Political Trust & Distrust 11

Free course. One paragraph (sometimes) per week.

Power is trusted only when used to advance or protect our interests.  In this context, the framers wanted a government strong enough to protect and serve them. They also wanted to limit the government so that it couldn’t tyrannize the people. They ended up with a Constitution that limits and divides power in multiple ways:

  • Power is constitutionally limited only to those powers expressly delegated by the Constitution. Most notably, the 10th amendment reserves for the states all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government in the Constitution.  Article 4, Section 1, requires each state to respect the laws of the other states. Moreover, the Constitution’s list of rights is not meant as a limit:  the 9th Amendment is clear that US citizens have rights beyond those listed in the Constitution. 
  • Power is dispersed. Article 1 assigns the power to legislate only to Congress (the Legislative branch) and assigns its powers in Section 8. Congress’s power is constrained by dividing it into a House and Senate, with the House representing the population, and the Senate representing the states. Article 2 assigns the power to execute the law only to the presidency (the Executive branch). Judicial powers are assigned by Article 3 to the Supreme Court.
  • There are checks and balances on power.  Article 1, Section 7, gives the president the power to veto legislation unless both houses of Congress can overcome the veto with a two-thirds or better vote. Article 2, Section 4 states that the president, vice president, and all civil officers of the United States can be removed by impeachment if convicted of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.  This same article is one of several sources of congressional oversight powers.
  • The framers’ idea of a strong but constrained presidency was reinforced later by the 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to no more than two terms in office.
  • The federal government is explicitly prohibited from using the courts to persecute people.  This is most notably reflected in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th amendments.
  • The framers made it hard to change the Constitution to get around its’ constraints on power. (See Article 5 of the Constitution).

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