One of the main concerns of the nation's founders was a powerful majority overwhelming the minority. Their solution is a system of checks and balances among the three branches of government, which reveals the brilliance behind the U.S. Constitution and why it is has endured for more than two centuries. Enhancing this separation of powers are restraints placed on the federal government and defining its relationship to the states.
The Executive Branch
The Constitution spells out several restraints the executive branch has on Congress and the judiciary. The president's most powerful check on the legislative branch is his ability to veto any law. Additionally, the second most powerful member of the executive branch is the vice president, who presides over the Senate. The president has the ability to call Congress into session and can adjourn it if it cannot agree on doing so itself. He can also appoint federal officials and judges while Congress is recessed and is commander in chief of the armed forces.
Executive checks over the judicial branch include the president's power to appoint or pardon judges. The executive branch has its own check in that the vice president and cabinet can vote a president out of office if he becomes incapacitated from performing his duties.
The Legislative Branch
The legislative branch checks the executive through its power to override the president's vetoes with a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress. The House can impeach a president while the Senate conducts the actual trial. Only Congress, not the president, can declare war, raise revenue and authorize expenditures. The Senate must approve all treaties, judicial nominations and departmental appointments.
Congress checks the judicial branch through the power of impeachment and the Senate's role in advising and consenting all federal judicial appointments. It has the power to alter the number of justices on the Supreme Court and establishes all courts inferior to the Supreme Court as well as specifying their jurisdictions.
The legislative branch checks itself in that both the Senate and the House must approve a bill before it becomes law. Additionally, neither body can recess more than three days without the approval of the other.
The Judicial Branch
To protect the Supreme Court from the whims of the executive and legislative branches, justices are appointed for life and can only be removed through congressional impeachment. The Supreme Court has the power of judicial review over any law passed by Congress, and its interpretation is the supreme law of the land. Its checks on the executive include the power of judicial review and the chief justice is president of the Senate during impeachment trials.
State and Federal Restraints
Section 10 of Article I and the 9th and 10th Amendments establish the relationship between the states and the national government. Congress is limited to its enumerated powers; all others rest with the states and the people. States have the power over constitutional amendments through ratification and can bypass Congress in the amendment process by calling for a constitutional convention.
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