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Topics: Democracy, U.S. Government

Keywords: Constitution of the United States, legislative branch, executive branch, judicial branch, federalism

03 January 2008

Checks and Balances

The following material is an excerpt from the October 2005 IIP publication About
America: How the United States Is Governed.

The U.S. Constitution is the blueprint for the American system of government.
Ratified in 1788, the Constitution defines three separate branches of government
(legislative, executive, and judicial), their powers, and how positions in each are to
be filled.

One defining characteristic of the Constitution is the system of checks and balances
it creates to distribute power among the three branches. Each branch exercises some
form of power over the others. For example, justices of the Supreme Court
(judiciary) are appointed by the president (executive), but their appointments are
subject to the consent of the U.S. Senate (legislative). Likewise, the judiciary can
strike down as unconstitutional laws passed by Congress and signed by the
president. These and other checks and balances ensure that no single branch of
government exercises too much power.

Because the government may exercise only those powers specifically granted to it in
the Constitution, the Constitution is an important protection of the rights and powers
of the people. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution are known collectively as
the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees important freedoms to every
American, including freedom of speech, press, and religion; the right to be free from
unreasonable searches; and the right to have a trial by jury.

The Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, limits the legislative and executive
powers of all levels of government. Any law or portion of a law that is deemed by
the courts to be in conflict with the Constitution is nullified, with the U.S. Supreme
Court having the final say in such matters.

Amendments to the Constitution are adopted when proposed by two-thirds of the

House and Senate and ratified by three-fourths of the states. This is a difficult
process, with only 27 amendments having been made since the Constitution was
ratified. Of these, only 16 have been adopted since 1800.

The Constitution not only defines the structure and powers of the federal
government, but also contains general provisions regarding state government. Each
state, in turn, has its own constitution which contains provisions for local
governments within the state. Local governments may include cities, counties,
towns, school districts, and special-purpose districts, which govern such matters as
local natural resources or transportation networks.

The federal government is limited to the powers and responsibilities specifically

granted to it by the U.S. Constitution. Some of the powers listed in the Constitution
include regulating commerce among the states, providing for national defense,
creating money, regulating immigration and naturalization, and entering into treaties
with foreign countries.

Over time, however, the Constitution has been interpreted and amended to adapt to
changing circumstances, and the powers exercised by the federal government have
changed with it. Working with the states, the federal government creates certain
laws and programs that are funded federally, but administered by the states.
Education, social welfare, assisted housing and nutrition, homeland security,
transportation, and emergency response are key areas where states deliver services
using federal funds and subject to federal guidelines.

This gives the federal government the power to influence the states. For example, in
the 1970s, the federal government wanted to lower highway speed limits to reduce
energy consumption. Rather than simply legislate a lower speed limit, the federal
government threatened to withhold money for road projects from states that did not
themselves lower the speed limit. In many cases, the states also must partially fund
the programs to qualify for federal funds.

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