You hear a lot about the system of checks and balances on which the American government is based-lately we’ve hearing a lot about how they don’t work-but what are they really? Checks and balances were written into the Constitution because the men who created this country’s government were all too aware of the dangers of too much power in the hands of too few people. Prior to the American experiment, most countries were ruled by aristocratic monarchs with varying degrees of power. Regardless of these shifts from absolute to non-absolute power among monarchical governments, however, the fact was that there was little divide between legislating, executing and interpreting law. The greatest achievement of the framers of the Constitution was in separating those three distinct jobs and making sure that none of the three branches of government could run roughshod over the other.
The three branches of the U.S. government are situated in Congress, the President and the court system. Each branch has specific powers, but those powers are subject to oversight by the other branches in order to avoid abuse and misuse. The most commonly known example is that Congress has the power to create laws, but the President has the power to veto those laws from becoming implemented. If Congress believes strongly enough that the President is wrong, however, they have the ability to nullify his veto and make their bill a law by overriding it with a vote that has gained at least a two-thirds majority. But even if this occurs there is still the potential for the law to be struck down by the judiciary if somewhere along the way the law is determined to be unconstitutional.
Congress also has the power to subpoena witnesses and investigate any charges of wrongdoing in the executive and judicial branches. In order to check against this abuse, the President may invoke what is known as executive privilege to guard against the potential for members of Congress wishing to foster sedition by gaining sensitive information related to matters of national security. In times of crisis where Congressional demands and executive privilege are both in question, the judiciary can rule in favor of either side. Congress is also invested with the ultimate check on rampant excesses within the other two branches in that they can call for an impeachment of the President or federal judges.
In theory, the systems of checks and balances seems nearly perfect. In practice, not so much, except in relation to what came before. What the designers of this system never envisioned was the invention the career politician and centralization of power within the political parties. Today and for at least the last century it has been the political party and not individual politicians who hold the real power. On both sides, the Democrats and the Republicans, the first allegiance is always to the Party; it’s enough to question how different America really is from the Soviet Union. Representatives and Senators eagerly sacrifice ideals on the altar of party allegiance in order to win coveted committee chairs. Policy is determined not due to the country’s needs, but in order to hold onto power gained or to regain power lost. As a result, the system of checks and balances no longer works. The judges are appointed by the President so the principle of judicial review to keep them honest is obsolete. When the party in power in the White House also controls Congress there is no imperative to keep him in check. When the party in control of Congress is not the same as the President the system of checks and balance wildly fluctuates. Either that power is abused as when the Republicans impeached Pres. Clinton sheerly for political reasons, or else the power is not used at all out of fear of political repercussions, such as now when the Democrats have every reason to engage in a feeding frenzy on the executive branch but refrain from doing so because of fear of losing the Presidential election in 2008.
That the system of checks and balances has broken down entirely cannot be argued. When the Republicans controlled Congress they allowed Pres. Bush to set the dangerous precedent of investing far more power in the executive branch than was ever intended. Never a party to look toward the future, it is simply beyond the capacity to reason to understand how the Republicans could not have foreseen that these powers were not simply being given to George W. Bush, but to the office itself. Eventually, probably quite soon, there will be a Democrat in the White House. And he or she will have exactly the same powers as Bush and will probably be as subject to oversight as Bush was himself.
That sound you hear is conservatives quaking in their closets.