The separate branches of American government are interlocked in such a way that an elaborate system of checks and balances is created. No institution can act decisively without the support or acquiescence of the others.
Political Gridlock: Why it's Good (7:23)
Formal Institutions of Government
Executive Branch: Presidential Powers
The Constitution has little to say about presidential power. Only one-third of Article II is devoted to formal presidential powers. The powers that are granted can be classified in two ways. First, they gave the president some very specific powers in clear language. Second, they granted some broad powers which are written in vague language and subject to individual interpretation.
Veto: The framers saw the veto as a bulwark of executive independence, a basic building block in their efforts to separate and check power. Alexander Hamilton made this position clear in The Federalist, no. 73: "The primary inducement to conferring [the veto] power upon the executive is to enable him to defend himself; the second one is to increase the chances...against the passing of bad laws, through haste, inadvertence, or design."
Appointment power: Affects the president's ability to staff the executive branch with trusted allies who will help promote his policies. Perhaps the single most important appointment presidents can make is a nomination to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. On average, a president names only two justices during any term of office. Nevertheless, since the Court is usually split ideologically, even one or two appointments can affect the outcome of important cases.
Treaties: The Constitution gives presidents the power to negotiate treaties with other nations, with the advice and consent of Congress. Treaties have declined as a potential congressional check on presidential power because presidents have increasingly turned to a less formal means for conducting foreign affairs. Presidents may conclude an executive agreement (a diplomatic contract negotiated with other counties) on any subject within their constitutional authority as long as the agreement is not inconsistent with legislation enacted by Congress.
Executive privilege: The power to withhold information on the ground that to release such information would affect either national security or the president's ability to discharge his official duties. The Constitution does not mention executive privilege. The first discussion of privilege occurred in 1792 when President Washington denied a request from Congress to turn over all original letters and correspondence related to General Arthur St. Clair's mission that led to an Indian massacre of troops.
The Constitution gives the president additional specific powers, such as the right to grant pardons, the right to convene Congress in extraordinary circumstances, and the power to be commander in chief of the armed forces.
Ken Mayer on the Presidency and Executive Orders (20:03)
Legislative Branch: The Rules of Congress
The formal rules of Congress can be found in the Constitution, in the standing rules of each house, and in Thomas Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice and Precedent.
The House Rules Committee plays a key role. Except for revenue, budget, and appropriations bills, which go directly to the House floor, bills are referred to the Rules Committee. The rules determine which bills will be discussed, how long the debate will last, and which amendments will be allowed. Rules can be Open, Closed, or Restrictive (now the most commonly used, limits amendments to certain parts of a bill and dictates which members can offer them).
Because the Senate is smaller and more decentralized, its rules for bringing a matter to the floor are much more relaxed. There is no Rules Committee. The majority leader has the formal power to do the scheduling, but informal agreements are usually reached with the minority leader.
There are few restrictions on debate in the Senate; it is possible to derail a bill by means of a filibuster. This technique allows a senator to speak against a bill, or just talk about anything at all, to prevent the Senate from moving forward with its business. He or she may yield to another like-minded senator, and the marathon debate can continue for hours or even days. In 1917, the Senate adopted a procedure known as cloture, through which senators can vote to limit debate and stop a filibuster. Originally cloture required approval of two-thirds of the senators present and voting, but when such a vote proved too difficult to achieve, the required majority was reduced to three-fifths of the members, or 60 votes.
In addition to its formal rules, Congress has informal, unwritten rules that facilitate its day-to-day operations.
Seniority: A member's rank depends on how long he or she has served. In the past the only way to become committee chair was to accumulate the most years of continuous service on that committee. However, political loyalty may be replacing seniority in the House.
Specialization and Reciprocity: Legislators are expected to develop a certain expertise on one or more issues. Members who lack expertise in a particular policy area defer to specialists with more knowledge, with the understanding that the favor will be reciprocal. When reciprocity is applied to votes on key measures the result is called logrolling, which helps legislators cooperate effectively. A traditional form of the logrolling norm is pork-barrel legislation - special interest spending for members' districts or states.
Judicial Branch: Independence of the Judiciary
The framers were aware of the importance of the court's independence and placed several provisions in the Constitution to keep the Supreme Court free of pressures from the people, Congress, and the president.
Justices are appointed not elected; thus, they are not beholden to voters. The power to appoint justices is shared by the president and the Senate; thus, the Court is not beholden to any one person or political party. The justices are guaranteed their position for life, as long as they exhibit "good Behaviour." Even in cases of bad behavior, justices can be impeached only for "High Crimes and Misdemeanors," thus ensuring that the Court cannot be manipulated by the political branches.The Constitution specifies that justices' salaries "shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office," meaning that Congress cannot lower the Court's salary to punish it for its rulings.
Michael McCann on the Impact of Litigation and Courts on American Politics (19:02)
- Berman, Larry, and Bruce Allen Murphy. 2001. Approaching Democracy. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Patterson, Thomas E. 2009. The American Democracy. 9th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.