Checks and Balances

Checks and balances is a system for making sure that one department does not exceed its bounds, or for guarding against fraud and errors. In the U.S. government, the system of checks and balances is set to be a sentry over the separation of powers, balancing the separate branches of government. In a system of checks and balances, the authority to take an action, or make a decision, rests with one department, while the responsibility to verify the decision or action rests with another. To explore this concept, consider the following checks and balances definition.

Definition of Checks and Balances


  1. A system in which various divisions of an organization have powers that affect or control other divisions, so that no division becomes too powerful, or to minimize error.
  2. Limits placed on all branches of government by giving each branch a right to void or amend the actions of another branch.


1787    Date of origin in the U.S. Constitution

What is Checks and Balances

The term “checks and balances” refers to a system in which departments or divisions of a government or company have some control over one another. This helps to ensure that neither department takes to itself more power than originally intended. It also helps prevent costly mistakes resulting from one department’s error, or improper behavior, as another department is tasked with checking on its work. A system of checks and balances is especially important in large organizations, such as corporations and governments, where individuals, such as department heads, make decisions that can have a profound effect on the entire organization.

Checks and Balances in Business

In business, checks and balances are important to help maintain financial health and adherence to company policies. Most large corporations have a system of checks and balances, but many small business owners don’t even think about it. It is true that instituting a system of checks and balances can cost more money each year, but the fact is, a mistake or theft from company accounts can have a much more devastating effect on a small business, as its reserves are considerably smaller.

By separating the functions and responsibilities of various employees into roles that are clearly defined and limited, business owners are more likely to prevent employees from making costly mistakes, or intentionally doing something to damage the company.

For example:

At ABC Home Supply, Cara is responsible for writing checks to pay the company’s bills, purchasing inventory and supplies, and bookkeeping. This is a huge responsibility, as all of the company’s money passes through her hands, so to speak, on its way to its various destinations. Cara’s husband lost his job about four months ago, and they are feeling the financial pinch.

Their daughter wants to go to summer camp, and her dance fees are due as well. After a heartrending conversation with her daughter about either dropping dance or going to camp, Cara makes a decision: to “borrow” money from the company to pay for camp. She writes a $2,000 check to the camp on the company account, fully intending to pay the money back within a couple of months.

Unfortunately, Cara’s husband remains unemployed, and the money taken from the company gets left behind in the mount of unpaid debts. This type of theft from corporate bank accounts is not uncommon. In this example of checks and balances, had ABC Home Supply had separate departments to handle paying bills and overall bookkeeping, or some other arrangement in which one department checks up on the activities of the other, this could have been prevented.

Checks and Balances in Government

The Founding Fathers had a great interest in preventing tyranny from gaining a foothold in the new nation. To that end, the first three articles of the Constitution created three separate branches of government, vesting certain specific powers with each. Dividing authority between each of these branches, Executive, Legislative, and Judicial, was their way of balancing the power of the federal government, preventing any one division from gaining too much power over the people. In addition to division of powers, each branch of government is given power to check up on, and even veto or disapprove decisions or actions of, another branch of government.

Branch of Government Duties Authority over Executive Branch Authority over Legislative Branch Authority over Judicial Branch
Executive (White House) Office of the President, executive and cabinet departments, creation and oversight of independent agencies May veto legislation from Congress X Nominates judges
Legislative (Congress) Approves presidential nominations, controls budget, makes laws May pass laws over a presidential veto, can impeach the president X May impeach presidentially appointed judges
Judicial (Federal Courts) Interprets laws, ensures laws are constitutional May declare presidential acts unconstitutional May declare laws unconstitutional X

As an example of checks and balances in government, the President may veto a law passed by Congress. Congress may then override the veto if a minimum of two-thirds of members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate vote to do so. This system takes longer, but prevents either Congress or the President from having absolute power in any decisions or in lawmaking.

As another example of checks and balances, the Supreme Court may declare a law passed by Congress unconstitutional. Because judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President, the power here is balanced between all three branches.

Checks and Balances Analogy

Understanding the governmental system of checks and balances is much easier if it is likened to a baseball game. Baseball coaches tell the players what to do, similar to how the President gives direction to the executive branch. There are certain rules that must be followed, which are like the laws passed by the legislative branch (Congress). Finally, there are referees that make judgments about whether the players did something wrong, and to interpret the rules, much like the judicial branch interprets the law and the Constitution.

Checks and Balances Example in Declaration of War

The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief of its military, though the Supreme Court has made a definitive point that the President is not commander in chief over the country. This issue has come up in times of conflict, as presidents have made decisions on the razor’s edge of whether the nation was at war. In truth, Congress, not the President, has power to declare war on any nation or entity, including al Qaeda and ISIS. The issue of presidential authority in declarations of war, and other important issues related to war and other hostilities offers a prime example of how checks and balances work in limiting presidential power.

In 2003, President George W. Bush followed the necessary protocol of having Congress declare war on the nation of Iraq, based on a suspicion that the government there was illegally harboring weapons of mass destruction. In 2011, after the 9/11 terror incidents, President Bush applied the term “enemy combatant,” which had previously been used to refer to as “Any person in an armed conflict who could be properly detained under the laws and customs of war,” to alleged members of al Qaeda and the Taliban being held in custody by the U.S. He did this as part of the “war on terror,” because it stripped the prisoners (or “detainees”) of any rights as prisoners-of-war under the Geneva Convention.

The system of checks and balances came into play when the U.S. Supreme Court reigned in President Bush’s detainment of people, both U.S. citizens and foreigners, in offshore facilities, without being given legal counsel, and with no intention of putting them through the legal system. The Court ruled that it is the basic human right to legal counsel and due process that defines the constitutional separation of powers, and the American doctrine of government.

While no detainees were ordered released at that time, the president was forced to go through Congress for authorization to deal with terror suspects in such a manner. Publicity of this process led to many Americans questioning the administration’s policies on handling, detention, and questioning of enemy combatants, which the administration insisted on calling “detainees,” rather than prisoners. This example of the system of checks and balances in action had many citizens who were originally gung-ho on tracking down terrorists and making them pay for the acts of 9/11, expressing doubt about President Bush’s handling of the “war on terrorism.”

Americans Demanding Checks and Balances in Presidential Powers over Terrorism

In September 2014, President Barak Obama outlined a plan to expand the U.S. role in fighting terrorism in Syria and Iraq. This came on the heels of distressing actions by a terror group known as “ISIS.” The frightening acts included a series of shootings in public places, kidnappings, stabbings, and bombings in countries around the globe. The American people, however, were understandably war weary, and began speaking up about a need for Congress to exercise its checks and balances powers in determining whether the U.S. should take this offensive stand in the middle East.

In response to these concerns, President Obama further explained the plan to involve the U.S. in a broad effort to “degrade and destroy and ultimately destroy ISIL.” He went on to say:

“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist using our air power and our partner forces on the ground.”

The President then announced, “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.” While the President of the United States has certain authority to direct the military in dealing with such threats, President Obama acknowledged here that the American people respond better when the system of checks and balances is not railed against, but used in deciding a course of action that could have widespread consequences.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Commander in Chief – The role of the United States president as highest ranking officer in the armed forces.
  • ISIL vs ISIS – The term “ISIS” refers to a terrorist movement existing within the Iraq and Syrian borders (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The term “ISIL” refers to the same terrorist movement as it has spread throughout the Middle East in whole. The “L” stands for “Levant,” which means “region.” Although Americans use the term ISIS to refer to the entire Islamic State terrorist movement, the correct term for the global upheaval is ISIL.
  • Legislation – A law, or body of laws, enacted by a government.
  • Veto – The power of a president or governor to reject a bill proposed by the legislature.

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