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Checks and balances

In politics, the principle of checks and balances underlies many democratic governments. The term was coined by Montesquieu during the Enlightenment. The principle is an outgrowth of the classical idea of separation of powers. The first national system of checks and balances was outlined by the United States Constitution in 1789. An interesting exception to this concept exists in the provision for governance of the District of Columbia, where the Constitution asserts the power of the Congress "To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District..." Article I Section 8, Clause 17 of the U.S. Constitution. See Absolute Power

One method of implementing a check and balance system involves the interplay between different "branches" of government. Taken as a whole, such a government might be said to have an effective system of checks and balances if no one branch of government holds total power and each branch can be overridden by another.

The system of checks and balances has two components. The right to check and the means to actively balance out imbalances. Checking requires access to information and the right to question. Balancing requires a mechanism of control to prevent the branches from overstepping their constitutional limits of power. Difficulties arise in states where the branches can block each other to the extent of bringing the whole government to a standstill.


Three Branch Government

In most states with a three-branch government, the process of checks and balances works in a manner similar to this:

  • The executive branch executes the laws and policies of the country. It constructs buildings, gives orders to the police and military, collects taxes, and basically sees that the laws of the land are enforced. In many countries the executive, either a prime minister or a president, can also appoint judges and cabinet members, and can pardon citizens. While against the principles of strict separation, in some countries the executive might also propose bills to the legislature, approve the bills of the legislature into law, and in some nations also retains the right of veto or suspension.
  • The legislative branch writes the laws of the country (legislation). In democracies, the legislative branch is the branch that is most commonly voted into power directly. Often it also has the authority to impeach or remove from office members of the executive or judicial branch from office; or it may decide to dismiss the head of government and the administration. In some countries, it also confirms or denies executive and judicial appointees. Generally, a legislature can override vetos of the executive, possibly by passing the law with a larger majority. In many countries, members of the executive (including the cabinet) are also selected directly from the legislature. Finally, legislatures are often vested with investigation powers with respect to the actions of the executive and the situation of the country.
  • The judical branch checks if the laws passed by the legislative branch are actually being obeyed properly, which hopefully leads to justice. In many jurisdictions, the judiciary can also throw out laws it deems unconstitutional (in some countries, this is reserved for the highest courts only). The judiciary can declare acts of the executive unconstitutional or illegal. In some countries, the judiciary is consulted before a law is passed, to prevent laws from being thrown out in the first place. Members of the judiciary are often (in principle) appointed for fixed periods or even for life, to prevent bias.

In this way the different powers of government are isolated from each other so that no branch has total power over all the functions of government. An attack on or abuse of power by individuals of a single branch will not lead to tyranny or the fall of the entire government.

Independent government agencies

Certain countries divide power further by creating government agencies that should theoretically be attached to the executive branch, but have a status ensuring their independence from political pressure. Typically, such status may be conferred on:

  • public broadcasting or public news corporations – the goal is that public media should not be a mouthpiece for the opinions or propaganda of the current executive; such is for instance the case of the BBC;
  • central banks – the goal is that monetary policy may be conducted with middle or long terms goals of stability, which may contradict the executive's goals;
  • diverse watchdogs whose mission includes oversight on possible governmental abuses.

In addition, the executive may have reduced authority on certain of its employees. For instance, university professors and scientific researchers in public administrations may be protected from interventions of the executive, since they are supposed to discharge their mission with objectivity. This is for instance the case in France. The idea is that those employees have a duty of objective information with respect to the public; some objective scientific information may contradict the interests or ideology of the executive or its supporters. Those employees therefore act as a check on the executive.


In democratic states, some amount of checking is frequently done by an independent press . Because of its ability to research independently of government interests, bring issues to public awareness and thus influence voters' perception, it plays an important role in the system of checks and balances. Many imbalances of power have only been addressed by the branches of government after a "scandal" was discovered by the press. Although the press is not a branch of power in the constitutional sense, it is sometimes referred to as the "fourth branch of power" or "fourth estate" because of its influence on political processes. However, the term 'fourth estate' has nothing to do with the three-branch system of government, and refers to the press being an extra 'estate' in addition to the three estates which paricipated in the Assemblies in seventeenth-century France: the first estate (the clergy ), the second estate (the aristocracy) and the third estate (the serfs) (see Estates of the realm).

See also

Last updated: 05-14-2005 06:38:02
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04