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April 20, 2022

Constitution and Separation of Powers

Video: Checks and Balances

Ashley Cullinan answers the question "What are the checks and balances between the 3 branches of government?",  asked by an elementary school student from Oregon, in the above video.

Corresponding Script for the video: As you may already know, there are three branches of government in the United States because the U.S. Constitution divided the government into these three separate branches: The Legislative Branch, The Executive Branch, The Judicial Branch. Each branch has its own important role.

o   The Legislative Branch is the name for Congress, which is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. While the Legislative Branch has many powers, the power it is most known for is the power to make laws.

o   The Executive Branch is the President’s branch—it is made up of the President, Vice President, and the President’s advisors (which is also called the Cabinet). The Executive Branch also has many different powers, and we know it most commonly as the branch responsible for enforcing the laws of the United States and commanding the armed forces (which is why the President is called Commander in Chief).

o   The Judicial Branch is best known as the United States Supreme Court. The Judicial Branch helps us to decide the meaning of laws and how to apply them to real life situations or events.

The reason we have three branches of government is so that each of these branches, which are also called powers, is responsible for different jobs. The U.S. Constitution created a system called checks and balances to make sure that each of these three branches are also responsible for checking on the actions of other branches. The U.S. wanted to make sure that no one branch was too powerful or controlling, because that would be unfair.

This means that every branch can limit the power of the other branches if needed.

 For example, as I just mentioned, the Legislative Branch has the power to pass laws. But they do not have the power to pass any law they want. The Executive Branch can check the legislative branch by vetoing a bill if the Executive Branch thinks that the Bill will cause harm, or is simply not fair. Vetoing a bill means the President says “No” to a bill that the Legislative Branch wants to pass and make a law. If the President vetoes a bill then it goes back to the Legislative Branch, and there is  now a more strict standard for that bill to be passed into a law. 

As another example, even though the President is the President, this does not mean the Executive Branch can do whatever it wants. One way the Legislative Branch can check the Executive Branch is through a principle called “advice and consent.” The President has the power to appoint government officials, meaning he selects the people who are hired into positions of power within the government. But, Congress has to approve or disapprove whoever the President appoints. This makes sure that the President does not only appoint his closest friends or people who are not qualified for the job. The Legislative Branch also has the power to remove the President from office, or impeach him, if he is not doing his job.

The Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch both check the Judicial Branch by being in charge of nominating the people, called justices, who serve on the Supreme Court. These justices are the ones who vote on cases and interpretations of rules.

This system where the three branches of government can limit one another’s power and check on the other branches to make sure not one branch gets too powerful is called Checks and Balances.

Checks and Balances make sure our United States Government runs smoothly and fairly. 

Q: In regards to civil rights, when does Congress not have the power to enforce articles in the constitution? a High School Student from Arkansas

A: Explained in the answer above, this question is best answered by understanding the checks and balances that are in place between the 3 branches of government.

Presidents and Civil Rights Laws

Q: Did the President make a law to make sure everyone has fair and just civil rights? Lizeth from California

A:  A President acting on his own did not make a law to make sure everyone in our county’s civil rights are fair and just but several presidents worked with Congress to make laws ensuring the protection and enforcement of civil rights. (for more information on checks and balances wiithin the Government, please refer to the answer above).

In June 1963, President John Kennedy called on Congress to make a law that guaranteed people's  civil rights were protected.  Unfortunately, President Kennedy did not live to see the Congress make that law.   However, President Lyndon Johnson pushed the Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which is the law that  made discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin illegal.  The Act was later expanded by Congress to ensure enforcement of fundamental civil rights.  Meaning a person can make a complaint to a government agency that their civil rights are being violated and the government will investigate the complaint and take the appropriate next steps to ensure the law is being followed. 

You might ask why the President did not make a law all by himself.  The United States Constitution specifically grants the power to make laws to the Congress.  The President does not have the authority to makes laws on his own. 

A President versus A Monarch

Q: Is the President Like a King? an Elementary Student from Oregon, and

Q: How does it work for a president to be in the White House? Sammy from California

A: A President is not King, but this question has been frequently debated.

First, let's talk about the best way to characterize a King.  A King is a Monarch.  When the monarch is a boy, we refer to him as King and when the monarch is a girl then we use the term Queen. 

Now that you know that a King (or Queen) is a Monarch, let's look at how Monarchs and the President are similar and different:

Similarities: When we look at the similarities between Monarchs and Presidents the main similarity is that  both are heads of state meaning they are the chief representative for a country.   A head of state generally meets with leaders of different countries and serves as a symbolic leader of the country.  The title a country gives the of the head of state also depends on the political system of the country.  For example, in the United States our head of state is the President, whereas in England the head of state is Queen Elizabeth II.

Differences:  Here are some of the many differences between Monarchs and Presidents:

  • Monarchs:  Most Monarchies today are constitutional monarchies as opposed to the absolute monarchies of the past.  An absolute monarch is one that holds absolute power, and it is how monarchs ruled many years ago.  This is what I like to think about as the Disney King or Queen.  In modern times, most monarchs are Constitutional Monarchs meaning the Monarch acts as the head of state, but other parts of the government have the law-making powers. Most Monarchs inherit their position of power and serve for their entire lifetime unless they give up the position which is called abdicating.  When a new monarch inherits their power, the country conducts a ceremony called a coronation.  If you have watched the movie Frozen, then you know how important Coronation Day is for a Monarchy. Monarchs traditionally live in a house called a castle or a palace.
  • Presidency: A president is an elected official that is either elected directly by the people or through a representative system such as the Electoral College that the U.S. uses.  A president usually has a term, meaning a number of years that they hold the office.  In the U.S. the President serves a 4-year term of office.  The position of the President in the United States was created by the U.S. Constitution.  The U.S. Constitution specifically grants the President as the Executive certain powers and duties.  For example, in  U.S. the President acts as Commander-in-Chief during a war, makes treaties with approval of Congress and has the authority to Veto proposed laws that are passed by Congress. Although the authority and duties of a present by vary from country to country, the President is typically more than just a head of state. As an elected official, the President works with the other elected officials to serve with the input of the people and for the good of the people.   Last, the President often lives in a house owned by the country's government while he is serving his term of office. This is how the U.S. President lives in the White House.

So, while a President has some things in common with a Monarch, the two are very different. Therefore, a President is not a King.

The Constitution and Its Amendments

Q: What does the Constitution do? Chantel from California

A: In order to understand what the Constitution does, it is helpful to first consider what preceded the Constitution and why the early leaders of the United States of America felt they needed to draft and implement the Constitution. For some time, the thirteen original colonies in America were ruled by the British government. After declaring independence from Great Britain, however, the states adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1781. Shortly thereafter, the states determined that the frame of government established by the Articles of Confederation needed to be reworked for a variety of reasons, and they began the process of holding various conferences and conventions among delegates from each state to determine a path forward. Many competing plans and ideas were considered, but the delegates eventually approved the Constitution in September of 1787. The Constitution was then reviewed and ratified by the individual states.

Having learned many lessons from the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, the drafters explained the purpose of the Constitution in the Preamble of the document which reads “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” In broad terms, this is what the Constitution does. It is supreme law of the land and the framework under which the various states, and the people within the states, govern themselves. More specifically, the Constitution creates a government with three branches: the legislative branch, which makes the laws; the executive branch, which executes the laws; and the judicial branch, which interprets the laws, and the Constitution establishes a system of checks and balances to ensure that no branch has too much power. The Constitution also divides power between the states and the federal government and outlines many rights and freedoms that are reserved to the people including, importantly, the right to elect their representatives to serve in the government.

Q: Why are there amendments to the Constitution? Chantel from California

A: Having been ratified in 1789, the Constitution is over 225 years old. The drafters of the Constitution could not have foreseen how the country and the world would change over the course of time, so the inclusion of a procedure for amending the Constitution was an important decision. However, there was also fear that allowing the Constitution to be amended easily or arbitrarily could have a negative impact. So, in Article V of the Constitution, the drafters attempted to create an amendment process with the flexibility to fit the changing needs of the country, while also providing stability and continuity.

Pursuant to Article V, an amendment may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, or, if two-thirds of the states request one, by a convention called for the purpose of considering the proposed amendment. Thereafter, the amendment must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or conventions held at the state-level. This lengthy and detailed process ensures that the Constitution is not changed arbitrarily or too quickly, and it also protects the ability of the states and, most importantly, the people to ultimately determine if a constitutional amendment will go into effect.

This process has been utilized several times to enact a total of twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution. In fact, some of the most recognizable parts of the Constitution actually come from amendments. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, establish several individual rights and liberties that the government cannot infringe including the freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly, the freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, the right to a speedy public trial, the right to counsel, and more. Additionally, the abolition of slavery, the establishment of the right to vote in elections regardless of race or sex, and many other things were accomplished by amendments, which demonstrates why the ability to amend the Constitution is so important.


Q: Why is the filibuster still being used in regards to civil rights legislation such as the DREAM Act? a high school student from Arkansas

A: The filibuster is used as a way to block all kinds of proposed legislation, not just civil rights legislation. There is a current debate as to whether Congress should discontinue use of the filibuster.