Checks and Balances Amongst the Branches of Government
When the Founding Fathers came together to deliberate the structure of America’s government over 200 years ago, they saw it necessary to establish three distinct branches of government: the legislative, executive, and judicial. However, also recognizing that human nature has a tendency to abuse its power, they wisely set up a system of checks and balances amongst the branches to help prevent overreach.
Of the three branches of government, the Founding Fathers intended the legislative branch to hold more power than the others. As James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper 51, “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” One reason for this reality is due to the fact that the Constitution gives elected representatives the responsibility to write and pass legislation. Secondly, the people can better hold their representatives accountable due to more local representation and frequent elections in Congress. The executive and judicial branches also provide a check and balance on Congress, for the President chooses to sign or veto bills passed by both chambers, and the Supreme Court has the ability to rule on the constitutionality of legislation.
In determining the role and position of the executive branch, many of the Founding Fathers were vigilant against giving too much power to one individual. They feared the creation of a tyrannical monarchy in their own country and therefore sought to prevent this scenario. Consequently, the Constitution describes a number of limited powers for the executive branch, with its fundamental role being to execute the law. As a result, after signing legislation passed by Congress, the President, along with his cabinet and staff, see that the laws are carried out. Alternatively, the executive holds the power to veto legislation, motivating Congress to find a different path forward if they want a bill to become law. The executive additionally nominates judges who are then confirmed by the Senate, providing an opportunity for both branches to influence the judiciary.
Originally, the Founding Fathers intended for the judiciary to be the least powerful branch of government. Its main role was to provide a fair and balanced court and provide a Constitutional check on the executive and legislative branches. However, over time, its influence and scope of power has tremendously increased from merely interpreting the law to actually legislating through its rulings. For example, over a period of time there was widespread debate regarding the definition of marriage. State legislatures and citizens in a number of states had the opportunity to vote on this important issue – some states choosing to uphold the traditional definition, and other states expanding it. However, with the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court trumped these state laws by legalizing same-sex marriage across the nation. Rather than allow the states to decide this issue on their own, the Court chose to take it into their own hands. As the late Justice Scalia pointed out in his dissent, “This is a naked judicial claim to legislative – indeed, super-legislative – power; a claim fundamentally at odds with our system of government.” He further explained, “A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.” This ruling on marriage is just one of many instances where activist judges have chosen to expand the original intent of the Constitution, creating it to say what is politically correct. Consequently, whereas this branch of government was designed to be limited in scope and power, its reach now has direct and significant influence over each of our lives.
Understanding the roles of each branch and their limitations is crucial. As can be witnessed, the Founding Fathers were correct in their observations regarding human nature. Individuals do have an appetite for power, and a number of politicians and justices have found ways to expand the original intent of the Constitution, causing the growth of government overreach that we see today. As the 2018 General Election approaches, may this post serve as an encouragement to study the Constitution in more depth and vote for candidates who will respect and uphold the limitations and principles it contains. In so doing, we the people can play our part in checking the branches of government and holding them accountable to the Constitution.