Limits on Power

Even though the framers sought to expand the powers of the national government, they did not want the government to be too powerful. So the framers limited governmental power with the following:

  • Federalism: The division of power between the federal government and the states allows the different levels of government to check each other.
  • Specificity: The Constitution grants specific powers to the president, Congress, the states, and the people and explicitly denies them of some other powers.
  • Checks and balances: The framers balanced the power of the government among three separate and independent branches so that no one branch can dominate the others. Further, each branch of government has some specific power to check or limit the power of the others: The president can veto (prevent from becoming law) acts of Congress, Congress can override presidential vetoes, and the Supreme Court has assumed the power of judicial review.
  • The Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the Constitution make up the Bill of Rights, which guarantees some fundamental legal rights to all Americans, including the freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and religion.
  • Rules for elections: The Constitution ensures that states and the voters have the power to change the government.

Separation of Powers

The Constitution creates a government with three different branches. This separation of powers ensures that no branch becomes powerful enough to overwhelm the other two. The legislative branch (Congress) makes the laws, the executive branch (the president) enforces the laws, and the judicial branch (the courts) interprets the law. Each branch functions independently from the others, possessing its own powers and area of influence. No branch can accomplish anything of significance without the cooperation of at least one of the others. By dividing power in this way, the framers sought to prevent tyranny: No one person or group can exercise excessive power.

Checks and Balances

The three separate branches limit one another through a series of checks and balances. The framers wanted to make sure that the branches were equally powerful, so they set up rules that enable each branch to stop the others from doing some things. The Constitution contains many examples of checks and balances, as illustrated by the chart on the next page.

Checks and Balances Among the Branches

The Legislative Branch and the Executive Branch

The Judicial Branch and the Legislative Branch

The Executive Branch and the Judicial Branch

Congress writes laws and can override a presidential veto, has the power of the purse and control over the budget, has the ability to impeach the president, and approves presidential treaties and appointments.The courts have assumed the power to declare laws unconstitutional and hear cases relating to disputes arising from laws passed by Congress.The president appoints judges, puts court decisions into practice, and has the right to pardon those whom the courts have convicted.
The president can veto bills passed by Congress, recommend laws for Congress to pass, and calls for Congress to meet. The president also enforces, or executes, bills passed by Congress.Congress approves the judges appointed by the president, sets judicial salaries, and has some power over the structure and jurisdiction of the courts. Congress also has the power to interpret courts’ decisions as legislation.The courts can declare presidential actions unconstitutional.

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