Balancing Powers in Government

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Wednesday, May 2, 2001
Some years ago I had the opportunity to spend several days in China with the President. At one of our stops, in a small community not far from Beijing, it fell upon me to explain the American system of government to a group of two or three hundred Chinese students. With only a few minutes to prepare, I did my best in the time I was allotted. The students were attentive and very polite, but I'm not sure I explained it as well as I should have. Indeed, I remember thinking to myself afterwards that I had muffed a golden opportunity.nbsp;

I have often thought about what I could have said to students from an entirely different culture to try to explain what the American system of government is all about. What is at the heart of our system that has made it work and has allowed it to survive for so many years?nbsp;

To me the key to understanding it is balance. The founders went to great lengths to balance institutions against each other– balancing powers among the three branches: Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court; between the House of Representatives and the Senate; between the federal government and the states; between the powers of government and the rights of citizens, as spelled out in the Bill of Rights. Even interest groups and regions of the country are often balanced against one another.nbsp;

The basic idea of balance is that no one part of government dominates the other. And it means that the decisions that emerge from the process in which everyone has the right to participate are in a sense shared decisions, carrying with them a sense of authority and legitimacy.nbsp;

Throughout the Constitution is an elaborate system of checks and balances to prevent abuse and concentration of power: To pass a bill into law, both houses of Congress have to pass it and the president has to sign it. The president nominates judges to the Supreme Court, but the Senate must approve them. The courts can declare both laws passed by Congress and executive actions unconstitutional. The Congress creates and funds executive branch agencies, and can create federal courts, determine jurisdiction, and remove judges. And the list goes on.nbsp;

The resulting system is a complicated maze of boxes and arrows on a flow chart, which I would never hope my Chinese audience– or any other audience — to follow. But the underlying idea is a simple one: Our founders believed that the accumulation of power in any person or institution was dangerous and that balancing them off, one against the other, protected against tyranny. The challenge was to create a government that was powerful enough to act, but not to give it uncontrolled or unchecked power.nbsp;

This balance of powers is one of the handful of core principles that has allowed our system of government to adapt to changing conditions over the past 200 years. Rather than trying to devise a perfectly crafted, detailed system of government set in stone, our founders provided the basic framework of core principles like the balance of powers, the rule of law, majority rule (but with respect for minority rights), representative democracy, and making national laws "the supreme Law of the Land", under which there is flexibility for adjustment and change over the years. Thus, for example, the question of how the war-making power is balanced between the president and Congress is still being worked out, and in recent years the Supreme Court has found unconstitutional some methods of congressional review of executive agency actions.nbsp;

Yet the enduring principle that powers should be balanced in fundamental ways remains at the very heart of our system of government.nbsp;

This means that our system sometimes moves much more slowly than many of us might want. But to the founders, dispute and delay are simply part of the balanced system that prevents any person or group from gaining control and imposing their will on the country.nbsp;

The American people, despite their criticism of politics and politicians, have an unshakeable faith in the Constitution and the American system of government. The performance of government may disappoint them, but they firmly support the basic structure of our government set up by the founders. In my 34 years in Congress I can scarcely remember a constituent repudiating it. Americans believe ours is the best system in the world, and that it provides a framework for dealing with difficult policy issues and works to preserve our freedom. It may not be perfect or easy to explain, but it has served us very well.nbsp;

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)