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What are Checks and Balances?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Many governments and organizations are set up using a system of checks and balances, also known as separation of powers. The intent of this structure is to distribute power, ensuring that a government does not become autocratic. One of the most classic examples is found in the United States Constitution, which established three branches of government and outlined their powers. Under this system, no one branch has ultimate power, and each branch performs most effectively when it acts in the best interests of the nation.

In the United States, there are three branches of government. The executive branch includes the Office of the President. The legislative branch includes the House of Representatives and the Senate, known collectively as Congress. Finally, the judicial branch encompasses the Supreme Court system. Each branch has unique powers, and each is also able to influence the actions of another branch. The separation of powers is meant to protect the democratic process.

The legislative branch proposes bills and passes them into law. The executive branch can choose to veto those bills, and the Supreme Court can also strike the bills down, if they are deemed unconstitutional. Under the checks and balances system, Congress can in turn override a veto, or pass a new law that satisfies the Supreme Court. These checks on Congress ensure that the legislative branch promotes the welfare of the country.

The judicial branch interprets laws. It consists of a panel of justices appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. This branch also interprets and defends the Constitution, and it is bound by law to strike down laws that go against the intent of the Constitution. The actions of the judicial branch are checked through the appointment process, and judges hold their seats on the condition of good behavior, meaning that abuse of power will result in a removal from the bench.

The executive branch serves as the head of state, commanding the military and making political appointments. It has the power of veto over the legislative branch, and the vice president is the President of the Senate. Members of the judiciary are appointed by the executive branch, which can also issue pardons. In turn, Congress can determine that a president is unfit for office and remove him or her, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court becomes head of the Senate during impeachment proceedings.

The checks and balances system distributes power, rather than concentrating it in one location. It is extremely difficult to circumvent, which ensures that the interests of the people are represented. Many other governments and organizations have included such a structure in their systems of governance to maintain the integrity of their leaders.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon303009 — On Nov 12, 2012

How do the checks, bills and balances relate to the branches of government?

By anon294582 — On Oct 02, 2012

Well, according to checks and balances, the only other way to do stuff like this is to be alert and ready to overcome any obstacle in the road.

By anon67146 — On Feb 23, 2010

How can there be checks and balances when lawyers make the laws, judge the laws and administrate the laws?

By millhouse — On Nov 06, 2009

Checks and balances is a brilliant organizational structure for a more effective government. But, it's not only a helpful set up for governments; businesses benefit from checks and balances too.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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