The separation of powers is a theory of government whereby political power is distributed among three branches of government; the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The doctrine of the separation of powers embodies three basic principles; limited government, which means that the government’s power over its citizens is limited by the Bill of Rights. Secondly is the separation of personnel, meaning that no one person can hold office in separate branches of the government at the same time.
And lastly, each branch of government keeps a watch over the other branches of government and in some cases can overrule it to prevent them from becoming too powerful. Neustadt (1960) wrote that rather it being a government with ‘separated powers’, the concept is better thought of as the doctrine of ‘shared powers’, which is what checks and balances are all about. Checks and balances are exercised by each branch of the federal government. The president is given the power to recommend legislation to the Congress. He does this formally in January of ever year in the State of the Union Address.
It is in this opportunity that he effectively says to Congress ‘this is what I want you to debate and pass into law’. Also, the president has the power to veto bills passed by Congress. This can hinder the effectiveness of the government as bills put forward by Congress could be vital, but due to the powers of the president, he can reject them on the basis of his own opinion, which is not good as Congress will generally have consulted the public to put through a bill in the first place, showing that it has public support.
However, this process works both ways, and Congress can amend, block and reject items of legislation that are recommended by the president, and can also override the president’s veto if it can gain a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress. This promotes effective government as it takes into account the opinions of a much larger group of people (Congress) rather than the opinion of just the President. The president also has two significant checks on the judiciary.
Firstly, he nominates all federal judges to the trial court, appeal court and Supreme Court. The appeal and Supreme court being the most important two. President George W. Bush made two appointments to the Supreme Court – John Roberts as chief justice in 2005, and Samuel Alito as an associate judge in 2006. By choosing justices whose judicial philosophy matches their own, presidents can hope to mould the outlook of the Court for many years after.
It can be argued that the election of these should have been down to a rather more democratic public vote, as it will inevitably be the citizens who will be largely effected by the appointment of these judges. The second is the power of pardon. This is used in times of controversy. In 1974, President Ford pardoned his predecessor, President Nixon, for the crimes that he committed in the ‘Watergate affair’. On the last day of his presidency, President Clinton pardoned 140 people, including Mark Rich, who was a notorious tax fugitive.
In contrast, President George W. Bush pardoned only 189 people in 8 years. This supports an effective government as it removes any members of Congress who may be corrupt and not doing their jobs properly. Congress has the significant power of ‘power of the purse’, which means that all of the money that the president wants to spend on his policies must be voted for by Congress. If they refuse to vote then it brings to a halt what the president was planning to do. In 2007, the Democrat controlled Congress attempted to limit President George W.
Bush’s spending on the military operations in Iraq. The power of the purse encourages effective government as it limits the power of the president in that he cannot simply spend money on policies without the permission of Congress. However it can be argued that Congress need not to interfere with the Presidents spending plans, as he does not just come up with ideas on his own, he works closely with specialist teams that help him to decide how to distribute money and what to spend the money on, and they aren’t decisions that are taken lightly.
Congress also have the power of investigation. This means that they can investigate the actions or policies of any member of the executive branch, including the president. For example, President George W. Bush’s handling of national security issues both before and after the events of 11/09/01 was investigated by Congress. This helps to uphold an effective government as it means that the actions of everyone are closely monitored to make sure that as little as possible is done wrong, and that what is done wrong, can be put right by whatever means are necessary.
While this kind of scrutiny is key to the success of the government running smoothly, people may argue that the Congress should concentrate on more important issues and jobs rather than constantly checking what everyone is doing in case of very minor faults. These checks and balances are very important for the running of the government. They encourage close cooperation between the two major parties and compromise between the president and Congress. Laws are passed, treaties ratified, appointments confirmed and budgets fixed only when both branches work together rather than pursue a partisan approach.
This raises the question of the need for the separation of powers for government to be effective, however it highlights the fact that the separation of powers is a system that currently works well and enables the government to run efficiently as the checks and balances ensure this. In conclusion, divided government leads to a more effective government, bills are scrutinised more closely, treaties checked more carefully, and nominees questioned more rigorously in the confirmation process.