Front Page Titles (by Subject) Checks and Balances - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
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Checks and Balances - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Checks and Balances
The check and balance system is probably the most ingenious and carefully crafted feature of the American Constitution. Like the principle of federalism, it permeates the document. Here is what the Framers did in order to reconcile the principle of separation with the urgent need for a vigorous new government that would exercise some self-control:
(1) They arranged that there should be some overlap of functions among the three major departments of government. In some ways, one department was allowed to touch upon the usual affairs of a different department. Montesquieu had written that no department should exercise “the whole power” of another department, but to exercise some part of the power of another department was permissible. There ought to be no insurmountable wall of separation shutting off executive and judicial branches from the legislative in every respect. Thus in the final version of the Constitution that was submitted for ratification, the President (executive branch) was given a part in the legislative process, through his power of veto and his power to make recommendations in “State of the Nation” addresses to the Congress. On the other hand, the legislative branch, through the Senate, was given some power over the executive branch, in that treaties and presidential appointments to major administrative posts and to the judiciary must be confirmed by the Senate. Likewise, the judiciary was given some executive power to manage its own internal affairs. By the power of judicial review, it might also overturn acts of the legislature deemed unconstitutional.
(2) They improved upon the State constitutions by arranging that the members of the three branches of government should be chosen in three different ways—so making the executive and judicial branches more independent from the legislative. (In the early State constitutions, usually the legislature had appointed and removed State executives and judges.) Under the new Constitution of the United States, members of the House of Representatives would be elected by the voters of geographic districts within the several States; Senators would be elected by their State legislatures; and Presidents would be elected by a College of Electors. Federal judges would be appointed by the President, subject to confirmation by the Senate, and would be appointed for life. By separating personnel as well as functions, the authors of the Constitution sought to prevent the legislative branch from lording over a subordinate executive and a subordinate judiciary.
(3) The Framers provided each department with constitutional means for resisting attempts at domination by the other departments. The President’s “qualified veto” over enactments of the Congress was a protection for the executive branch. Life tenure for judges was a protection for the judicial branch. As an additional device for strengthening the executive and judiciary against the legislature, the Framers arranged that members of the House and Senate would be chosen by different means, and in part at different times. The Congress, for its share, was given the constitutional power of impeaching the executive or members of the judiciary—a grim power inherited from the British Constitution.
(4) It may thus be seen that an elaborate system of checks and balances was woven into the Constitution. These checks and balances were intended to prevent any person or organ of government from interfering with constitutional freedoms or with the lawful functioning of another organ of government. They also help to maintain the separation of powers by arming each branch with a defensive power to resist encroachments from another branch.
These built-in checks upon the power of any person or office in the Federal government are still functioning two centuries after their invention.
To obtain a clearer notion of these several constitutional means for separating powers and providing checks and balances in the Constitution, study the following list of such provisions in the original seven Articles of the Constitution: