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Separation of Powers Term Paper


The doctorine of separation of powers that is enshrined in the United States Constitution requires that federal government powers be divided among three branches- the executive, judiciary, and legislature. Congress represents the legislature while the presidency represents the executive branch. Congress is mandated with the responsibility of drafting, debating, and passing laws, vetting presidential nominees for judicial and executive offices, and declaring war, among other powers (Ginsberg et al. 248). Congress is comprised of the Senate and House of Representatives. Over the years, Congress has crossed swords with the presidency over political power, and this may well continue in future.

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Analyzing the Powers of Congress
Congress is an institution charged with carrying out the federal ‘government’s legislative duties. Its powers are enshrined in Article 1 of the United States Constitution. The Constitution grants explicitly this institution the authority to make laws, which stands alone as Congress’ most important power. A bill only becomes law after both houses- the House of Representatives and the Senate- pass it in the same form (Ginsberg et al. 250). The Constitution mandates Congress with the responsibility of making all necessary laws to ensure the smooth running of the federal government. The legislative process, therefore, is designed to ensure that bills are given careful consideration before they are passed into laws. The judiciary checks the accountability of Congress’ law-making process in a process referred to as judicial review.

When a bill is introduced in Congress, it is referred for hearings by the appropriate legislative committee. The selected congressional committee then debates the bill, offers possible amendments, and votes on it. If approved, the proposed law is then taken back to the Chamber of Congress it came from for a vote. If the lawmakers approve the vote, it is sent to the other House for another vote. If both chambers pass it in the same form, it is taken to the president for assent, after which it should become law. After receiving the bill, the president can assent to it or veto it. Congress, in turn, has a power to override a ‘president’s veto, albeit with a 66.7 percent majority in both houses. This process shows how impactful Congress is in initiating and making laws.

The power of Congress to override a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority also integrates into its oversight power. Congress uses the system of checks and balances to ensure the accountability of the judicial and executive branches of the federal government (Module 7 Lecture 2). One such check is the power to override a presidential veto, and the other is an elastic clause in the Constitution that allows Congress the right to pass any law it sees as necessary and for the good of the nation. The oversight role also entails monitoring, reviewing, and supervising federal activities, programs, agencies, and the implementation of government policies. The oversight authority is an integral system of the United States system of checks and balances. The authority derives from Congress’ implied powers in the Constitution.

One chamber of Congress, the Senate, is constitutionally mandated to approve by a two-thirds majority or reject presidential appointees to judicial and executive posts. The constitutional clause with this provision was born of compromise. The founding fathers, while debating the issue, addressed concerns that entrusting the president alone with the appointing power would result in monarchical tendencies. The ‘Senate’s role in the appointment function is critical as the chamber represents each state equally, thereby offering security to smaller states that would otherwise be overwhelmed by appointments from larger states. However, it poses the possibility that partisan politics may significantly influence the appointment process. For instance, when one political party holds a senate majority but the other controls the White House, senators may try to reject or delay the confirmations of presidential nominees.

How Presidents in the 20th Century used their Institutional and Political Resources to Challenge Congressional Dominance of United States National Politics
One of the significant developments in the history of American politics is the emergence of the modern presidency. Before the twentieth century, presidents were seen as ordinary figures with ordinary reputations who were mostly unable to provide leadership except in times of national crisis (Rogowski 325). The nineteenth century, especially, is considered the golden era of the legislature since the president was mainly a servant of Congress. However, the nation entered an entirely new epoch when the center of political power transitioned from congressional government to the presidential form of governance (Rogowski 325). In the latter form, presidents exert a significant influence over the federal ‘government’s activities.

The transition is attributed to a growing popular demand for national governance and a social safety net, which was brought about by the Great Depression in the early years of the twentieth century. President Franklin Roosevelt experimented with solutions at the time but was limited by fundamental American values, resulting in a growth of state bureaucracies (Hirschfield 36). As the twentieth century progressed, surprises such as the Pearl Harbor, the atomic bomb, and the Soviet Union led to an expansion of presidential powers. Ostensibly, the most significant expansion of presidential powers has been brought about by national security concerns.

Congress is charged with keeping a check on presidential powers. The House often limits the expansion of presidential powers as seen in the War Powers Act of 1973 and the Budget Impoundment and Control Act of 1974 (Hirschfield 41). However, Congress has often used its institutional capabilities to limit the powers of the president. Such capabilities include oversight hearings, hesitancy to enact new national-level programs administered by the executive branch, and increasingly rigorous reviews of some presidential appointees to judicial and executive offices (Hirschfield 42). Congress has presented ongoing challenges to national governance, but the president is still widely seen as the centerpiece of the United States political system.

Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the first presidents of the twentieth century in the United States and they each expanded presidential powers. The former worked closely with Congress and regularly sent messages to the House to define his legislative powers (Hirschfield 50). He championed the development of the United ‘States’ global power. Congress also considered bills formulated by President Wilson. The First World War then accorded him the chance to take a leading role in international affairs, thereby expanding presidential powers further and challenging congressional dominance concerning foreign policy and national security (Hirschfield 56). One of the ‘nation’s greatest leaders, Franklin Roosevelt, led the United States through two great crises in the twentieth Century- the Great Depression and the Second World War. His new deal programs that were designed to regulate the ‘nation’s economy helped him gain additional power while World War II saw him charged with leading the ‘nation’s foreign affairs (Hirschfield 63). These twentieth-century presidents shaped the powers of the modern presidency through both evolutionary and constitutional powers.

The Likely Future Balance of Power between Presidents and Congress
The United States government operates on a separation of powers doctrine. However, the principle has spawned a longstanding debate over the roles of Congress and the President in national security, foreign affairs, and the limits on their respective authorities (Masters Para.2). The Constitution parcels out foreign relations powers to both the presidency and Congress. Some powers are divided between the two while others are granted exclusively to one of the two institutions. For instance, the Constitution grants Congress the authority to regulate foreign commerce while the president retains the power to command the ‘nation’s military (Wildavsky 18). In recent years, presidents have accumulated foreign affairs power at the expense of Congress as a part of a pattern dictated by times of wars and national emergencies whereby the presidency eclipses Congress. However, looking at the Constitution reveals that the friction exists by design.

The periodic and seemingly never-ending tug-of-war between Congress and the United States presidents is one of the Constitution’s core aims. The Constitution was founded after the United States had gained independence from Britain, and the drafters were keen on warding off monarchical tendencies embodied by the ‘colonizers’ king (Posner 1677). The founding fathers distributed political power and imposed the checks and balances system. Another of their objectives was to address the failings of the Articles of Association, which were regarded by many as a form of legislative tyranny (Goldgeier and Saunders 144). The Constitution is particularly obscure in the area of foreign affairs as it does not provide for the intrinsic division of labor that it does with domestic issues (Tiefer 8). The other branch in the checks and balances system, the judiciary, has not offered much clarity either on the area. There are likely to be more constitutional scuffles over foreign affairs in the future as the balance of power in this area remains unclear.

The executive and legislative branches often cross swords, particularly if the president’s party does not control at least one chamber of Congress. In the future, the two branches are likely to keep crossing swords over military operations, foreign aid, trade, international agreements, intelligence, and immigration (Reeves and Rogowski 149). War powers are divided between the Congress and the presidency. While the Constitution mandates Congress with declaring war, presidents have been known to order American forces into hostile zones such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria in the absence of congressional authorization (Tiefer 19). Congress can rein on a president’s military ambitions by using its power of the purse, or the power to authorize all public spending.

The Presidency and the Legislature have crossed swords many times in the past, and this is set to continue. Congress’ oversight role helps keep presidential powers in check as intended by the Constitution. Many presidents in the twentieth century, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt expanded the powers of the presidency through evolutionary and constitutional powers, most of which are attributed to national emergencies, war, and crisis. The Constitution divides the most sensitive powers between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government to ensure that one cannot function in the absence of the other.

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Works Cited
Ginsberg, Benjamín, Theodore Lowi, and Margaret Weir. “We the People: An Introduction to American Politics.” 12th ed., W. W. Norton, 2019.
Goldgeier, James, and Saunders, Elizabeth. “The unconstrained presidency: checks and balances eroded long before Trump.” Foreign Aff. 97 (2018): 144.
Hirschfield, Robert S. The Power of the Presidency: Concepts and Controversy. Routledge, 2017.
Masters, Jonathan. “US Foreign Policy Powers: Congress and the President.” Council on Foreign Relations 2 (2017).
Module 7, Lecture 2
Posner, Eric A. “Balance-of-Powers Arguments, the Structural Constitution, and the Problem of Executive Under enforcement.” U. Pa. L. Rev. 164 (2015): 1677.
Reeves, Andrew, and Rogowski, Jon. “Unilateral Powers, Public Opinion, and the Presidency.” The Journal of Politics 78.1 (2016): 137-151.
Rogowski, Jon C. “Presidential influence in an era of congressional dominance.” American Political Science Review 110.2 (2016): 325-341.
Tiefer, Charles. The semi-sovereign presidency: The Bush administration’s strategy for governing without Congress. Routledge, 2019.
Wildavsky, Aaron. The beleaguered presidency. Routledge, 2017.

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