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What is the Balance of Power?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated: May 17, 2024

The balance of power is the concept by which a government is organized to provide a certain level of control between the federal government and smaller governing bodies such as states or provinces. In general this concept is known as federalism. This balance of power can either be predominantly shifted to the central government or the smaller bodies depending on the particular structure the nation has chosen.

The United States is considered to be a type of federation known as a federal constitutional presidential republic. This means that the power is constitutionally enforced at the federal level and leaves it up to the states to decide how they wish to enact laws at the divisional level. Using a representative democracy, the citizens elect spokespersons to serve in a legislative and executive capacity. According to the country's constitution, the federal government can only act on certain facets predetermined by law, while all other matters must be handled by the states.

Much of the structure of the federal government in the United States is set up to provide additional checks and balances in order to keep the system from abusing authority. The balance of power is segmented into three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. States also share a certain level of power with municipalities within their borders. Cities and towns elect local officials which check the centralized power of the state.

At the federal level, the executive branch is headed by the President of the United States. He or she is aided by a Vice President who oversees the Senate. The President also appoints a Cabinet, Supreme Court Justices and other officers to serve at an administrative capacity. Many of these are subject to Senate approval. In regards to power, the President serves as Commander-in-Chief of the nation's Armed Forces and has the right to establish executive orders. The remainder of the branch can set policy and enforce the laws.

The legislative branch is set up as a bicameral Congress, composed of a Senate and House of Representatives. Senators serve for six-year terms, while representatives serve for two. Each state is issued two Senators and a proportional number of representatives based on population. The Congress has the right to make federal laws, control the financial assets of the nation, approve treaties with foreign bodies, impeach executive and judicial members and declare war.

The judicial branch of the United States is the third piece in the federal balance of power, designed to interpret the laws established by Congress and overturn those it deems unconstitutional. The whole system is composed of the Supreme Court and several federal courts throughout the country. Members are generally placed on the bench for life without being elected by the citizens.

In order to guarantee a balance of power, the state governments employ a nearly identical system, with the exception of Nebraska, which uses a unicameral legislature. Instead of a president, however, states have a position of power in the executive branch known as a governor. Depending on the state, judges and cabinet officers are elected by popular vote, while others are appointed by the executive. States generally have the recourse to sue the federal government for violations of constitutional rights via the federal judicial system. In addition, the fact that the legislative branch is selected from each state, gives the citizens of the constituency the right to recourse via elections.

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Discussion Comments
By comfyshoes — On May 25, 2011

@SauteePan - I also think that the power and balance can also be affected in the international affairs arena. Although the United States is still considered the world’s superpower many in the world are growing increasingly concerned with its growing debt and indebtedness to China.

Some wonder if the international relations with respect to debt will change the balance of power in the world. Many wonder if this has an effect on United States sovereignty. I don’t think so, but questions are mounting.

By SauteePan — On May 23, 2011

I think that the power and balance that we experience in the United States in our political system has allowed our country to remain a stable democracy despite changes in attitude towards those in power.

The balance of power theory really understands human nature and the need to become more powerful which is why our constitution was designed the way that it was. Each branch of government is run independently and our elected officials only have a certain time in office before they could be voted off. Our term limits allow us to get refresh presidential candidates with new vision.

Some say that the same should be applied to our members of congress because many have served a lifetime and do not have any fresh ideas. Sometimes a person new to the job can offer a different perspective that was never thought of as before.

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