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Checks and balances are the constitutional controls whereby separate branches of government have limiting powers over each other so that no branch will become supreme. Perhaps the best known system of checks and balances operates in the U.S. government under provisions of the federal CONSTITUTION.

Most national, state, and local governments have at least the mechanics of a system of checks and balances. Even dictatorial governments, otherwise scorning restraints on powers, provide internal checks to insure proper performance by governmental agencies and to fix responsibility.

Theory of Checks and Balances

The concept of constitutional checks arose as an outgrowth of the classical theory of separation of powers, by which the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government were held properly to be vested in three different units. The purpose of this, and of the later development of checks and balances, was to ensure that governmental power would not be used in an abusive manner. However, in its original form the concept involved social classes rather than government departments.

Classical political philosophers from Aristotle onward favored a "mixed" government combining the elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The English theorist James Harrington in his Oceana (1656) derived a theory akin to separation of powers from the old idea of mixed government. Later, John Locke, in his second treatise Of Civil Government (1690), urged that the best way to avoid a perverted government was to provide constitutionally for separation of the legislative and executive powers. Montesquieu, in his Spirit of the Laws (1748), added the third power of the judiciary to this concept, and the modern expression of separation of powers came into being. The mechanics of checks and balances were refined by the founders of the American republic.

Provisions in the U. S. Government

The framers the U. S. Constitution were strongly influenced by the advantages of separation of powers and of checks and balances. These theories had been in practice in the governments of the American colonies, and they underlie the fundamental laws of the United States. The Constitution distinctly separates the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. The federal system adds to the checking because power is divided constitutionally between the central government and the states. Further, the constitutional provisions for direct election of members of both houses of CONGRESS and virtually direct election of the president puts two branches of the government under check of the electorate.

However, procedural requirements in the Constitution ensure that even measures popular with the voters cannot be adopted without presumably adequate consideration. The operation of checks and balances in the federal government is spelled out in the Constitution. The two houses of Congress legislate separately, and this legislation is subject to presidential veto; however, Congress, by a two thirds vote of each house, can override a presidential VETO. The judicial branch, in determining cases, may declare legislation unconstitutional, but the judiciary itself is subject to executive and legislative checking through the appointment of judges and the passage of legislation governing organization, procedure, and jurisdiction of the courts. There also is a possibility of amendment of the Constitution to reverse judicial determinations. Other constitutional checks are the possible legislative removal of the president and of judges by IMPEACHMENT and approval by the Senate of treaties and major presidential appointments.

Paul C. Bartholomew
University of Notre Dame

For Further Reading

Panogopoulos, E. P., Essay on the History and Meaning of Checks and Balances (Univ. Press of Am. 1986)