Checks and Balances

Understanding that a government's role is to protect individual rights, but acknowledging that governments have historically been the major violators of these rights, a number of measures have been derived to reduce this likelihood. Checks and Balances is one potential method.

Checks and Balances is a system where people in the government are able to impede the work of others in the government if they believe the work to be a violation of rights. In the US government, if one branch of the government becomes irresponsible, the other two branches have the ability to remove members of the first from office. This is called impeachment.

Another form of Checks and Balances is requiring two branches to work together to enact certain decisions. Treaties, for instance, require the President and the Senate to both agree. One group may prevent another group from acting by withholding support. This is easier in practice then trying to undo the actions of a rogue party.

The Checks part of the Checks and Balances is pretty straightforward. The Balances, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to grasp. Essentially, it is an attempt to keep the power of the government evenly divided into many hands, to prevent one group from becoming dominant. Since all three branches have checks on each other, the checks are used as a way of balancing the power. The branch that is grabbing too much power is limited via the actions of the others.

Checks and Balances are created to limit the power of the government. It achieves it by splitting the government into competing groups that can actively limit the power of the others. This is more likely to be done when a group is trying to use its power illegitimately.

Depending on how they are enacted, though, the Checks and Balances scheme can conflict with a Separation of Powers system. By allowing the other branches to have undue influence on the actions of the first group, they will expand their own power. Also, when a sharing of responsibilities occurs, the groups have incentives to work with each other to gain power, instead of against each other to limit power. The Presidential veto in the US is an example. The President has such significant power over the Legislature that he is able to demand certain provisions in the bills they pass or he will veto. The result is that the President works closely with the Legislative to increase Federal Power, and the alleged "check" on the Legislature did nothing to prevent an increase of power.

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Landauer and Joseph Rowlands