Checks and Balances

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Checks and Balances, the constitutional controls whereby separate branches of government have limiting powers over each other so that no branch will become supreme. Perhaps the best-known system of checks and balances operates in the U.S. government under provisions of the federal Constitution. Most national, state, and local governments have at least the mechanics of a system of checks and balances. Even dictatorial governments, otherwise scorning restraints on powers, provide internal checks to ensure proper performance by governmental agencies and to fix responsibility. Theory of Checks and Balances. The concept of constitutional checks arose as an outgrowth of the classical theory of separation of powers, by which the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of government were held properly to be vested in three different units. The purpose of this, and of the later development of checks and balances, was to ensure that governmental power would not be used in an abusive manner. However, in its original form the concept involved social classes rather than government departments. Classical political philosophers from Aristotle onward favored a "mixed" government combining the elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The English theorist James Harrington in his Oceana (1656) derived a theory akin to separation of powers from the old idea of mixed government. Later, John Locke, in his second treatise, Of Civil Government (1690), urged that the best way to avoid a perverted government was to provide constitutionally for separation of the legislative and executive powers. Montesquieu, in his Spirit of the Laws (1748), added the third power of the judiciary to this concept, and the modern expression of separation of powers came into being. The mechanics of checks and balances were refined by the founders of the American republic. (See Harrington, James; Locke, John; Montesquieu.) Provisions in the U.S. Government. The framers of the U.S. Constitution...
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