The concept of checks and balances is commonly used in liberal democractic societies to curtail the excesses of power. This principle is meant to prevent any one branch of government from becoming too powerful.
One branch of government is said to “check” the power of another branch. A balance of power is thereby achieved.
This concept can only be applied if a government is divided into different branches in the first place, and this division is known as the separation of powers (Montesquieu, 1899).
Governments are typically divided into three branches (the trias politica):
- The legislative branch
- The executive branch
- The judicial branch.
In this model, each branch is supposed to act as a check on the powers of the other two:
“Separation of powers compartmentalizes government into three separate chambers, in the sense that each exercises powers distinct from the others and does so with its own personnel. The effect of this arrangement precludes any branch from compelling action by the other two. Instead, separation of powers institutionalizes conflict […]. To prevent one branch from overpowering another, each is provided with certain powers that functionally belong to one of the other branches. These are the so-called checks and balances.” (Segal & Spaeth, 2002, p. 18)
There are cases where the membership and functions of different branches overlap (this is known as the fusion of powers), but in most non-totalitarian jurisdictions, the judiciary rarely overlaps with the other branches.
Definition of Checks and Balances
The controlled conflict between the different branches of government is thought of as positive and even necessary by the supporters of the separation of powers.
The principle of checks and balances implies that each branch of government ought to have the power to limit the powers of the other branches.
The origin of this idea dates back to Baron de Montesquieu. Under his influence, it was implemented in the Constitution of the United States.
Another important supporter of this idea was Immanuel Kant, who believed that even a nation of devils can solve the problem of absolute power as long as they possess an appropriate constitution that pits different branches against one another (Kant, 1991, pp. 112-113).
In the case of the United States, the principles of the separation of powers and checks and balances were outlined in 1788 by James Madison in Federalist No. 51:
“… the 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. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. […] you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
[…] we see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other…” (Hamilton et al., 2009, pp. 263-266)
10 Examples of Checks and Balances
- Veto power: In the United States, the president can veto and thereby prevent a bill passed by Congress from becoming law. The only way Congress can override the veto is by a two-thirds vote of both chambers (U.S. Const. art. I, § 7, cl. 2)
- Congressional oversight: The United States Congress has oversight over the executive branch. This includes the monitoring and supervision of federal agencies, programs, policies, and activities. This power is an implied one, which means that it is not explicitly stated in the Constitution.
- Judicial review: Actions of the executive and legislative branches are subject to review by the judiciary. An executive decision or a bill passed by the legislative branch may be invalidated for being unlawful or violating the terms of a constitution. In the United States, this principle was established after Marbury v. Madison in 1803, which means that American courts now have the power to strike down laws and statutes that they regard as conflicting with the Constitution. This is widely regarded as one of the most important decisions in American constitutional law (Chemerinsky, 2019).
- Pardon power: The President of the U.S. has the power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of impeachment” (U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 1)
- Impeachment: The legislative branch of the U.S. government, the House of Representatives in particular, has the sole power of impeachment—the power to remove federal executive and judicial officers from office for high crimes and misdemeanors: “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.” (U.S. Const. art. I, § 2, cl. 5)
- Nomination of judges: The President of the U.S. has the judicial power to nominate judges, thereby providing a check on the powers of the judiciary branch: “He [the President] […] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.” (U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 2)
- Treaties: The President of the U.S., according to the same clause, has the power to make treaties if ⅔ of the Senators present approve: “He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur” (U.S. Const. art. II, § 2, cl. 2). In this case, the Senators serve as a check on the executive power of the President.
- Selection of executive officials: The Senate has the executive power to participate “in the selection of executive officials through the constitutional requirement of advice and consent” (Segal & Spaeth, 2002, p. 18), thereby providing a check on the powers of the President.
- War power: The President has the power to wage war, but Congress has the sole power to declare it.
- Appointments to the judiciary: The President of the U.S. has the power to make appointments to the federal judiciary if the Senate consents. The President can appoint federal officials even if the Senate is in recess. This means that the President serves as a check on the powers of the judicial branch, while the legislative branch (the Senate) serves as a check on the powers of the President.
Benefits of Checks and Balance
1. Preventing Abuse of Power
One of the most important reasons why checks and balances are so crucial is because they prevent any individual or group from abusing the power they hold.
A government with checks and balances is a system that creates limits to the power of individual branches of government. The balance of power ensures no single leader or entity can become too powerful without scrutiny from others.
This is particularly relevant in governmental systems with separation of powers (e.g. where different branches are tasked with specific responsibilities), to ensure that no one branch oversteps their jurisdiction.
2. Promoting Transparency
Checks and balances in government promote transparency by requiring each branch to report its decisions and activities to the other branches.
This, in theory, prevents secrecy and corruption as everyone is held accountable by their peers, but can be undermined if one ideological group controls multiple branches simultaneously.
However, ideally, making branches reportable ton one another will also make them answerable to policy stakeholders as well as the general population.
See More: Transparency Examples
3. Encouraging Compromise
Checks and balances also encourage cooperation and compromise among different branches of government.
This happens when one branch has the power to check another if it violates established rules or falls short of its duties, keeping each other accountable and in check for the benefit of all.
Having separate governing bodies that check one another’s actions often requires compromise from all nations involved when passing policies that suit them best. For example, if a congress is blocked by a senate – which acts as a check on the congress’s lawmaking – then they may have to compromise with the senate to get bills passed.
4. Supporting Stable Governance
Finally, a system with checks and balances helps maintain order during times when disagreements or tensions arise between leaders who hold different beliefs on how issues should be handled (especially in situations where two parts of government hold concurrent powers).
Take, for example, a situation where the executive and parliamentary branches fail to agree on how to deal with a law. In such situations, the two parties often go to the supreme or high court of their nation to request a ruling that will resolve the gridlock and guarantee a clear understanding of the bill.
This happens regularly, for example, in the USA, when the president signs an executive order that the parliament thinks was overreach of power.
Threats to Checks and Balances
1. Executive Overreach
One of the most significant threats to checks and balances is executive overreach.
The executive branch may attempt to exceed its lawful authority by issuing directives or orders without legislative approval or bypassing the judicial branch’s oversight.
This has been attempted in recent years in both Hungary and Israel, for example, where the presidents of both nations attempted to curtail the power of the court in order to minimize the number of checks on their power.
In Hungary, the president instated rubber-stamp judges, while in Israel, the prime minister attempted to create a rule where the parliament could overrule the courts (this attempt was, eventually, quashed by mass public protests in 2023), which becomes a step toward dictatorship.
2. Political Polarization
Political polarization has increased in recent years, leading to gridlock, partisanship, and paralysis when it comes to translating policy into action.
When political factions pit against each other, they can become overly focused on winning rather than working for the common public good.
Take, for example, the United States, where increasing authoritarianism since 2016 has seen a desire by some factions to ignore the Supreme Court, undermine institutions that politicians like to claim are corrupt, and even ignore the will of the voters, and thereby essentially ignore the checks and balances put in place in the constitution.
3. Apathy towards Civic Engagement
Another threat to checks and balances is people becoming disengaged from political involvement altogether.
Without active participation from citizens in holding elected officials accountable, a democracy’s essential mechanisms and institutions can fall apart.
An apathetic citizenry may lack vigilance in seeing when a nation’s checks-and-balances are being undermined, and before long, those policies and institutions will have broken down and become powerless.
4. Inadequate Judiciary Oversight
The judiciary plays a crucial role in providing legal interpretations of statutes enacted by Congress or executive actions carried out by the president.
However, if this body lacks independence or influence over those in power (such as if judges are appointed only through partisan lenses), this can cause damage.
This is most often a problem in countries where the parliament/congress appoints judges. In such situations, an ideological parliament can stack the judicial branches with judges who carry obvious biases (rather than working to objectively interpret the law).
5. Centralization of Power
When government institutions become centralized around a select few individuals or entities with greater access to influence public policy decisions than ordinary citizens, both transparency and accountability take hits – sending checks and balances into danger zones.
This happens all too often in societies where one powerful president changes the constitution to give himself more power (often, for example, by weakening election laws or the power of the parliament). To name just a few examples, this has happened in recent years in Venezuela and Türkiye.
In a government that practices the separation of powers, checks and balances are those powers of a branch of government that limit the powers of the other branches. In the trias politica model of the separation of powers outlined above, this means that the executive, legislative, and judicial branches have powers that prevent one another from abusing power and accumulating too much of it.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2023, March 17). checks and balances. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/checks-and-balances
Chemerinsky, E. (2019). Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies. Aspen Publishing.
Hamilton, A., Madison, J., & Jay, J. (2009). The Federalist Papers. Yale University Press.
Kant, I. (1991). Kant: Political Writings. Cambridge University Press.
Montesquieu, C. de S. (c1899). The Spirit of laws. New York : The Colonial Press. http://archive.org/details/spiritoflaws01montuoft
Segal, J. A., & Spaeth, H. J. (2002). The Supreme Court and the Attitudinal Model Revisited. Cambridge University Press.