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A Look at the Three Branches of the United States Government
The government of the United States of America is a delicate balance of enlightenment philosophies, citizen rights, and self-preservation designed by a diverse group of delegates, of whom many participated in the war that enabled the country’s freedom from Great Britain. At its basic form the government of the United States of America is a federation of independent sovereign states that allows for the existence of both state’s rights and a strong centralized republic. One of the key ingredients that bind these two different political systems together is the application of a three-branch form of government. This paper will take a closer look at the formation, the interaction between the branches, the successfulness, the modern challenges, and present some possible alternatives to this three-branch implementation of government.
Formation of the Three-Branch Form of Government
The founding fathers of the United States of America “in order to form a more perfect union” (Mount) established a three-branch form of government that “separated the powers” with the ratification of the constitution in 1789. The three-branch form of government originated from the Virginia Plan which “proposed a strong central government composed of three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial.” (Madison) The constitution of the United States of America outlines an independent Legislative Branch in Article I, an independent Executive / Presidential Branch in Article II, and an independent Judicial Branch in Article III. The articles define in detail the authority, the compilation, the rules of engagement, the interaction, and various other aspects of how these three specific branches of government should be divided.
The rational for a government that consisted of three unique branches is rooted in the founding fathers experience of living in societies that were ruled by a monarchy. Most of the founding fathers came from countries that were oppressive towards their people. Additionally, the founding fathers were also recently subject to and fought a war to break free from the tyranny of the British crown. This provided motivation and determination from most of the founding fathers to put safeguards in place to prevent the government of the new nation from “repeating the past”. Instead of a government that was ruled by a monarch or a royal family the founding fathers were resolved to establish a republic form of government ruled by the people. The three-branch form of government was their solution to prevent the power and authority of the government from resting in one person or group of people. Some speculate that this three-branch model was based on the concept of separate spheres for government, church, and family debated in the later part of the Middle Ages. Regardless of the exact origin in addition to simply separating the power and authority between three branches the system of government devised by founding fathers also contained the ability of the other branches to “check” and “balance” the other two branches.
The motivation for three branches of government can be summarized in the following quote: “Both sides (federalist & anti-federalist) agreed that to enable the same persons who made the laws to execute them as well, or to adjudicate cases that arose under those laws, was an express route to tyranny”. (Landy et al, p80)
Interaction of the Branches
As was previously stated, the three branches of the United States government were designed to “check” up on and “balance” the other branches. One of the reasons for this design is to ensure one branch does not become a vehicle for tyranny over the American people and erode the republic by the people.
[T]he great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. . . . Ambition must be made to counteract ambition [emphasis added]. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place, . . . [so] that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. (Landy et al p94)
Or to put it another way “the system of checks and balances was designed to ensure that ambition would not turn into a tyranny of the majority”. (Landy et al p95)
In addition to the perseverance of the republic, the concept of checks and balance between the branches also ensure the continuity of government. This is due to the fact that delegates of the different branches have different expertise and knowledge sets. An example, of continuity of the branches was seen in the 2000 presidential election. The people voted, the Electoral College elected by the legislatures voted, and it took the judicial branch to make a decision on how to proceed.
The constitution outlines several “checks and balances” that consists of responsibilities the three different branches have to ensure one branch does not control all of the authority in a particular area. The remainder of this section will outline some specific examples of how each branch has responsibility in the sphere of the other two branches. This list is not all-inclusive but presented to demonstrate the interaction and the balancing act between the three branches.
The Legislative Branch through the one or both houses of Congress depending on the issue “checks” the Executive Branch in various ways. Some example of “checks” on the Executive Branch include the ability to impeach and/or remove the president, overturning of presidential veto, approval of presidential recommended budgets, treaties, and appointments. The Legislative Branch also has several “checks” on the Judicial Branch to include the determination of the size of the federal court system, and the size of the Supreme Court. Additionally Congress is responsible for the approval and impeachment of federal judges, and for proposing new constitutional amendments.
The very visible office of the President carries out the most common “checks” of the Executive Branch. The President has the ability to veto laws passed by the Legislative Branch, introduce new legislation, and call Congress into special sessions. Additionally, the Vice President presides over one house of Congress. The President “checks” the Judicial Branch by nominating candidates for the federal courts, has the ability to pardon people convicted by federal courts, and by the implementation of court decisions.
The Judicial Branch through the function of the Supreme Court “checks” the Legislative Branch by providing consultation to Congress on matters of law and by ensuring laws past by Congress are constitutional. The Supreme Court of the Judicial Branch “checks” the Executive Branch by ensuring executive orders and other executive actions are constitutional and in adherence to approved legislation on the books.
Successfulness of the Three Branches
Although due diligence was put into the formation of our government by the founding fathers the successfulness of the government is often questioned. The simple fact that the “American Experiment” has survived for over 200 years is evidence that parts of the system is successful. A more specific question that could be asked is if the current system continues to exhibit the characteristics and goals the founding fathers had intended. To this question the answer seems to be hard to gauge because on one hand, the system seems to function as designed because laws are passed, carried out, and enforced. However, the level of involvement of the public appears not to be at the level many of the founding fathers had anticipated. The role of the federal courts also appears to have been increased in recent years, which is a concern since it is supposed to be in balance with the other branches and because federal judges are not elected. The remainder of this section will focus on these two perceived degradations in the system.
Regarding the anticipated involvement of the citizens in the new republic consider the following vision from the Anti-Federalist viewpoint:
The Anti-Federalists envisaged representatives returning home frequently to districts small enough to enable them to instruct constituents about the events taking place at the national capital and to receive instruction about how best to represent their constituents. (Landy et al p98)
Although this concept is alive and well in modern America it is rare or even non-existing that it is reported that a representative returned to ask their constituents for their instruction on events happening in the nations capital. Granted, there are some mechanism in place such as phone, mail, and email for citizens to let their representatives know their views however, the majority of representatives now days vote based on their on ambitions or based on the direction of their party affiliation. Another harsh reality, though hard to substantiate, is the fact that many representatives are more strongly influenced by special interest groups and lobbyist than they are by the people who voted them into office. The decline in public input perceived or real, is a major threat to a republic by the people for the people and if carried to its logical ends will result in a class system similar to the ancient Roman Empire. The decline also brings into question the three-branch government system since the core of the system is that the people’s views are being represented in all levels of government.
The increased role of the Judicial Branch in particular the Supreme Court is also contradictory to some of the founding fathers such as, the following:
The judiciary . . . has no influence over the sword or the purse. . . . It may truly be said to have neither Force nor Will, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments. (Hamilton)
The court has recently made interpretations of the constitution that appear to go against the intentions of the founding fathers due to societies changed moral views of what is accepted. Whether this is appropriate for a living document is a debate for another article but may be evidence that the Judicial Branch is not what some of the founding fathers intended. Some indicate that the shift of role of the Judicial Branch started during and after the Great Depression in case such as, Schechter v. United States in 1935 (Patterson p.82). Another sign of changes in the role of the Judicial Branch is the increasing occurrence of the federal courts ruling against laws passed by Congress and signed by the President such as the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban”. Either the other two branches are out of balance and approving things inappropriate, the people want to go in a different direction, or the courts are usurping authority that they do not have. Some have claimed these changes are evidence that the country is moving away from a republic by the people and towards a Judicial State.
Modern State's Right Challenges
There were many compromises that had to take place to allow the constitution to be signed by the majority of the states since some delegates were strong supporters of states rights while others were for a strong central government. In Federalist No. 39, Madison claimed that the Convention, liberated by the Great Compromise, created a Constitution that was “in strictness neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both.” (Landy et al p84) Two areas of compromise were the stance on slavery and the acceptance of the Electoral College. This section will analyze how these issues are viewed today.
As can been seen by history the issue of states being able to allow slavery eventually lead to a civil war. The results of the war of course, being the outlaw of slavery in the states. However, this issue continued in the form of civil rights until the following century. This issue too was resolved when the federal government stepped in and made discrimination at the state level illegal. This continues today in other areas of civil liberties.
The issue of the Electoral College was also recently in the news during the 2000 presidential election since the candidate with more Electoral College votes won instead of the popular vote. This issue has been a sore subject for many outspoken people such as Senator Hilary Clinton, who claim the people did not vote the president. Of course there are also many people that agree the Electoral College represented the view of the majority of the states instead of just the most populated states. In this particular election, if the Electoral College was not in place California and New York would have elected the President instead of the rest of the states.
It is the opinion of the author that the founding fathers had a great deal of insight and designed a system that was way ahead of their time. This system has survived for over 200 years and is thriving however; there are some things that could be done a little differently. The three-branch system and the balance between federal and state rights is impeachable in concept, however; the way certain aspects are implemented could be modified. In particular, the immediate removal of lobbyist and special interest groups would help to spur representatives to listen to the citizens they represent instead of the most influential or financially sound group. Term limits of all representatives and federal judges would also help curb the corruption and the “social class” like system that has emerged. Giving the President the ability to veto some laws but not all laws in a bill would help to prevent the partisan manipulation that takes place from the Congress. Allowing Supreme Court justices to be elected by the people instead of being appointed by the President would also help to ensure that the balance of the branches persists and that the views of the people are represented instead of a party. Additionally, with the technological advances the concept of a direct democracy of people voting for issues from their homes is becoming more of a possibility for some state and federal issues. This of course, would require a great deal of regulation, availability, and education. In the meantime, enabling more social media technologies such as blogs and public commenting should be made available to all Americans.
Hamilton Alexander “The Federalist Papers : No. 78”, Retrieved on June 19th, 2006 from http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/federal/fed78.htm
Landy Marc Karnis, Milkis Sidney M, “American Government: Balancing Democracy and Rights”
Madison James, “Virginia Plan (1787)”, Retrieved on June 19th, 2006 from http://www.ourdocuments.gov/ doc.php?flash=true&doc=7
Mount, Steve, “US Constitution Online: Preamble”, Retrieved on June 19th, 2006 from http://www.usconstitution.net/const.html#Preamble
Patterson, “The American Democracy, Sixth Edition”