Branches of Government

An Analysis of the Three Branches of U.S. Federal Government Today

According to one observer, considerable debate has lingered within the field of political science as to which of the three branches of American government is the most powerful or influential. To answer this question, this paper provides a review of how the Founding Fathers envisioned the hierarchy of power for each of the branches, following by a personal assessment of which branch has emerged as the most powerful and influential branch of American government today together with the supporting rationale. A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.

According to Black's Law Dictionary (1990), checks and balances are an "arrangement of government powers whereby powers of one governmental branch check or balance those of other branches" (238). This separation of powers, of course, has been a fundamental feature of the American federal government from the outset, but the intent, purpose and net effect of this approach has not been exactly what the Founders may have envisioned. When the nation's Founders gathered to forge a constitution, Goldwin and Schambra (1980) suggest that the checks and balances provisions that were adopted were not intended to keep the forces of government under control, but were rather intended to keep the popular majority from exercising any substantive degree of influence over its operation. "In keeping with their desire to contain the majority," the authors say, "the founders inserted 'auxiliary precautions' that were designed to fragment power without democratizing it" (46). By keeping the three branches of the federal government (the executive, legislative, and judiciary functions) separate and by providing a system of checks and balances among the various branches (including staggered elections, executive veto, Senate confirmation of appointments and ratification of treaties, and a bicameral legislature), these delegates intended to diminish the impact of popular will. "They also contrived an elaborate and difficult process for amending the Constitution," Goldwin and Schambra add, "To the extent that it existed at all, the majoritarian principle was tightly locked into a system of minority vetoes, making sweeping popular actions nearly impossible" (46). Despite these early intentions at keeping the popular will at bay, much has changed over the years and today, the system of checks and balances serves to address the respective roles, responsibilities, and relationships among these three branches of the federal government (Clark, Gardner, Grace et al., 63); the current system of checks and balances also provides protections for the citizens of the country from the inordinate and arbitrary exercise of a branch of government rather than the other way around (Jasper 27).

For example, in his essay, "The Continued Need for the Prerogative Presidency," Martin S. Sheffer (2002) points out that, "It has been more than a quarter-century since the Congress enacted the War Powers Act, the National Emergencies Act, and an additional half-dozen or so pieces of legislation to effectively end a constitutional crisis and simultaneously apply long-overdue constraints to the 'runaway' or 'imperial' presidency" (251). Certainly, the three branches of government have come into conflict - in sometimes profound and troubling ways - over the years, but to date, the Supreme Court and Congress have not been surrounded by federal troops on order of the president, and the Supreme Court justices and congressmen have not been compelled to physically force anyone in the executive branch to submit to their will. Nevertheless, there have been a sufficient number…