If you’ve tuned into the news lately, you’ve seen the checks and balances system of government at work. Whether it’s courts striking down executive orders or governors vetoing legislation, checks and balances are constantly working to keep the United States government functioning.
But what are checks and balances, exactly? And how do they help make democracy work?
Although it’s important for everyone to understand the checks and balances system, it’s especially critical for you to understand if you’re taking a government course. Additionally, since a system of checks and balances plays an essential role in the U.S. federal government, the concept will also be a heavy contender for an AP exam free response question.
That’s a lot to cover, huh? Not to worry, though! By the end of this guide, you’ll have all the information you need to
- Answer the question, “What are checks and balances?”
- Write your own checks and balances definition
- Identify pros and cons of a checks and balances government
- Explain various checks and balances examples
- Analyze real-life examples of checks and balances
Let’s get going!
What Are Checks and Balances? Definition and History
A system of checks and balances places limitations and controls on the power and responsibility of each branch of government. You probably already know that the United States government isn’t the only government in the world that depends on a system of checks and balances to function properly, but for our purposes, we’re going to focus on how the system of checks and balances functions in the United States’ form of government.
To really understand why checks and balances are such a big deal in the United States government, we need to start with the following:
- Where the idea of checks and balances comes from
- How checks and balances fit into the United States’ form of government
Understanding the history and background of our checks and balances government will lay the foundation for a checks and balances definition that you can use on the AP exam.
Where the Idea of Checks and Balances Comes From
Two key influences shaped the Founders’ decision to build a system of checks and balances into the United States Constitution:
- The Founders’ experiences with the government of Great Britain
- The writings of the eighteenth century French political philosopher, Baron de Montesquieu
The overbearing behavior of the English monarchy inspired the thirteen colonies to declare independence and influenced the Founders to form a government system that was built on the ideas of liberty and freedom. They wanted to form a government in the United States that guarded against the kind of overreach they’d witnessed in the English government.
That’s where the writings of Baron de Montesquieu came in. Montesquieu originated the political doctrine of separation of powers within a government. (Spoiler alert: checks and balances are the result of this idea!) In his The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu argued for a constitutional government comprised of three separate branches. And these separate branches, Montesquieu argued, should have specific abilities to check the powers of the other branches.
In other words, Montesquieu imagined a balanced government where no one branch was more powerful than the other.
Montesquieu’s philosophy heavily influenced the writing of the U.S. Constitution and the Founders’ establishment of the three branches: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The Founding Fathers believed that implementing a system like this in the United States would help keep government power in check and allow citizens to have more freedom.
A Constitutional Democracy: The Vehicle for a System of Checks and Balances
The Founders’ vision for a government that separated powers took the form of a constitutional democracy. A constitutional democracy is a political system in which the federal government gets its authority to govern from the people. (Actually, you can learn tons more about it means to be a democracy in this article!) But in general, constitutional democracies like the United States are designed to do two things.
First, their primary job is to protect the fundamental rights of every citizen, regardless of economic status, race, or class. Second, constitutional democracies limit the amount of government power through a series of limits established by the United States Constitution, which are more commonly referred to as “checks and balances.” These checks and balances include things like:
- Separation and sharing of powers among the different branches of government
- Giving adequate power to different branches to check the powers of other branches
- Protection of individual rights by due process of law.
- Elections at frequent intervals that enable changes in leadership and transfer of governmental authority.
So what’s important for you to remember about this description of a constitutional democracy? The big takeaway is that the system of checks and balances was written into the U.S. Constitution because the Founders knew it would be essential to the proper functioning of the United States’ form of government.
But implementing a system of checks and balances doesn’t end with writing it into the Constitution--that’s just the beginning. The Constitution holds the three branches of the U.S. federal government responsible for adhering to the system of checks and balances.
To add to your working checks and balances definition, we’ll explain the three branches of the federal government and how they work within the system of checks and balances next.
The 3 Branches of the United States Federal Government
Checks and balances can work in many different ways and hold varying levels of importance in a government that employs such a system. In the U.S. Constitution, the three branches of the federal government were designed to operate separately and independently, but to be equal. In other words, no single branch should have more power than either of the others.
Here’s how the system of checks and balances works in practice in the United States: one branch is given the power to take a given action, and another branch (or branches) is given the responsibility to confirm the legality and appropriateness of that action. That’s just a fancy way of saying that every time one branch makes a decision, it’s the responsibility of the other branches to evaluate it.
The system of checks and balances facilitates a reciprocal relationship between the different branches of the U.S. federal government. The three branches need each other—under the Constitution, the federal government couldn’t fulfill its duties to the people without the proper function of each individual branch.
To understand how the three individual branches work independently and together in a system of checks and balances, let’s define and examine each branch next.
The U.S. Capitol building
The Legislative Branch
The legislative branch of the federal government is established by Article One of the Constitution and is known as the United States Congress. Congress is in charge of creating laws and is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The legislative branch is big: there are 100 members of the Senate, called Senators, and 435 members of the House of Representatives, called U.S. Representatives or Congresspersons.
- Passing bills
- Broad taxing and spending power
- Regulating interstate commerce
- Controlling the federal budget
- Borrowing money on the credit of the United States
- Sole power to declare war and to support and regulate the military
- Overseeing and making rules for the government and its officers to follow
- Defining the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary by law in cases not specified by the Constitution
- Ratifying treaties
- Sole power of impeachment and trial of impeachments
You might be gathering from the list of responsibilities above that the legislative branch’s overarching responsibility is creating, providing for, and controlling: they draft laws, pass bills, make rules, declare things, and make sure that the other branches are following the rules. In other words, they legislate.
The U.S. White House
The Executive Branch, Defined
The executive branch of the federal government is established by Article Two of the Constitution and is made up of the president, the vice president, the Cabinet, executive departments, independent agencies, and other boards, commissions, and committees.
When we hear the word “executive,” a powerful individual in a well-tailored suit might pop into our minds. Just because the President of the United States is the head of the executive branch doesn’t mean they’re a lone wolf, though. All of the other members of the executive branch support and advise the president, and actually do a lot of the work in the executive branch.
The Cabinet is comprised of the vice president and the heads of the fifteen executive departments. These department heads have titles like “secretary,” “director,” or “administrator,” and they’re in charge of everything from the Department of Homeland Security, to the Department of Transportation, to the Department of Education.
For example, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury are both heads of their respective departments and members of the president’s Cabinet. The Secretary of State advises the president on foreign affairs, and the Secretary of the Treasury advises the president on economic affairs.
The Cabinet may also be asked to advise the president on responsibilities or decisions that pertain to executive checks on the other two branches, or the executive branch’s response to checks initiated by the other two branches on the executive branch. This is one key way that the president receives both support and accountability in carrying out the duties of the executive branch.
Now that you know who makes up the executive branch, let’s look at the executive branch’s key responsibilities:
- The President is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces
- Executes the instructions of Congress
- May veto bills passed by Congress
- Executes the spending authorized by Congress
- Declares states of emergency, publishes regulations and executive orders
- Makes executive agreements and signs treaties
- Makes appointments to the federal judiciary, federal executive departments, and other posts
- Can grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.
You’re probably gathering from this list that the executive branch’s main role is to implement and enforce federal laws. It’s called the “executive” branch for a reason, right? The executive branch executes: it makes sure that the right stuff gets done. It puts plans into action and carries out different laws and orders.
The U.S. Supreme Court building
The Judicial Branch, Defined
The judicial branch is established by Article Three of the Constitution, and it’s the judicial branch’s job to evaluate, interpret, and apply laws. The judicial branch is made up of three different courts: the Supreme Court, the Appellate Courts, and the District Courts. Let’s look at what each of the three courts within the judicial branch can do.
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the United States and is the head of the judicial branch. It’s made up of one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. Appointments to the Supreme Court are made for life, so when the President nominates justices and the Senate approves them, it’s a really big deal.
The Appellate Courts
The Appellate Courts--also called courts of appeals--are the intermediate courts of the U.S. federal court system. There are thirteen of them, and they serve as a sort of go-between for the Supreme Court and the more numerous District Courts. The Appellate Courts hear appeals from the District Courts and, when appropriate, appeals court decisions to the Supreme Court.
The District Courts
The District Courts are the final component of the judicial branch. The District Courts are where federal trials happen, which is a big responsibility, as there are 94 juridical districts in the United States. Their jurisdiction covers both civil and criminal federal cases.
The Judicial Branch’s Responsibilities
Now that you know about the different courts that make up the judicial branch, here are the primary responsibilities of the judicial branch:
- Determining which laws Congress intended to apply to any given case
- Determining how Congress meant the law to apply to disputes
- Determining how a law acts to determine the disposition of prisoners
- Determining how a law acts to compel testimony and the production of evidence
- Determining how laws should be interpreted to assure uniform policies through the appeals process
- Reviewing the constitutionality of laws through judicial review
You can probably tell from the language used in the list of responsibilities above that the Judicial branch’s primary responsibility is dealing with interpretation: the Judicial branch interprets laws, policies, cases, testimony and evidence through the Constitution.
The system of checks and balances works like gears in a machine. It takes the work of all three branches of government in unison to keep the country running.
How Does the Checks and Balances System Work in the United States?
Now you know about the three branches of government: who the key players are, what they do, and why they do it. Examining the checks and balances that are assigned to each individual branch is the next step to getting you better acquainted with how each branch works.
When we described the responsibilities of each branch in the previous sections, we were simultaneously describing how they check the other branches of the federal government. But we think it might be easier to envision how those responsibilities function explicitly as checks and balances if we place them side by side in a table. If you’re a visual learner, this is for you!
Looking at all of the checks and balances in one place can also help you think critically about the reciprocal relationship between the different branches and the specific ways that they work together on different topics, issues, and areas of the federal government.
To give you a better idea of how the branches work together to check each other, we’ve laid out the different checks and balances in a table below. Each row explains how the branches of government check and balance each other around a specific topic.
Let’s take a look:
Checks and Balances of the 3 Branches of Government
Legislative Branch Powers
Executive Branch Powers
Judicial Branch Powers
Implementing and Interpreting Laws
Official Role Appointments
Appointing Judges and Justices
Executive Branch Actions
Whew! That’s a lot of checks and balances and political jargon. Let’s make sense of all this info by identifying some pros and cons of how the powers and responsibilities are distributed in the U.S.’s version of the system of checks and balances.
5 Pros and Cons of a Checks and Balances System
Now you have a visual for how checks and balances are assigned and distributed among the three different branches of the U.S. federal government. But what does this all mean?
First, it’s important to recognize that the different branches of the federal government aren’t in some kind of antagonistic relationship because of the system of checks and balances. They don’t act like rival sports teams (usually)! Instead, the powers and responsibilities assigned to each branch were intricately coordinated by the writers of the Constitution so the government would operate collectively in the best interest of the people.
But it’s a fact of political life that no government system is perfect in practice. On the AP exam, you might be asked to explain or analyze an instance in which the system of checks and balances didn’t do its job, or perhaps to analyze a situation when the system of checks and balances worked to the advantage of U.S. citizens.
In order to do this, you’ll need to understand some of the pros and cons of the U.S.’s checks and balances system so you can give a stellar checks and balances definition and analyze and explain checks and balances examples on your own.
Check out our list of 5 pros and cons of checks and balances below to help grow your understanding of how the system can work in action.
Pro: They Keep a Single Group From Grabbing too Much Power
We’re bringing this one up again because it’s the main concept behind implementation of a system of checks and balances: checks and balances guard against tyranny and abuse of power by preventing an individual or small group within the government from seizing too much power.
We see this exemplified best in the relationship between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches where creating and passing laws is concerned. The legislative branch can propose bills or laws, the executive branch can veto them, the legislative branch can override the executive veto through a two-thirds vote, and the judicial branch can declare laws unconstitutional.
In the process of passing legislation, then, no one individual or branch can grab an undue amount of power, and that’s one of the things that the system of checks and balances does best. It distributes power as evenly as it can among the different branches of the government.
Pro: They Get the Government to Self-Regulate
What’s key in thinking about checks and balances as an important way to prevent tyranny is that they make the government to check itself and limit its own influence. Though it isn’t fun to think about the possibility of our government becoming tyrannical, the system of checks and balances prevents any self-interested minority within the government from grabbing too much power and acting only in the interests of its group.
On the flip side, smaller factions or groups in the minority within the government are always going to keep a close eye on the group that’s in the majority. They’ll be eager to make sure the majority group aren’t getting up to any funny business. If there are corrupt practices going on in the majority, the minority groups in the government will certainly call those out.
Political parties are a classic example of how self-regulation can occur in the government. For instance, when the Republican party holds the majority in the House or the Senate, the Democrats in the House and the Senate are extra vigilant about keeping the Republican majority in check.
Loyalty to political parties presents plenty of challenges to the system of checks and balances, but the inherent competition between the different political parties represented within the legislative branch can often serve to check the power of self-interested groups.
Pro: They Provide Constitutional Support for Disagreements Between the Branches
Checks and balances enable the three branches of government to disagree. In a system that separates power among different institutions comprised of many different people, multiple minds work to interpret the Constitution. And when multiple minds are doing that interpreting, disagreements about what is and is not constitutional can arise.
That might seem antagonistic and counterproductive to getting things done in the government, but the ability for the different branches to disagree is in the interest of the liberty of the people.
When the different branches of the government have the opportunity to work through disagreements about various decisions that affect the people, decisions are made more deliberatively. And the government has the power to make huge decisions, so the slower pace of decision-making enabled by the system of checks and balances can help ensure that these decisions are the best ones.
Con: They Can Complicate Policymaking
The flip side of constitutional support for disagreements among the different branches is that policymaking can be much more time consuming. One branch can propose a law, another can veto it, and another can say that that law violates the Constitution, and so on.
Sometimes the three branches won’t agree and a stalemate will ensue . . . meaning no policy changes occur, or they’re put off for a long time. This can be a good thing in some cases, especially when there is a majority in the House and the Senate who only have the interests of one political party or ideology in mind in policymaking.
But sometimes the people want change, and the main thing standing in the way of changes occurring is the different branches’ uses of the system of checks and balances.
Con: The System Doesn’t Always Work as Originally Intended
Interpreting the Constitution has proven tricky as the United States has grown and changed. For example, the writers of the Constitution couldn’t have predicted the United States’ massively expanding population, the technological revolution, or global conflicts like World War I and World War II..
All of these changes affect the way the Constitution is interpreted--which includes how checks and balances are understood and implemented. This has led to internal conflicts within the three branches of government. There have been points in history where different branches have tried to expand their power beyond what was originally outlined in the Constitution, and sometimes, the branches have succeeded. For example, to defend the U.S. and its economy against fascist foreign powers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal restructured the federal government and greatly expanded executive powers.
So why is this a “con,” exactly? Remember: the system of checks and balances exists to make sure that no one branch of government is stronger than the other. When one branch tries to expand its power, it runs the risk of throwing the “balance” part of the “checks and balances” process out of equilibrium. That opens up a chance for an overreach of power, which can potentially put citizens’ freedoms at risk.
Former President Bill Clinton, who was the President of the United States from 1993–2001
What Are Checks and Balances Like in Action?
To really hone your understanding of checks and balances, examples are essential! Checks and balances can play out in interesting ways in real-life situations, so we’re going to summarize and break down one example for you to reference here.
The example we’re going to look at is the Line Item Veto Act of 1996, which led to a Supreme Court case involving President Bill Clinton in 1998. This example is kind of a doozy—the checks and balances enacted by all three branches in this situation played out over a decade . . . and the Line Item Veto Act still failed to win approval in Congress and become law.
Let’s get into the details of the Act and the case and see what it can teach us about checks and balances.
The Line Item Veto Act of 1996: Background
The Line Item Veto Act of 1996 allowed the president—Bill Clinton, at that time—to veto parts of bills selectively, rather than vetoing bills in their entirety. The main purpose of this Act was to give the president more control over the details of the federal budget--a power that was constitutionally reserved for Congress.
Congress successfully passed this legislation in 1996. How did that happen? Well, in the federal midterm elections of 1994, Republicans took over the House and the Senate from Democrats. This was seen as a pretty big upheaval. It’s even been called the “Republican Revolution!”
The Republicans also succeeded in taking the majority in Congress by making a pretty hefty campaign promise to the American people in the form of the “Contract with America.” The Contract with America was basically a long list of actions the Republican candidates promised to take if they gained control of Congress.
The Line Item Veto Act was a key piece of the Contract with America. The American people liked this Act because it promised to ensure congressional fiscal conservatism. In fact, they had that in common with then-President Clinton: the only provision in the Contract with America that he was willing to support was the Line Item Veto Act.
Since Republicans controlled Congress, and since the president supported the Line Item Veto Act, it passed both the legislative and executive branches without being vetoed or rejected. And then things started to get a bit ugly.
The Judicial Branch Acts
In the time that the Line Item Veto Act was law, President Clinton did a lot of line item vetoing. In fact, he applied the line-item veto to the federal budget 82 times.
Does that sound like a lot? It did to the people who were affected by the president’s line-item vetoes, and that’s where the checks and balances started coming into play.
When the Act was passed in 1996, lots of Democrats broke with President Clinton to oppose it. A congressman even sued to prevent use of the line-item veto. At the time, the Supreme Court held that the congressman’s case lacked standing because he couldn’t give any specific examples of how the Line Item Veto Act was causing harm to people.
But when President Clinton began using the line-item veto a little more liberally, more people filed suit. Since Clinton was making ample use of his new power, this time, the plaintiffs had specific examples of how the line-item veto was causing harm. The City of New York itself and several other healthcare organizations alleged fiscal injury from President Clinton’s cancellation of various provisions from Acts that were passed in 1997.
The case—Clinton v. City of New York—went before the District Court, and the Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. This time, the Court held that the Line Item Veto Act was unconstitutional. The District Court then used its power to appeal to the Supreme Court. The case was headed to the highest federal court in the United States.
In 1998, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the Line Item Veto Act violated the Presentment Clause of the Constitution, which outlines a specific practice for enacting a statute that the Act did not follow.
The Supreme Court used their power of interpretation to rule that the Constitution expressly prohibited the actions that the Act enabled the President to take. The majority of the Supreme Court, in other words, believed that the Act violated principles of the separation of powers and threatened individual liberty by giving the President the power to reward or favor certain groups and punish others.
Former President George W. Bush, who was President of the United States from 2001–2009
The Legislative Branch Acts
In 2006, the Line Item Veto Act came up again. That year, President George W. Bush asked Congress to enact legislation that would return the line item veto power to the executive branch, and announced his intent to make this request in his State of the Union Address. In March 2006, President Bush sent a legislative proposal to Congress and urged its prompt passage.
Anticipating dissent from some members of Congress and the Supreme Court, members of President Bush’s Cabinet argued that his version of the Act was different from the Line Item Veto of Act of 1996 because the new proposal would seek congressional approval of all line-item vetoes, instead of giving the executive unilateral authority for such vetoes.
Many members of Congress didn’t buy this argument. Some still believed that the legislation would take away parts of Congress’s constitutional power and give it to the executive branch instead.
After hearing arguments from constitutional law experts about the constitutionality of the bill, the House Budget Committee approved the proposed Act through a majority vote. The full House of Representatives voted and approved the same bill soon after, but it failed to win approval in the Senate.
But because the Act didn’t win full approval by Congress, the Legislative Line Item Veto Act of 2006 didn’t become law.
Summary of the 4 Checks and Balances Involved in This Example
If you were paying attention, you may have picked out some of the checks and balances that were involved in the whole scenario surrounding the Line Item Veto Act. To help you out, here’s a list of the checks and balances that we found playing a role in this legislation:
- The legislative branch wrote and enacted a law: the Line-Item Veto Act of 1996.
- The judicial branch determined whether that law was unconstitutional in 1998.
- The executive branch influenced the legislative branch with its proposed agenda in the State of the Union address in 2006, when President Bush announced his plan to attempt to pass the Legislative Line Item Veto Act.
- The legislative branch rejected the Legislative Line Item Veto Act by a vote in 2006.
The Line-Item Veto Act of 1996 is a great example of how we can understand the federal government’s powers as being both divided and shared. In some aspects of this case, branches used their powers to work together to keep another branch from doing something that was not constitutional and that potentially threatened the liberty of the people.
By checking each other in this case, the different branches also defended their own constitutional powers by preventing the executive branch from claiming powers that the Constitution assigned to the legislative branch.
This example shows how real-world cases of checks and balances in action have a lot of layers: there’s a lot to analyze and unpack, and sometimes who’s right and who’s wrong isn’t easily defined. That’s why it’s important to look at both the big picture situation and all of the details, which is key to making sense of checks and balances in action!
This is just an overview of how checks and balances work within the United States government. (We know...it’s a lot!) There’s a lot more to learn about how each individual branch checks the other. A good place to start is learning more about how the Executive branch checks the Judicial branch.
The AP U.S. Government exam is about more than just how the federal government works, though. That’s why we’ve developed the best 5-step guide to help you prepare.
Once you’ve worked your way through that, it’s time to drill deeper into the material you need to know to ace the exam. Here’s a list of the best AP U.S. Government notes on the internet, and here’s a step-by-step guide to acing the AP U.S. Government’s FRQs.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.