Balances?
Checks and balances refer to the principles and procedures inherent
in the three-branch system that spread constitutional control across more than
one group, reducing the risk of improper behavior or power centralization. In
establishing the three branches of government, the founding fathers established
a system of checks and balances in which one branch could check the
constitutionality and power of the other two branches. Any powers not delegated
to the federal government fall to the states.
Why Do Checks and Balances Matter?
Baron de Montesquieu, an eighteenth-century French political
philosopher, wrote about the importance of these checks and balances in The
Spirit of Laws (1748), expanding on the ideas of the Greek historian Polybius.
Montesquieu contended that despotism posed a threat to all forms of government
and that separate branches of government should have areas of responsibility
and political power to challenge the other branches. Internal conflicts between
the branches would ensure that no one branch could amass enough power to
dominate the others or oppress the common citizenry.
To establish the parameters of their separate government,
James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the framers of the Federalist Papers
(1778) used Montesquieu's idea of division of powers. They exemplified this
distinct structure in Articles I and II of the Constitution. These articles
assigned responsibilities to each branch, as well as guidelines for political
nominations, impeachment proceedings, and appropriation of funds. The goal of
the framers was to create a fair and just system of governance that would look
nothing like the government they had just defeated in the American Revolution.
7 Checks and Balances Examples
Checks and balances operate in a variety of ways across the
various branches of government. Checks and balances include the following:
1. Constitutional Amendments: By passing constitutional
amendments, Congress can check the Supreme Court's decisions.
2. Impeachment: Congress has the authority to impeach
members of the executive and judicial branches. President Andrew Johnson was
impeached in 1868 (acquitted by the Senate), President Richard Nixon in 1974
(resigned), President Bill Clinton in 1998 (acquitted by the Senate), and
President Donald Trump in 2019 and 2021. (acquitted by Senate).
3. Judicial review: Although the judicial branch has the
authority to declare laws or presidential actions unconstitutional, the
president appoints judges in the court system. The president's Supreme Court
nominees must be approved by the Senate. Criminals may also be pardoned by the
4. Military action: The president is the commander-in-chief
of the military, but Congress must vote to declare war and approve military
funding. The president can make peace treaties, but they must be approved by
the Senate by a two-thirds vote.
5. Nomination of officials: The president may nominate
federal officials, but those nominations must be confirmed by the Senate.
6. Passage of laws: Laws must be passed by both the
House of Representatives and the Senate in the same form in order to become
7. Veto power: When Congress passes a bill, the
President has the authority to veto it; however, Congress has the authority to
override the presidential veto with a two-thirds vote.