The importance of checks and balances in the U.S. government

The Founding Fathers of our nation were not, contrary to the popular myth, at all confident in the idea of a democracy. Oh, it was a nice idea, but was it really possible to build a system that wouldn’t disintegrate into a simple dictatorship and despotism? The system that they set up is referred to as the “checks and balances” of our government, into which our Constitution is built. This means that no single branch of government can run wild, as each one is “checked” by each other branch, creating a balance in the government. In other words, neither the Executive Branch (the Presidency), the Legislative Branch (Congress), nor the Judicial Branch (the Supreme Court) will ever be in full and total control of the country.

The President checks the other branches: he can oppose the entire Congress and win-by using his right to veto any bill which is passed by congress. Recently, Congress passed a bill requiring the government to provide health-care for all low-income children, which was then vetoed by President Bush. The president exerts control over the Supreme Court too, since he appoints Supreme Court Justices.

But the president’s power is also checked. Congress can override his veto if a bill is supported by two-thirds of Congress. Additionally, all bills originate in Congress; the President cannot introduce his own. All of the president’s Supreme Court appointees must be confirmed by Congress which also serves as a check to the Supreme Court. Senate approval is necessary for many important aspects of the president’s job, such as to sign treaties with other countries. The Senate famously exercised its check by refusing to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which aside from ending the First World War, created the League of Nations. The United States was never able to join the League of Nations. The Supreme Court can review any Presidential act for constitutionality under the practice of Judicial Review, earning the title “Defender of the Constitution” for itself. If necessary, the Court can declare the act unconstitutional and reverse it.

Similarly, the Court can review any law in the country to determine its constitutionality, thus acting as a balance to Congress. One famous incident of this was the line item veto during the Clinton administration. Congress passed a law giving the President the right to veto any line he wants in a bill before signing it, without rejecting the entire law. The Supreme Court overturned this momentous law for transgressing the constitutional definition of a veto.

This intricate system of checks and balances laid down over 200 years ago ensures that no one person or group in the government can grab the reigns of the country. So far, at least, the Founding Fathers seem to have succeeded in building a lasting democracy.