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Instruction 1-2
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A New Kind of Government | The Balance of Power

The Balance of Power
CCSTD History Grade 12 12.1.4.-12.1.6.

The Constitution of the United States created the basic framework for a national government. Its writers believed in the rule of law, which is the idea that the law is over everything, including all individuals and the government itself.

The framers wanted to ensure that no part of government would be too powerful. They knew that power is something many people want, and that given the chance, one part of government, or one person, might try to take over and run things.

Because of this, the framers carefully divided powers between the national, or federal, government and the states. Before the Constitution was written, the states had a lot more power. The Constitution made the states give up some of their powers to the federal government.

Federalism is the sharing of power between federal and state governments. It is one of the unique features of the United States government. The states may deal with their own needs in their own ways. However, the states also act together to deal with matters that affect all Americans.

Federal Government Powers

The federal government has powers to tax the citizens, regulate trade, control the currency, raise an army, and declare war. It can also pass laws that are deemed “necessary and proper” in order to carry out its responsibilities. Powers belonging to the federal government are called enumerated powers.

State Government Powers

The states can pass and enforce laws and regulate trade within their borders. They can establish local governments, schools, and other institutions that affect the welfare of their citizens. Powers belonging to the federal government are called reserved powers.

Concurrent powers are powers that are shared by both federal and state governments. The powers to raise taxes, provide for the public welfare, borrow money, and administer criminal justice are concurrent powers.

Implied Powers

Some powers are not specifically listed in the Constitution, but powers are given to the government if they are necessary for the government to do its job. The job of the government is clearly laid out. For example, the government is allowed to have a federal bank, even though this isn’t specifically written in the Constitution. This is because a federal bank is needed to collect taxes, regulate trade, and provide for the common defense. The phrase “necessary and proper” in the quote below indicates how important it was to the framers that these implied powers were only to be used when necessary and not just for convenience:

“ . . . Congress shall have power . . . to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States . . . “

Two Houses

Have you ever wondered why our government has both a Senate and a House of Representatives? During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the framers of the Constitution were in disagreement about how the states should be represented within the federal government. Should a larger state have more power, or should all states be represented equally?

Finally, they came up with a solution. There would be a bicameral legislation—two “houses” would make up the legislature (we’ll learn more about the legislature below). The Senate would have the states represented equally, and the House of Representatives would have them represented by population. This was another way to balance power within the government.

Separation of Powers

The framers of the Constitution also set up a system of checks and balances in order to keep any part of the government from getting too powerful. They divided the federal government into three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Each branch has specific jobs to do, and each branch has specific powers. The powers of each branch are dependent on the others, so that nothing important can happen without the other branches agreeing.

  • The legislative branch makes the laws. It consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the Congress.
  • The executive branch carries out and enforces the laws. It consists of the President, the Vice President, the Executive Office of the President, and various other agencies, some of which are independent of the President.
  • The judicial branch interprets the laws. It consists of the Supreme Court and various lower courts.

This diagram shows how each branch can check, or limit, each other:

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