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We the People: Why does the U.S. have three branches of government?

UPDATED: Mon., June 7, 2021

Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts and Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan arrive before then-President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 4, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (Associated Press)
Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts and Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan arrive before then-President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 4, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Associated Press)
By Joel Mehic-Parker For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s Question: There are three branches of government. Why?

In the years leading up to the writing of the Constitution, the United States went through a lot of turbulence due to the Revolutionary War and the inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation, an agreement between the then-13 states that articulated their rules of conduct and established state sovereignty.

Following the turmoil of the Revolutionary War, the United States and its leaders were wary of governmental authority and too much power lying with one person or group. To the founders, the British monarchy held too much power, while the Articles of Confederation spread government too thin by giving most governmental authority to the states.

Their solution to these problems was to create a system of government in which the power was separated into three branches (legislative, executive and judicial), with each of those branches holding exclusive powers and powers that overlap the others.

The idea was that with these powers spread among three branches, it was unlikely that any one person or group could unduly influence the government. Each of these branches additionally holds power that overlaps the others that we call “checks.” This lets each branch have a say in how laws are created, enforced and interpreted.

The legislative branch makes the laws. This branch is the House of Representatives and the Senate, which are known collectively as Congress. Congress holds exclusive power to regulate commerce, declare war and collect taxes.

The executive branch enforces the laws. The main members of this branch are the president and vice-president, but it also includes the president’s Cabinet and many departments and agencies, like the Department of Defense and Department of State.

The judicial branch interprets the laws and determines whether they follow the Constitution. This branch is led by the Supreme Court of the United States, but it also includes all other federal courts.

So, what checks do these branches have over one another?

One of the most visible checks is the ability for Congress to impeach the president. This occurs when the House of Representatives determines that the president has committed some sort of misconduct. Impeachment allows the legislative branch to bring presidents to trial, and even remove them from office if they are determined to have behaved improperly.

The president, similarly, has a check on the legislative branch. When a bill is passed by Congress, it is sent to the president’s desk to be signed into law. If the president doesn’t think the bill should become law, they can veto the bill. This means that the bill can only become a law if two-thirds of Congress approves of it, bypassing the presidential veto.

The judicial branch’s main check over both other branches is through the ability of the Supreme Court to declare laws unconstitutional (whether passed by Congress or implemented through Executive Action). This means that the Supreme Court can analyze the content of a law and determine whether it abides by the rules set forth in the Constitution. If it doesn’t, the Supreme Court can nullify that law.

So, do these checks and balances actually lead to a separation of powers? Yes. Is this separation equal? Not really. But this was purposeful.

The goal of the founders when writing the constitution was to separate powers, but not necessarily in a way where all three branches are equal. Instead, they enshrined the most power to the legislative branch. The legislative branch has, after all, the most members of any branch directly elected by the public. Giving the most power to the legislative branch protected the United States from a singular leader gaining too much power and becoming a dictator.

In the United States today, however, many would argue the executive branch has eclipsed the legislative branch in terms of power. Executive orders and agreements allow for the president to achieve a lot even without the consent of Congress, and those powers have been used throughout history to create tremendous change. Prime examples of the use of executive orders are the Emancipation Proclamation and parts of the New Deal.

The debate of which branch is most powerful comes down to understanding enumerated powers versus implied powers.

While the Constitution lists specific roles and powers of each branch, called the enumerated powers, each branch has grown and evolved throughout the history of the United States. The Constitution also implies that each branch has powers not listed within the document, allowing for a certain amount of leeway when it comes to what each branch can do. Judicial review, for example, is not an enumerated power of the judicial branch. The Supreme Court expanded its own power in the landmark case Marbury vs. Madison to set the precedent of using the power of judicial review.

While the powers of each branch can expand beyond those enumerated in the Constitution, the core role of each branch is separate from the others. Even after the evolution of these powers, the core roles of each branch remain distinct and their powers, for the most part, remain separate.

Joel Mehic-Parker is a doctorate candidate of political science at Washington State University .

This article is part of a Spokesman Review partnership with the Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

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