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Principles of American government

The power of US government is constrained by the separation of powers and checks and balances between branches.

Key points

  • The Framers of the US Constitution structured the government so that the three branches have separate powers. The branches must both cooperate and compete to enact policy.
  • Each of the branches has the power to check the other two, which ensures that no one branch can become too powerful and that government as a whole is constrained.
  • This structure ensures that the people’s will is represented by allowing citizens multiple access points to influence public policy, and permitting the removal of officials who abuse their power.

The structure of US government: separation of powers

By the late 1780s, it had become clear that the first governmental system of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, wasn’t working. The central government under the Articles lacked a strong executive and a method for resolving disputes at the national level.
But adding a strong executive branch to the US government might pose the opposite problem. Would an executive, wielding the power of the army, become too powerful? Would a federal government with more power overall soon become tyrannical?
At the Constitutional Convention, the Framers debated these issues. Their ultimate solution was to separate the powers of government among three branches—legislative, executive, and judicial—so that each branch had to cooperate with the others in order to accomplish policymaking goals. For example, although the executive branch commands the military, only the legislative branch can declare war and make funds available to pay and provision the army. Therefore, both the legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (the president) must consent for the United States to go to war.
Accordingly, each branch of government has unique powers. As the branch most responsive to the will of the people (who elect its members), Congress has the power to pass laws, declare war, ratify treaties, and levy taxes. The executive branch conducts foreign affairs and commands the armed forces. The judicial branch interprets the laws of Congress and the actions of the president to determine whether they are constitutional.
Powers of the branches of government
Legislative branch
Executive branch
Judicial branch
Pass lawsVeto legislationDeclare laws unconstitutional
Declare warCommand armed forcesHear cases on federal law
Impeach president and judgesGrant pardonsPreside over impeachment trials
Approve presidential appointmentsAppoint judges, ambassadors, department headsDeclare presidential acts unconstitutional
Ratify treatiesConduct foreign affairs and negotiate treaties
Levy taxes
Establish number of Supreme Court justices
Regulate Supreme Court's jurisdiction
Check your understanding
Which of the following is the best definition of separation of powers?
Choose 1 answer:

The structure of US government: checks and balances

In addition to separating powers among the branches, the Framers gave each branch the power to check, or stop, the actions of the other two branches in meaningful ways. For example, the president has the power to veto, or reject, laws made by Congress. But Congress can balance out that power in its turn by overriding the president’s veto with a two-thirds vote.
This system of checks and balances keeps each branch of government from overstepping its bounds, and consequently, the federal government itself from becoming too powerful.
Image showing how the branches of the government can check each other, with examples. The executive branch can check the legislative branch by vetoing legislation, and it can check the judicial branch by nominating judges. The legislative branch can check the judicial branch by impeaching judges and can check the presidential branch by impeaching the president. The judicial branch can check the executive branch by declaring presidential acts unconstitutional and can check the legislative branch by declaring laws unconstitutional.
Chart with examples of powers that each branch has to check the other two branches. The red arrows show executive powers, the blue arrows show judicial powers, and the gray arrows show legislative powers.
Check your understanding
Which of the following is the best definition of checks and balances?
Choose 1 answer:

James Madison argued for this system in Federalist No. 51, appropriately titled “The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments.” Madison reasoned that—because it is impossible to make all politicians angels who would never attempt to grab more power than they should—the most practical method for keeping the government in check is to structure the government so that politicians must compete with each other. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” Madison wrote.
Even if a faction, a group united by a common cause, were to take control of one branch of government, the separation of powers would prevent that faction from having too much influence on the government.

What’s important about separation of powers and checks and balances?

How does the structure of US government affect its citizens?
First, the separation of powers in the government means that making law is a long, complex process. Although this slows the pace of policymaking considerably, the Framers intended for it to be difficult for the government to act. The positive consequence of this system is that it gives people many opportunities to influence law as it travels through the policymaking process from initial idea to final implementation. For example, if Congress passes a law that a citizen disagrees with, that citizen can work to persuade the president to veto that law.
Second, checks and balances ensure that the government is working for the people’s interest and following the law. Government officials who commit crimes or abuse the power of their office may be impeached. Impeachment is the process of making formal charges against a public official. An official who is impeached undergoes a trial, and if convicted, he or she is removed from office. This process demonstrates that in the United States, no one is above the law, not even the highest public officials.

Want to join the conversation?

  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Harriet Buchanan
    If a sitting President were to do something so bad as to be an impeachable offence, and if a majority in the House of Reps were of his own party and refused to do anything, even though the damage to our country might be huge, irreparable and increasingly damaging over time, is there any check on two of the 3 branches which could be implemented prior to the next election?
    (15 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user corinag
    How do the checks on the Supreme Court work? The justices seem to have no ethical rules that they must follow and the Congress is unwilling to impeach (as in the case of Clarence Thomas, whose wife tried to overthrow the 2020 election as Thomas voted on relevant cases). Similarly, the president's power to nominate judges can be completely overruled by the Senate (as in the case of Merrick Garland).

    And all three branches of the government often seem entirely ruled by corporations and the wealthy few. I can see the intent in the framers work, but the system does not seem to be in balance.
    (8 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user FrozenPhoenix45
      Your question relating to the checks on the Supreme Court (assuming I understood it correctly) is excellent, and one I have often wondered myself. Due to a recent study of the Federalist Papers, however, I believe I have come upon an explanation.

      First, in terms of an ethical code, I believe you're correct in saying there is no official code specifically for the Supreme Court. However, every Supreme Court justice is bound to uphold the integrity and honor of the office, as well as follow the same ethical code as all other federal judges in the country. So I don't believe there's much to worry about on that front. However, I do believe the Supreme Court, if they don't already have one, may get their official ethical code soon.

      The Supreme Court, yes, does seem to have relatively few and ineffective checks against itself. The most that can be said is that the executive and legislative branches can nominate and appoint justices (when a position becomes available) and remove them if deemed appropriate (rarely, hopefully never). While this seems weak compared to other checks and balances within the government, the weakness is intended. Checks and balances can only be instituted where jurisdictions overlap, and the Supreme Court overlaps very little with the powers of the executive and legislative branches.

      The primary reason for this is that the framers wanted the Supreme Court as independent from the influence of the other branches due to the weakness of its designated powers. It doesn't wield the power of the sword (army) or the purse (economy), so it can't defend itself from the other branches the way they can from each other. Therefore, the only solution is to keep it as independent and outside the possible coercion of the other branches as possible, so it can do its job effectively.

      Alexander Hamilton wrote this in Federlist Paper #78:

      "Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive, that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.

      This simple view of the matter suggests several important consequences. It proves incontestably, that the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power; that it can never attack with success either of the other two; and that all possible care is requisite to enable it to defend itself against their attacks. It equally proves, that though individual oppression may now and then proceed from the courts of justice, the general liberty of the people can never be endangered from that quarter; I mean so long as the judiciary remains truly distinct from both the legislature and the Executive. For I agree, that 'there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers.' And it proves, in the last place, that as liberty can have nothing to fear from the judiciary alone, but would have every thing to fear from its union with either of the other departments; that as all the effects of such a union must ensue from a dependence of the former on the latter, notwithstanding a nominal and apparent separation; that as, from the natural feebleness of the judiciary, it is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its co-ordinate branches; and that as nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence as permanency in office, this quality may therefore be justly regarded as an indispensable ingredient in its constitution, and, in a great measure, as the citadel of the public justice and the public security."

      I recommend reading the whole of Federalist #78. But as you can see from this excerpt, the lack of power over the judiciary was intentional, in order for it to do its job effectively and without fear of the other, more powerful branches.

      As to your second comment, it is purely a matter of opinion, not a question, so I shall not address it. Everyone has a right to their own opinions.

      Does this help with your question? Did I understand what you were asking correctly? If not, let me know.

      I also ask, if anyone reads this answer and has a better or more accurate one, feel free to correct me!
      (13 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Grace Boyle
    Could there be a constitutional amendment that would limit the powers of checks and balances among the branches?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Brian Carriere
      Why pass an amendment when the same can be done with a law or executive order? Checks and balances are rarely enforced except for political posturing. At this point our government does not operate even remotely similar to the founders' intentions. 1. The feds have usurped far more power than ever intended for them. 2. Congress has delegated, or allowed the usurpation of, most of its authority to the executive branch.
      (6 votes)
  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user benderj2025
    if you get impeached can you go for president again
    (5 votes)
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    • hopper cool style avatar for user Math Hopper
      Yes, even if you get removed from office unless the Senate bars you from running again in your impeachment proceeding.

      But if the house impeaches you, but the Senate decides not to remove you from office, you are free to run for anything again.

      Hope this helps! Feel free to ask any more questions if you have any ;)
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user john.matylonek
    The statement in this article.."This structure ensures that the people’s will is represented by allowing citizens multiple access points to influence public policy, and permitting the removal of officials who abuse their power" could not further from the actual implementation of the US Constitution.

    Anyone that can read honest news, knows that many of our politicians have been swayed by legalized bribery and conflict of their private business interests and public good so that the "will of the People" are no longer represented in all the branches of government. The reason is that Party and Corporation, as organized selfish powers, have upset the the naïve ideals of the US Constitution so that majority of citizens concerns are not reflected in public policy.

    Rather, the nationalized forces of Party and Corporation have leveraged their omission from formal checks and balances to have design policies in all the branches that mostly benefit a few wealthy donors.

    The evolution of the Republicanism would have entirely differently if the Founders had declared that: Party and their agents shall be nowhere near the mechanisms of elections and nominations in the Judiciary. And Corporations and their agents shall be nowhere near the financing of elections and the appointments in the regulatory agencies.
    (5 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Hunter R. Shaw
      I find it very interesting that you both admonish the "naiveté" of the ideals of the Constitution and then put forth your own two sentence written solution you believe would wildly change the evolution of Republicanism.

      Bribery is illegal, but it is either rarely caught, or rarely enforced. Words are only as effective as the power enforcing them.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Mitchelle
    how could court-packing affect the policy-making process?
    (3 votes)
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    • winston default style avatar for user John
      Hi, Mitchelle! This is a hot topic, so I will just say that if the president and both sides of congress are in agreement, they may pack the SCOTUS with Justices sharing their ideological beliefs, and thus (arguably) disrupting the checks-and balances system. Remember, if an unconstitutional law passes Congress and is signed by the president, the SCOTUS is the only remaining body that can eliminate or rule unconstitutional the law.
      I hope this helps to answer your question! (And that I didn't offend anyone!)
      (3 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user Laboy, Anthony
    In the last paragraph, it explains what impeachment is, but How long would it take to impeach the president?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Harriet Buchanan
    Although I don't believe it has ever happened, the article says that a Supreme Court justice can be impeached. If the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court were to be impeached, would he be tried by the Senate? If so, who would preside? Is there a hierarchy of justices on the Supreme Court, so that a second highest could preside over the trial of the Chief? Or would the President appoint an Acting Chief, and would that appointment need to be confirmed by the Senate? If so, might that seem to be a conflict of interest?
    (3 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user William Vaughan
      The House of Representatives begins the process by submitting articles of impeachment. Simple majority vote sends it to the Senate for trial. A conviction in the Senate requires 2/3 vote, which would remove the judge from office. There's been one impeachment without conviction.
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user dylantao
    under what conditions will the checks and balances be enforced?
    (3 votes)
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    • ohnoes default style avatar for user DameanGomez07
      Dylantao it is a daily thing in Government (with Legislative, Executive and Judicial). The president may veto bills and the congress can Over ride the vetoed bills (with a two-thirds vote of congress), and it becomes law, if not then it won't be a law. If you look at the chart, you'll get a better understanding of how it works, I can teach everybody how the Branches of Government, Government itself and Politics, how it all started to where we're all at in government and politics. For right now it'll be better to look at the Chart and If you need more help, I'll be willing to help. Hope this helps with the little example I used. :)
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user haleyvanskiver
    What would happen if one of the branches stopped checking on the others
    (3 votes)
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