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Separation of Powers

The Constitution contains no provision explicating declaring that the powers of the three branches of the federal government shall be separated.  James Madison, in his original draft of what would become the Bill of Rights, included a proposed amendment that would make the separation of powers explicit, but his proposal was rejected, largely because his fellow members of Congress thought the separation of powers principle to be implicit in the structure of government under the Constitution.  Madison's proposed amendment, they concluded, would be a redundancy.

The first article of the Constitution says "ALL legislative powers...shall be vested in a Congress."  The second article vests "the executive power...in a President."  The third article places the "judicial power of the United States in one Supreme Court" and "in such inferior Courts as the Congress...may establish." 

Separation of powers serves several goals.  Separation  prevents concentration of power (seen as the root of tyranny) and provides each branch with weapons to fight off encroachment by the other two branches.  As James Madison argued in the Federalist Papers (No. 51), "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."  Clearly, our system of separated powers is not designed to maximize efficiency; it is designed to maximize freedom.


The Theory Elaborated and Implemented

The doctrine of separation of powers, as implemented in drafting the Constitution, was based on several principles generally held:

  1. the separation of government into three branches, legislative, executive, and judicial; the conception that each branch performs unique and identifiable functions that are appropriate to each; and

  2. the limitation of the personnel of each branch to that branch, so that no one person or group should be able to serve in more than one branch simultaneously.

To a great extent, the Constitution effectuated these principles, but critics objected to what they regarded as a curious intermixture of functions.  For example, the veto power of the President over legislation is often argued to be an infringement on the powers of the legislature.  Because the President has power to veto he(she) has the ultimate power of legislation.

The most common response to this line of argument is that the veto power is not absolute.  In other words, while the President has a right to veto any bill coming from Congress there is an equal right with Congress to override the veto.  Thus, the ultimate authority over the creation of law rests with Congress.  By default, this "check and balance" allows for the full separation of powers while still providing a means of curtailing an overzealous Congress.

The Theory in Practice Today

One need merely look at the Congressional Record or other government reporting services to see how the theories of Separation of Powers is at work.   Simply stated, the powers delegated by the Constitution are steadily at work in Washington and evidence of the "grand plan" for our government is clearly seen each legislative session.

For more information on how Congress operates visit the following sites:

1. United States House of Representatives -- Has roll call votes, weekly calendar, and access to information about bills and resolutions being considered in the Congress.

2. United States Senate -- Has information on bills, votes, members, and committees within the Senate.

3. The White House - features statements and press releases by the President as well as documents, an index of government information, history, and tour information.

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