Checks and Balances in American Government

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    • 00:00


    • 00:11

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR: Hi, everybody.My name's Christine Barbour.I teach political science at Indiana University.And I'm the co-author of an American politics textbookcall Keeping the Republic-- Power and Citizenshipin American Politics.The tutorial today is about somethingthat I know you've heard about, you've heard a lot about.It's one of the foundational principles

    • 00:31

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: of American government.Checks and balances-- what could be dryer than that?But checks and balances are such a fundamental principlein our government that we take it for granted.And we don't know why we have it,and we don't know what we'd do without it.The reason we have checks and balancesis really because the founders wantedto devise a system of government that

    • 00:53

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: would limit government and protect us from ourselves.Really, we were the problem.James Madison explained it beautifullyin the 51st Federalist Paper.The 51st federal's Paper is one of the most gorgeous piecesof writing in American politics.I don't think the Federalist Papers in general

    • 01:13

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: make people's hearts beat faster,but they make mine beat faster.I love it.And I love the 51st Federalist.And I try to get students to read it,because I think it contains the foundational principlesof American politics-- they're all right there.In this tutorial we're going to get inside Madison's headand understand why the founders created the system that theydid.

    • 01:39

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: Why should we care about this?If we understand Madison's rationale behind the principleof checks and balances, we have some insight into the upside,and sometimes the frustrating downside, of the wayour government works today.In late September of 2015 the Speaker of the House

    • 01:59

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: resigned unexpectedly.And he resigned because he was dealingwith an intractable political system.He was stuck.He had to make a deal.He had part of his party who wasn'tgoing to let him make a deal.He was going to have to make a deal with another party.And the job wasn't any fun anymore.And this was a Speaker who had had great funat being Speaker of the House.

    • 02:19

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: And when we see that part of our governmentwe're frustrated-- why can't government get anything done?But that was in part, not maybe quiteas extreme as things have gotten today,but that was in part by design.Madison didn't really want us to get things done, because hewas afraid of what we might do.So let's see about what he was thinking.

    • 02:47

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: Madison started out thinking that people would be virtuous,that Americans would shed the crown,shed the curse of England, that we would be virtuous citizens.We would be able to do put aside our own personal interests

    • 03:07

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: and act in the public interest.It's a concept called republican virtue-- and that's small rrepublican, doesn't have anythingto do with any political party today.It just has to do with the republic.Madison believed in the power of a republic,a representative democratic-- small d-- government.And he really trusted us to rise above ourselves.

    • 03:30

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: But under our first constitution,the Articles of Confederation, we didn't rise above ourselves.In fact, we sank to lows that he had not anticipated.There were a lot of reasons for that.That's a tutorial of another time.But the period during the Articles of Confederationculminated with something called Shays' Rebellion,

    • 03:50

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: a group of irate farmers marching on the courthousein Western Massachusetts.And it just scared the pants off of James Madisonand all the other founders, who didn'tlike the idea that this new republic that they had createdwas going to be fraught with insecurity, unstable,and just not a place where reasonable people

    • 04:14

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: would make reasonable financial investments.These guys were the elite, they wanted stability.Political stability is good for economic prosperity,and it wasn't happening.So what was the problem?His problem was that human nature is notsuited to Republican government

    • 04:36

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: Curses, what are you going to do with that?Human nature is not suited to republican government.But human nature's what you've got.Madison believed, as all political philosophers reallydo, that the kind of government that you should designdepends on the kind of people you have.So the kind of human nature you have

    • 04:57

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: requires a certain kind of government.And this is what Madison said, these are Madison's words.But "What is government itself but the greatest of allreflections on human nature?If men were angels, no government would be necessary.In framing a government which is to be administeredby men over men, the great difficultylies in this-- you must first enable the government

    • 05:19

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: to control the governed, and in the next placeoblige it to control itself."If men were angels, no government would be necessary.Think about that.Men are not angels.That was Madison's big conclusion

    • 05:39

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: from Shays' Rebellion.Men aren't angels.Women aren't angels either, but frankly hewasn't worried about that.Human nature is not angelic.The 51st Federalist Paper is my favorite Federalist Paper,but try as I might I cannot get students to read it.So in the latest edition of our textbook

    • 05:60

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: we got a graphic designer named Mike Worthto make a comic strip out of it, thinkingthat there's more than one way to tell a really good story.And so let's imagine Madison's thinkingas he wrote the 51st Federalist Paper thatled to the system of checks and balancesthat today is both our blessing and our curse.

    • 06:22

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: Here's Madison.He's thinking, gosh, I'm with all these people here tryingto solve this problem.I've got Shays' Rebellion right behind me.All I can think about is the factthat when we have unrestrained human nature we're in trouble.And we're having a Constitutional Convention

    • 06:42

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: and it's a sweltering summer day.They always talk about the sweltering summer day.They had all the windows closed and the drapesdrawn because Madison didn't want anybodyto know what was going on in the Constitutional Convention.It was a secret deliberation.But the secret deliberation revealed that it wasn't justthe farmers in Western Massachusetts thatwere not angelic.It wasn't Madison's own peers.

    • 07:04

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: The people who were sitting there,the elite of the new republic, they were saying,wait a minute, I'm not going to invest my money in a republicthat's not stable.Well I think that the small states should have more power.Well I think that the big states should have more power.I live in a big state, big states should have more power.No, no, I live in a small state, small statesshould have more power.Well I live in a northern state, the northern states

    • 07:25

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: have more power.I live in a southern state, so southern statesshould have more power.And Madison is going, oy, what do I do with these people?What do I do with people?What are you going to do if this is what people are like?If you want a government where people are free,if you're going to give them freedom,

    • 07:46

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: then they're going to be free to behave this way.The alternative, taking away freedom, that's no alternative.Then you don't have a republican government.So what do you do?Madison said we have to find a remedy for those diseases mostincident to republican government.What's the remedy to be?Aha, says Madison.

    • 08:07

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: What we're going to do is we're goingto take human nature as it is and we'regoing to make it work for us.We are going to take these self-interested, ambitious,jealous, maybe greedy individuals.We don't have republican virtue, we don't have angels.We're going to take the little devils we've got,

    • 08:28

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: and we're going to create a government thatwill produce good laws regardlessof the quality of the people thatare living within those laws, or under those laws,or contributing to those laws.We're going to pit ambition against ambition.We're going to put people in a positionwhere they're so jealous that they're alwayslooking over their shoulder.

    • 08:48

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: And if they're always looking over their shoulder,they're checking each other.And if they're always checking each other,they'll keep each other from getting too powerful, toopower hungry, too corrupt.That's really the germ of the idea behind separationof powers and checks and balances.First you separate the powers so that one bad apple can't

    • 09:10

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: make a whole bunch go bad.You don't have a parliamentary systemlike you have in England, where the parliament isthe executive, is the courts.You separate the branches, an idea that hadn't been practicedbut was owed to a French philosopher named Montesquieu.You separate them, you have a federalist system.You take the national level and you separate it

    • 09:32

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: from the state level.You give them each some power over each other.And then you take those three branchesand you give them each some power over each other.And voila you have created a system of checks and balances.But you have also created a systemthat can't move very quickly.

    • 09:55

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: It's a system where there are brakes put on at every turn.There's a picture before you of howit works, how separation of powers and checks and balanceswork.And you'll see that it's a lot more complicatedthan the usual picture that we show youthat just has three points.It has the House and Senate, it has the Congress.

    • 10:18

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: I mean it has the House and Senate,it has the Supreme Court, and it has the president.Usually that's the picture of how checks and balances work.But it's more complicated than that.Because notice that the House and the Senateare both part of Congress and they check each other.That was Madison.First let's divide the legislature into two housesand have them check each other.

    • 10:39

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: The House can't pass a law without the Senate,the Senate can't pass a law without the house.They need each other.Then they need the president to sign a bill.They need the courts to allow the bill to go forward,to interpret the law.Each of those branches has some power over the other.The president can veto a law, Congress can override a veto.

    • 11:02

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: The president appoints people to the Supreme Court,the Senate has to approve those appointments.The court can declare laws of Congress unconstitutional,the court can declare executive orders of the presidentunconstitutional.There's a check and a balance at every point.And notice in this diagram that there's also,in the middle of it, the people.Because the people are a check.

    • 11:23

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: Madison didn't trust us very much.The original Constitution doesn't give usvery much power.The only direct election that we got outof the original Constitution was our member of Congress.We didn't even elect our senators directly.They were elected by our state legislators.But we were a check.We were the voice of the Constitution behind it.

    • 11:45

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: And we have not only this national system,but if you see in the bottom corner there,there's a federal court system.That's because we have a federal political system.We're not just divided into three branches,we're divided into two layers-- although in this diagramit's two horizontal layers instead of vertical layers--

    • 12:09

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: where the federal government, the national government,has some powers of its own and the state governments havesome power of their own.They're each sovereign in their own sphere.It's another way to limit power, it's another way to limit us.Checks and balances.To summarize Madison's argument, he

    • 12:30

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: believed that human beings are ambitious, self-interested,and jealous.Repressing that nature with a strong governmenttakes away freedom, which for him is what it's all about.So his goal instead was to create a government thatthrives on that jealous nature.When you see government out there

    • 12:51

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: and you see it behaving badly, hey, Madison planned for that.That's part of the plan, not to make that happen,but to compensate for it.He created separation of powers into three branches.He created separation of powers with a bicameral legislature.And he created separation of powers with federalism.And he created checks and balances,

    • 13:12

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: which work because jealous, ambitious human beings holdeach other in check.It's not any wonder that government is so slowto act and to get things done.Madison built it into the system.He wanted to be sure that there were many waysto apply the brakes.And the irony is, we are at the breaks.When Congress' opinion ratings are at an all-time low, when

    • 13:35

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: people want outsiders-- as they didin the campaign of 2015-16-- when they want outsidersto come run the government for them,when they elect people who haven't held office before,really they're ignoring the fact that they'remeant to be the brakes.Madison want to put brakes on the system.We don't want people to come in and get things in a hurry.

    • 13:57

      CHRISTINE BARBOUR [continued]: We're supposed to be the brakes.The irony is we are the brakes.A famous old newspaper comic striphad a character named Pogo who once said we have met the enemyand he is us.[MUSIC PLAYING]

Checks and Balances in American Government

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Professor Christine Barbour discusses the American government's system of checks and balances. James Madison recognized that human nature was not suited to republican government and wanted to design government around the people. He decided turn the ambitious, jealous nature of humans into a system to balance power.

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Checks and Balances in American Government

Professor Christine Barbour discusses the American government's system of checks and balances. James Madison recognized that human nature was not suited to republican government and wanted to design government around the people. He decided turn the ambitious, jealous nature of humans into a system to balance power.

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