Having broken away from a tyrannical British government, the framers of America’s Constitution were determined to establish a system of governing that contained checks and balances against the tyrannical exercise of government power. They accomplished this through the separation of powers, a concept in which the powers of the federal government are divided among three separate branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The idea behind the separation of powers is that certain checks and balances would prevent any one branch of the federal government from becoming all-powerful, thereby rendering the others irrelevant and impotent. The extent to which the framers vision of governmental balance has been achieved has varied over the years based on the individuals who have held out nation’s highest government offices.
For example, President Obama’s extensive use of Executive Orders has allowed him to by-pass Congress—thereby defeating the framers’ purpose in dividing the powers of government among three branches. Of course, Congress is as much to blame as the president in this breach of Constitutional intent. Barack Obama has been able to abuse his power because Congress has been too weak and unwilling to challenge him. This abuse of presidential power demonstrates a key weakness in the Constitution or any other form of government. They are all dependent to some extent on the character of the individuals who serve in high office. In any case, the theoretical checks and balances built into the Constitution are as follows:
- Supreme Court. The Supreme Court may over rule a presidential action by declaring it is not authorized by legislation. The justices may rule that an action taken by the president is unconstitutional and, therefore, null and void. The Supreme Court may also rule that acts of Congress are unconstitutional and therefore null and void. Legal disputes that arise out of acts of Congress may be placed before the Supreme Court for interpretation.
- Congress. Congress is empowered to impeach the president and remove that individual from office if convicted. The legislative body may also override presidential vetoes, investigate presidential actions, approve or disapprove treaties, approve or disapprove presidential appointments, pass the national budget, and enact laws with which the president’s actions must comply. Congress also has the power to determine the size of the Supreme Court, the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, impeach and remove federal judges, rewrite legislation that has been interpreted by the Supreme Court, initiate constitutional amendments, and confirm judicial appointments.
- Executive. The president is empowered to nominate federal judges, pardon individual who have been convicted in a court of law, and implement court decisions (or as Barack Obama has done—refuse to execute the court’s decisions). The president’s powers concerning Congress include vetoing legislation, recommending legislation, calling Congress into special sessions, and executing the laws passed by Congress (which gives the president great latitude in interpreting those laws).