Checks and Balances

The Founders created a government with three separated powers, each with distinct powers and competing interests. If one branch attempts to act outside its constitutional bounds, one or more of the other branches has a responsibility to stop, or check, that overreach of power. Some examples include the President’s veto power over laws made by Congress, paired with Congress’s ability to override the executive’s veto with a 2/3rds majority. The President negotiates treaties, but Congress can refuse to ratify them. The Supreme Court can declare laws unconstitutional, but Congress can set courts’ jurisdiction and the Senate must give consent to judicial appointments by the President.

As James Madison explained in Federalist No. 51, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.” The checks and balances system provides some of those “auxiliary precautions” against abuse of government power.

In framing a government based on separation of powers and checks and balances, the Founders were influenced by Montesquieu’s work The Spirit of the Laws.