Thursday, August 16, 2007

An Analysis on the Success of the US Separation of Powers

  1. How effectively has the separation of powers and the idea of checks and balances worked for the United States?

The separation of powers and the system of checks and balances have been the concrete expression of the glory of American democracy, especially on how effectively it can protect the rights and freedoms of the vast majority of American citizens without precluding the emergence of a stable and strong economy for the past hundred years. Moreover, the system of checks and balances has served to hinder the executive from exercising too much discretion over a majority of the country’s affairs, such as the extent of the executive’s propensity to declare war on perceived threats to national security ever since the United States rose to become one of the world’s superpowers. These checks have happened on a variety of occasions, especially when the executive tends to act in excess or without an express grant of the powers given them by constitution.

2. What were the reasons our forefathers divided the government into the legislative, judicial and presidential branches?

James Madison, father of the US Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the American Declaration of Independence and third US president, once said that “the absence of separation of powers is the very definition of tyranny.” (Hitchner and Harbold 1963, p. 170)

Without the separation of powers, if the American people would like to avoid any concentration of power which cannot be dismantled short of a revolution, as all the powers of government cannot be handled by a single person or group alone without necessarily curtailing much of the fundamental rights given the American people. The power to determine the destiny of the American people cannot simply be left into the hands of a very few, no matter how noble their intentions may be for the country.

For example, if the executive is granted unbridled discretion to exercise its police power of over the American people, this police power, which even under the regime of separation of powers, is the least illimitable and most pervasive of all governmental powers, can be further extended to trample upon the most basic of rights granted to the American people, such as the right to free speech and expression, assembly and association, all in the guise of exercising the police power of the state, regardless of the existence of a clear and present danger to warrant the exercise of such an awesome power.

3. How are the 3 branches of US Government suppose to interact?

In practice, the doctrine of separation of powers cannot be rigorously applied because it is modified by the system of checks and balances. While in a general sense, the executive implements the law, the legislature passes the law and the judiciary interprets the law, all other branches interact by wielding, to an extent, some of the functions of the other branches.

The President’s power to recommend a legislative program for approval by Congress and his veto power gives him some participation in the legislative process. The President’s exercise of executive powers is limited by the power of Congress over revenues and appropriations, notwithstanding other executive’s acts which require the ratification or approval of the US Congress. The judiciary on its part, stand as the final arbiter, of all acts of the executive and the legislature, especially when these two branches act wit lack or in excess of the powers granted by them by the US Constitution.

A strict separation of powers cannot be practices as it would result in what is called a deadlock of democracy, which would immobilize the functions and operations of government. Cooperation of the three branches of government as well as instrumentalities, agencies, and political subdivisions is essential to secure and effective and efficient government.

4. Is the system successful? Why or why not? Are the branches balanced in power? Why or why not?

These questions cannot simply be answered without qualifying it in the context of a particular period in American history, and there is perhaps no better example for this than the ongoing issue of the war in Iraq.

At present, the country is experiencing the beauty of this system in terms of the congressional rebuke of the war on Iraq, with the symbolic passage of bills to finally withdraw US troops from Iraq by March 2008. President George W. Bush has already threatened to veto the bills by the Democrat-led Congress, as part of his executive prerogative to check the excesses of a strong and hostile legislature. On the other hand, the US Supreme Court has also repudiated President Bush’s policy on extraterritorial prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, with the US SC granting these suspected terrorists constitutional rights as though they were under direct US jurisdiction.

In all of these, it is clear that no single branch of government seems to dominate the other two, even the executive which yields vast powers, including commanding the US Armed Forces. All branches know their place in the US Constitution and overstepping their powers would always result in a response from the other branches of government. As such, one cannot help but admire the statesmanship of President Bush, in his candid handling of the new Congress that has been relentless in its ferocity to challenge the validity and legitimacy of his ongoing war in Iraq. Even he knew the great need of continuing on with US military service in the war-torn country, he always shows deference to his counterparts in the legislature, in the manner befitting the respect due to a co-equal branch of the American government.

  1. How was the conflict between supporters of a strong federal government and champions of states rights characterized then as apposed to now?

During the creation of the new American Republic, the individual states, the former colonies of the English, were very wary of the tyranny of the majority in terms of a complex number of issues, including slavery, notwithstanding skepticism on the powers that will be wielded by a federal government, which might encroach over the prerogatives, traditions and customs of the individual states. On the other hand, those who believed in a federal government believed that the loose confederation of states would be too weak in political power and unity to continue existing as a political entity – that these states needed a federal government to consolidate and unite the states based on common principles which were then enshrined in the present US Constitution.

On the other hand, the present conflict between states’ rights and federal rights have been more particularized now, touching on issues such as gay marriage, abortion, family, religion and many other things which states feel the federal government has been encroaching much upon. A good example has been the issue on whether to include the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in the public education system. Many conservative state governments have been proposing this but not without a harsh criticisms from liberal state actors in the federal government.

  1. How could things be designed more efficiently?

In constitutionalism, efficiency of government is given less priority than the safeguarding of fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens, and affording all branches of government that powers it needs to serve the needs, hopes and aspirations of the American people. As the current system still works very well for the preservation of American democracy and even its prosperity, there is no need to change it yet, even if European parliamentarism would seem a more efficient system of governance with its fused executive and legislative branches.

Works Cited:

  1. Hitcher, D. & Harbold, W. (1966). Modern Government. New York: Dodd Mead and Co.
  2. Schader B. (2006). A State's Rights Federalist? Impossible. BlogCritics Magazine. Retrieved 1 April 2007 from <>.
  3. Rothstein R. (2007). Are States' Rights The Bane Of Gay Rights?. QueerSighted: The Gay and Lesbian Community. Retrieved 1 April 2007 from < gay-rights.>

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