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SEPARATION OF POWERS

By The Issue Wonk

 

 

Abstract:  The term “Separation of Powers” refers to the allocation of authority set forth in the first three (3) articles of the U.S. Constitution.  By this division, the Constitution prevents any branch from exercising total power.  “Checks and balances” refers not only to the balance of power but also to the responsibility of each branch to oversee the actions of the others, to limit the powers of the other branches.  The framers of the Constitution not only wanted to check the powers of the government, they also wanted to ensure the independence of each branch.  Our form of government is designed to prevent any one person or political faction from ruling with an iron fist, from trampling on the civil rights assured to the citizens of the United States.

 

 

 

The first three (3) articles of the U.S. Constitution sets out the powers and responsibilities of the three (3) branches of government:  the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial.  By this allocation of authority, the Constitution’s framers ensured that principal powers would never be concentrated in the hands of any single branch and prevented the national government from running roughshod over the individual state governments.  This is what the term “Separation of Powers” means.

 

By this division, the Constitution prevents any branch from exercising total power.  They each have different rights and functions granted to them, although there is some overlap.  (Think of “advice and consent.”)  But, no one branch has total authority.  This is also known as the “balance of power.”

 

In addition, the term “checks and balances” refers not only to the balance of power but also to the responsibility of each branch to oversee the actions of the others, to limit the powers of the other branches.  Thus, each branch has limited powers and each is checked by the others.  In this way, no one branch can usurp enough power to become dominant.  The Executive has the following powers:  veto power, appointment of judges and other officials, making treaties, ensuring all laws are implemented, commander in chief of the military, and pardon power.  The Legislative’s powers include the power to establish laws, to establish lower federal courts, to override a presidential veto, and to impeach the president.  The Judiciary has the power to try federal cases and to interpret the laws.  Wikipedia1 has an expanded table that sets out the Constitutional powers for each branch and the checks and balances exercised by the other branches.

 

The framers of the Constitution not only wanted to check the powers of the government, they also wanted to ensure the independence of each branch.  The President is protected against criminal prosecution while in office, except in the case of impeachment.  If impeached, a super-majority (two-thirds) is needed to convict.  Members of the Judiciary are given lifetime appointments with a guarantee that their compensation will not be reduced.  In order to ensure free discussion, Congressional members are protected from liability for statements they make on the floor in a debate.

 

Why is our structure of government different from all others?  Why the emphasis on separation of powers?  It appears that the framers designed the Constitution to do one primary thing:  to prevent any one person or political faction from ruling with an iron fist, from trampling on the civil rights assured to the citizens of the United States.  Their fears were based on their experiences with the despotic rule of the British monarchy.  According to Dr. Paul M. Johnson, a professor of Political Science at Auburn University in Alabama, “One of the most important of the basic principles that guided the framers of the U.S. Constitution . . . was the idea that the root cause and essence of tyrannical government is the concentration of control over all the powers and functions of government in the hands of the same individual or narrow political faction.” 2  Thus, the framers first divided the new country between the federal government and the state governments and then further watered down power by dividing the federal government into the three (3) distinctive branches.  Johnson also says, “The idea that concentrated political power is a mortal danger to civil liberties and popular rights remains to this day one of the most persistent and characteristic features of American ideologies and popular thinking about politics.” 2

 

 

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1en.Wikipedia.org

 

2Johnson, Paul M., (1994-2005) A Glossary of Political Economy Terms.  Auburn University, Department of Political Science (www.auburn.edu)

 

 

 

© The Issue Wonk, 2006

 

 

 

 

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