Checks and Balances in the Constitution Prevent Abuse of Power
From The 5,000 Year Leap—A Miracle that Changed the World
By W. Cleon Skousen
A System of Checks and Balances Should Be Adopted to Prevent the Abuse of Power
Failure to use Checks and Balances effectively Causing Problems Today
Just how difficult this task turned out to be is demonstrated in a number of problems which have arisen in our own day. The failure to use the checks and balances effectively has allowed the judiciary to create new laws (called judicial legislation) by pretending to be merely interpreting the old ones. Failure to use the checks and balances has also allowed the President to make thousands of new laws, instead of Congress, by issuing executive orders. It has allowed the federal government to invade the reserved rights of the states on a massive scale. It has allowed the legislature to impose taxes on the people never contemplated by the Founders of the Constitution. (Skousen, 207-208)
Checks and Balances in the Constitution
A number of procedures were tried in various states to protect the will of the people, but they were mostly ineffective. The American Founding Fathers were impressed by the concept of checks and balances set forth by Charles Montesquieu. They eventually achieved a system of checks and balances far more complex than those envisioned by Montesquieu. These included the following provisions:
- The House of Representatives serves as a check on the Senate since no statute can become law without the approval of the House.
- At the same time the Senate (representing the legislatures of the states before the 17th Amendment) serves as a check on the House of Representatives since no statute can become law without its approval.
- A President can restrain both the House and the Senate by using his veto to send back any bill not meeting with his approval.
- The Congress has, on the other hand, a check on the President by being able to pass a bill over the President’s veto with a two-thirds majority of each house.
- The legislature also has a further check on the President through its power of discrimination in appropriating funds for the operation of the executive branch.
- The President must have the approval of the Senate in filling important offices of the executive branch.
- The President must also have the approval of the Senate before any treaties with foreign nations can go into effect.
- The Congress has the authority to conduct investigations of the executive branch to determine whether or not funds are being properly expended and the laws enforced.
- The President has a certain amount of political influence on the legislature by letting it be known that he will not support the reelection of those who oppose his program.
- The executive branch also has a further check on the Congress by using its discretionary powers in establishing military bases, building dams, improving navigable rivers, and building interstate highways so as to favor those areas from which the President feels he is getting support by their representatives.
- The judiciary has a check on the legislature through its authority to review all laws and determine their constitutionality.
- The Congress, on the other hand, has a restraining power over the judiciary by having the constitutional authority to restrict the extent of its jurisdiction.
- The Congress also has the power to impeach any of the judges who are guilty of treason, high crimes, or misdemeanors.
- The President also has a check on the judiciary by having the power to nominate new judges subject to the approval of the Senate.
- The Congress has further restraining power over the judiciary by having control of appropriations for the operation of the federal court system.
- The Congress is able to initiate amendments to the Constitution which, if approved by three-fourths of the states, could seriously affect the operation of both the executive and judicial branches.
- The Congress, by joint resolution, can terminate certain powers granted to the President (such as war powers) without his consent.
- The people have a check on their Congressmen every two years; on their President every four years; and on their Senators every six years. (Skousen, 211-213)
George Washington on the Importance of Preserving the Founders’ Checks and Balances System
The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power and proneness to abuse it which predominates in the human heart is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position.
The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositories and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern, some of them in our country and under our own eyes.
To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them.
If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed.
The Founders’ Device for “Peaceful” Self-Repair
During nearly two centuries that the Constitution has been in operation, it has carried the nation through a series of traumatic crises. Not the least of these have been those occasions when some branch of government became arrogantly officious in the administration of its assigned task or flagrantly violated the restrictions which the Constitution placed upon it. As President Washington indicated, there is a tendency for some of this to occur continually, as is the case in our own day, but when it reaches a point of genuine crisis there is built-in Constitutional machinery to take care of it.
Other Countries lack Means of Peaceful Self-Repair
By way of contrast, we have scores of nations which claim to have copied the United States Constitution, but which failed to incorporate adequate checks and balances. In those countries, the only remedy, when elected presidents have suspended the constitution and used the army to stay in power, has been to resort to machine guns and bombs to oust the usurper. This occurs time after time. What the Founders wished to achieve in the Constitution of 1787 was machinery for the peaceful means of self-repair when the system went out of balance.
The Blessing of Domestic Tranquility
Some of us have had to travel or live in nations during a time of turmoil and revolution. Even one such experience will usually convince the most skeptical activist that there is nothing to be gained and a great deal to be lost by resorting to violence to bring about political change. Once a constitution has been established and the machinery developed for remedy or repair by peaceful means, this is the most intelligent and satisfactory route to pursue. It requires more patience, but given time, the results are more certain.
To solve problems by peaceful means was the primary purpose of the United States Constitution.
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