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Federal Powers and Separation of Powers - Checks And Balances

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Separation of powers is not the only defining concept in the Constitution. The framers also were concerned with the potential for abuse of the power they divided. To limit such abuse, they built checks and balances into the system. Each branch thus serves as a watchdog over the others.

The president checks Congress in many informal ways, such as refusing to use power delegated to the executive branch by Congress. His primary tool, however, is the power to veto legislation. Congress, in turn, may override a presidential veto with a vote by two thirds of both houses. Congress further checks the president by determining the executive budget. Congress has the authority to confirm various presidential appointees, such as cabinet members, judges, and ambassadors. Finally, Congress has the power to impeach all nonmilitary members of the executive branch, including the president.

The president checks the courts by appointing all federal judges, including the Supreme Court justices. Because judges are appointed for life, the president thus may influence the federal judiciary for years after his term expires. With the power of judicial review, the judiciary checks the president by reviewing executive orders and agency actions for their constitutionality. If a court finds an action unconstitutional, it is void.

The judiciary similarly checks Congress by reviewing legislation in particular cases for its constitutionality. Congress checks the judiciary with the theoretical power to eliminate all federal courts except the Supreme Court. Congress also influences the judiciary by confirming or rejecting the president's judicial nominees. Recent battles over nominees such as Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas are examples of this power.

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