Checks and Balances in American Politics, Put Simply

By Campaign Agent Luke Walpole

Where does power lie? A question asked time and time again in the realm of politics. If the President is the most powerful man in the world, how come President Trump failed to implement his Travel Ban, nor ‘TrumpCare’? This is because the US’s political system was built upon an intricate system of Checks and Balances – but what are they, and how do they work?

The History

With the American Revolution finished, the US Constitution was written partly to enable the US to become a cohesive country, as opposed to a confederacy of disparate states. Yet many Americans were scared, suspicious, and in some cases downright furious at the idea of a political set-up which resembled that of Great Britain. Therefore, the 7 weeks which James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and numerous other Founding Fathers spent ‘framing’ the Constitution saw an explosive clash of political ideals. Accordingly, the Constitution sets out a Separation of Powers between the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary.

The Theory

At its core, the question was all about power. America’s status as a republic meant that they did not want to have a monarchy above all else. Hence, the Legislature (Congress) is perhaps, on balance, the most powerful branch. However, someone had to be able to overrule Congress if it was acting in a reckless and partisan fashion. Therefore the Presidency was created and forms the Executive branch of the America political system.

But this was also true on the flip side of the coin. Reckless Presidents had to be kept in check, and so the Legislature was given powers to restrict the Presidency. Most notably with the ‘power of the purse’ (that is, the ultimate say over how money is spent) and also the ability to impeach the President if they really overstep the mark.

However, above all, the Americans were terrified that politics had the power to corrupt. They had broken free from the political vices of the ‘Old World’, and so did not want to repeat those same mistakes. Therefore, the Supreme Court was created to ensure that all governmental laws and actions were in keeping with the ideas codified in the Constitution. This was confirmed in 1803, through the case Marbury vs. Madison, which essentially gave the Court the power to strike down Federal Legislation if it was proven to be unconstitutional.

In Practice

Overall, there are over twenty different Checks & Balances in the political system, which help to ensure that no branch of the American system can exert an undue influence over proceedings. Amongst the Executive’s many powers is the President’s status of Commander-In-Chief of the U.S. Army, and the notable ability to Veto the laws created by Congress. It also has the ability to select Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices and others.

Yet even these powers can be curtailed. Congress, especially the Senate, plays a key role in essentially interviewing candidates, and then ratifies the appointments. Equally, they can even overturn the Presidential Veto, though this is a rare occurrence. As mentioned, Congress’s ‘nuclear option’ is the impeachment of a President; something which nearly happened to Richard Nixon, and did happen to Bill Clinton – though he was acquitted.

Finally, the Supreme Court is held to account in the sense that it appointees are selected by the President, and ratified by the Senate. Equally, Congress can impeach Supreme Court Justices. Finally, the Court doesn’t actually have any tangible power to enforce their decisions. In perhaps the most famous instance of this, President Andrew Jackson allegedly stated, in the wake of the court case Worcester vs. Georgia in 1832, that though Chief Justice ‘John Marshall had made his decision, now let him enforce it!’ Clearly, the Supreme Court’s power only goes so far.


What all of this means in practice is that power is scattered throughout the political system. This has proven problematic in the past. Recently, President Obama’s inability to perform many of his campaign promises – such as closing Guantanamo Bay – derived mostly from the Congressional ‘power of the purse’. Back in the 1880s, Grover Cleveland used the Presidential Veto over 300 times in his two terms, whilst the Supreme Court has sometimes attracted criticism for the politically charged aspects of its decisions.
Though the Checks and Balances can prove mind-numbingly frustrating, this is a quirk of their design.

Image rights: Gage Skidmore @ Flickr

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