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James Madison famously wrote in Federalist No. 10 that there are two ways to ward against the “dangerous vice” of political faction: “the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.” The first of these options would require either destroying the liberty that allows factions to grow, an outcome Madison said is worse than the factions themselves, or requiring all citizens to have the same opinions and interests, a virtual impossibility. Because the underlying causes of factions cannot be removed, Madison argued for a political system—the U.S. Constitution—capable of controlling them. Even before Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote in support of the Constitution’s separation of powers, and Montesquieu claimed that liberty is best protected through the construction of checks and balances. The division of the legislature into two chambers and the balancing of the presidency against the legislative branch mean that no one faction is likely to control the entire governing apparatus. In addition, federalism balances power of the states against the power of the central government and independent courts adjudicate disputes that arise between the various branches of government. Divided government, defined as no single party controlling all branches of government, demonstrates, as the norm in the United States, how well the Founders’s ideas about government work.

Checks and Balances EssayThe U.S. political system was designed to prevent one particular ideological faction from gaining control of the entire system of government, a situation that the Founders believed would lead to despotism. However, the checks and balances inherent in the U.S. system also create the possibility of gridlock. Because each branch of government must agree with all other branches for a bill to become a law, lawmaking is more difficult than it would be in a system with fewer checks and balances. This has led some to argue that a democratic system with fewer checks, such as Westminster parliamentary democracy, is superior. While normative arguments both in favor of and against checks and balances can and have been made, it is also possible to examine checks and balances from a positive perspective. Indeed, most political science literature of the last several decades has taken a positive, rather than normative, approach to checks and balances.

Vetoes And Supermajorities

The ability of one branch of government to act as a check on another branch depends upon the power granted to it within the political system. Perhaps the strongest form of check is veto power, or the ability to block a bill from becoming law. George Tsebelis refers to actors with veto power as “veto players.” He defines a veto player as any actor (individual or collective) in a political system whose assent is necessary to change the policy status quo. In the United States, the House, Senate, and the president are all veto players because no bill can pass without the support of all three. Tsebelis argues that as the number veto players within a political system grows, and as their preferences over policy become more ideologically diverse, it becomes more difficult to make new policy. In other words, the policy status quo becomes more difficult to change, and, therefore, more stable.

Veto power arises from two different sources. In some instances, actors such as the House, Senate, and president have constitutionally defined veto rights. Separation of powers systems, in which the president and the legislature are elected in different elections, and the president is not accountable to the legislature through a vote of confidence, by definition have several constitutionally defined, or institutional, veto players. In other political systems, veto rights emerge as part of the political process. In parliamentary democracies, where the government is elected by, and serves at the behest of, the lower house of parliament, there may be only one institutional veto player—formally the parliament itself (assuming there is no upper legislative chamber with veto power)—but numerous partisan veto players. In parliamentary democracies with multiparty systems, coalition governments are the norm. If no single party controls a majority of the seats in parliament, a coalition is likely necessary to pass laws. Each party in the governing coalition has the ability to block legislation by informing its members of parliament to vote against the bill. Tsebelis refers to these parties as partisan veto players, because the political system generates veto rights for parties through governing coalitions, despite the fact that the constitution does not provide them with a formal veto rights.

When examining checks and balances within a political system, it is necessary to consider both types of veto players. Federal separation-of-powers systems, such as the United States or Brazil, have several constitutionally defined veto players, while unitary parliamentary countries with multiparty coalition governments, such as the Netherlands and Israel, have many partisan veto players. The separation-of-powers systems have institutionalized checks and balances, while other systems generate checks through partisan coalitions. The effects, however, are the same. All else equal, the more actors with veto power, the more difficult it is to produce policy change.

In some instances, supermajority requirements can generate additional checks by making it easier for actors to veto legislation. In the U.S. Senate, for example, the filibuster rule means that a supermajority of sixty senators is required to pass important bills. Because Senate rules require sixty votes to cut off debate and hold a vote, forty senators can effectively block legislation. In the other cases, supermajorities are sometimes sufficient to overcome checks, thereby weakening them. Two thirds supermajorities in the House and Senate can also override a presidential veto, meaning the president cannot block a bill when two-thirds of both houses desire to pass it. Similar veto override provisions exist in many presidential systems.

Agenda Setting And Parliamentary Oversight

By definition, veto players are all alike in their ability to block legislation, but their powers may vary with regard to agenda setting. Although the term agenda setting may have a variety of meanings in everyday language, in works of formal theory it means something very specific: the ability to make a take-it-or-leave-it offer to another actor. Agenda setting, under this definition, is captured very nicely by the saying, “Congress proposes, the president disposes.” In the American system, Congress is the agenda setter, meaning it can make a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the president. The president has no formal power to amend a bill that Congress has sent, and can only sign the bill into law or veto it. If the president wishes to make amendments to a bill, it would require a veto of the bill, then to find a member of Congress willing to reintroduce a new version of the bill in Congress, and subsequently hope the amendments survive the congressional process. The last part of this process is the least likely.

The opposite is true in a parliamentary democracy. In parliamentary systems, such as the United Kingdom, the government drafts legislation and makes a take-it-or-leave-it proposal to the parliament. Although a parliament can debate the merits of bills, there is usually little room for substantive amendments. Governments in parliamentary systems tend to get their way, leaving parliaments to complain that they are rubber stamps.

Agenda-setting rights grant an actor a great deal of power. Exactly how much power, though, depends upon precise decision- making rules as well as the ideological alignment of veto players. Agenda setters have more power when all veto players consider the status quo to be unsatisfactory. If everyone agrees that the current policy is inferior and that particular direction requires change, the actor possessing agenda-setting authority can simply propose the preferred policy. The other actors are then forced to compare the new proposal to the inferior status quo. In this instance, they agree to go along with the agenda setter’s proposal. When there are one or more veto players whose preference is relatively close to the status quo policy, the power of the agenda setter diminishes. Assuming the agenda setter prefers a substantial change, the agenda setter will not be able to propose the preferred policy because the veto player close to the status quo will veto it. Instead, the agenda setter must propose a policy preferred by all veto players over the current policy.

The precise nature of formal agenda-setting authority varies greatly both within and across countries. For example, while it is generally the case that the U.S. Congress has formal agenda-setting authority, the president can make a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the Senate when appointing cabinet members and judges. The president makes appointments, but the Senate has the power to scrutinize and veto the appointees. The president, though, can temporarily bypass the requirement of Senate approval by making an appointment while the Senate is in recess. Likewise, the U.S. president has formal agenda-setting authority when negotiating foreign treaties. The president may negotiate a treaty with other countries, but the treaty must then be approved by a two-thirds vote in the Senate. The Senate cannot, however, amend the treaty.

In other countries, presidents have more formal powers to amend legislation than the American president, thereby reducing the agenda-setting power of the legislature. The Argentinean and Brazilian presidents, for example, can pass into law the sections of a bill they approve, and veto the sections they do not. In the United States, this procedure is referred to as a line-item veto, and it was briefly granted to President Clinton before the Supreme Court deemed it to be unconstitutional. In some countries, such as Brazil, the president has the right to initiate the budget, while in the United States all revenue bills must originate in the House.

In parliamentary systems, legislatures generally have fewer agenda-setting rights as the vast majority of bills come from the executive branch. However, there is significant variation in the powers of parliaments as well. Some parliaments, such as the Norwegian Storting and German Bundestag, have numerous permanent, specialized committees that participate in the drafting of legislation. In the United Kingdom, committees in the House of Commons, on the other hand, tend to be set up on an ad hoc basis and have significantly fewer powers. Parliaments and their committees also vary in their ability to oversee the executive. The European Affairs Committee of the Danish Folketing is often noted for its exceptionally high degree of oversight in the area of European Union affairs. While oversight committees in the United Kingdom tend to be weaker, question time in the House of Commons provides Parliament members of an opportunity for government oversight in a very public forum.

Federalism And Bicameralism

When discussing checks and balances, federalism and bicameralism are two political institutions that warrant special attention. Federalism is an arrangement that divides power among a federal government and its constituent states. Each level of government must have certain powers delegated to it, and these powers must be constitutionally protected. Federal bargains, by their nature, create checks on government authority. Some scholars have suggested that the checks and balances inherent in a federal system provide economic benefits by creating competition among states. Barry Weingast has argued that federalism helps preserve market economies by preventing government interference in the market. Others, like Daniel Triesman, however, have pointed to problems associated with decentralization. Regardless, when states have the ability to block legislation, they become another veto player in the political system and they may make policy change more difficult.

Bicameralism closely relates to federalism and can greatly impact policy making as well. States often have their interests represented through an upper chamber of a bicameral legislature, where they collectively have veto rights. This was case in the United States prior to the direct election of senators in 1913. Even though U.S. senators today represent citizens directly, rather than state governments, the states receive equal representation regardless of size in the Senate. In Germany, state representatives in the German upper house, the Bundesrat, have the ability to veto certain types of legislation passed by the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. When the upper chamber can veto legislation and has policy preferences that differ from the lower chamber, policy stability becomes more likely due to the presence of an additional institutional veto player. Regardless of their effects on economic growth, federalism and bicameralism are likely to make policy change more difficult.

Bureaucrats And Judges

After legislation has been written, bureaucrats must implement the law and judges may interpret it. The degree of freedom that judges and bureaucrats have with regard to interpretation and implementation relates to the checks and balances present within the political system. In systems with a greater number of checks and balances (more veto players), judges and bureaucrats have more discretion to interpret and implement the law. This is because politicians have limited ability to overturn what judges and bureaucrats do through the political process.

Judges, through their ability to interpret law, and bureaucrats, through their ability to implement policy, can influence policy outcomes. The delegation of powers to judges and bureaucrats creates a principal-agent problem for politicians. On the one hand, politicians rely upon these actors. Judges are needed to ensure that the law is followed, and they are required to interpret the law when situations arise that lawmakers did not originally anticipate. Bureaucrats are required for their policy expertise in particular areas. Legislators do not have the time or knowledge required to implement the laws that they write themselves. On the other hand, politicians cannot be sure that judges and bureaucrats desire the same policy outcomes they do. When judges and bureaucrats have different policy preferences than the politicians in power, the judges and bureaucrats may have some ability to reshape policy outcomes after the legislative process has been completed. This is known as shirking.

Politicians, though, are not completely powerless to prevent shirking. They have an arsenal of tools at their disposal to control judges and bureaucrats: Politicians can write more specific, detailed legislation ex ante, or they can monitor and punish shirking ex post. However, these tools are only effective to the degree that politicians can agree on how to use them. When there are fewer veto players, it is easier for politicians to enforce the policy outcome. Moreover, politicians are better able to overrule adverse judicial interpretations through the political process, something of great concern to judges who typically fear having their decisions overturned. The judiciary is also less independent when interpreting the law, and bureaucrats have less leeway when implementing it as the number of veto players and the ideological distance between them decreases.

Government And Regime Stability

Because the number of checks and balances present in a political system affects the ability of that system to produce new legislation, it also impacts a government’s ability to handle crises. A political system with fewer checks can better respond to external crises than a system with many checks. When there are many veto players, they may not be able to agree on the best way to handle a crisis. This, in turn, may impact upon government stability. In parliamentary systems with coalition governments, a crisis may lead parties in a governing coalition to disagree, causing the government to collapse. This leads to the formation of a new government, and the possible dissolution of parliament and new elections. Therefore, in parliamentary systems, more veto players should mean less government stability.

In presidential systems, it is not possible to remove a president during the middle of a term for ideological reasons, although the possibility of impeachment for criminal activities does provide the legislature with some form of check. While parliamentary systems provide a constitutional mechanism to remove ineffective governments during a term, presidential systems do not. When a crisis arises in a presidential system with a great number of veto players, the system may be rendered immobile. This could potentially lead some to seek extraconstitutional means for change in the form of coups or revolution. Therefore, while high numbers of veto players in parliamentary democracy may lead to government instability, high numbers of veto players in presidential systems are likely to lead to regime instability and a greater likelihood of reversion to authoritarian regimes.

While there is little doubt today that parliamentary democracies are less likely to revert to authoritarian rule than presidential systems, there is still some debate about why. Some scholars believe that the features of presidential systems make them more susceptible to democratic breakdown, as the logic laid out here would suggest. Others, however, point out that it is difficult to know what leads to regime collapse because most presidential democracies also suffer from other maladies that increase the likelihood of authoritarian reversals, such as poverty, poor economic growth, and a history of previous military rule. Presidentialism tends to exist in countries where all forms of democracy are likely to fail, making it difficult to sort out the effects of presidentialism from these other variables. However, recent scholarship finds that while poor economic growth and, specifically, economic crises such as recessions are the primary cause of reversals to authoritarian rule, presidential systems are much less likely to undergo the process of democratic consolidation, leaving them much more vulnerable to shocks associated with economic crises than parliamentary systems. High numbers of veto players leads to policy gridlock in both parliamentary and presidential regimes; however, parliamentary systems offer a constitutional escape from the gridlock through the possibility of government collapse and the ability to call for new elections. Presidential systems do not offer such a release valve, and therefore presidential countries do not consolidate as democracies, leaving them more vulnerable to authoritarian reversal during times of crisis.


The number of checks and balances in a political system has a tremendous impact on the policy-making process, which in turn affects other aspects of the political system, including the independence of judges and the ability of bureaucrats to implement policy. Lastly, checks and balances even impact the likelihood of government collapse and regime stability. In some circumstances, such as periods of strong economic growth, policy stability may be desirable; at other times, it may not be. Rather than constructing a normative argument about whether checks and balances are either inherently good or bad for democratic government, political science today often takes a positive approach to analysis of checks and balances, examining the underlying institutional sources of policy stability.


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