The highest law in the land lives within the Constitution of the United States of America. Written and signed in Philadelphia 1787, it took 55 of America’s most influential men 116 days to write. The result was a three-page document:
- Guaranteeing certain rights and freedoms to the American people.
- Establishing the structure of the federal government.
- Explaining the relationship between the states and the federal government.
- Defining which powers the government does and does not have.
The Constitution has served as the guiding foundation for the U.S. government for over 220 years. Understanding how the Construction grants and distributes power is a high emphasis topic on the TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion™ Social Studies subtest.
Distribution of Power to the National, State, and Local Governments
The Founding Fathers of the Constitution believed in limited government. They based the U.S. Constitution on federalism to divide power between the different levels of government. This restricts the abuse of power and protects individual liberty.
According to Study.com, federalism allows two or more systems of government to share control over the same geographic region. Each level of government (local, state, federal) has an individual area of authority and operates directly on its citizens through laws and officials.
Federalism allows local and state governments to make laws about issues that directly touch their town or state, while the national government is allowed to make laws that touch the nation as a whole. Local, state, and national laws cannot conflict. For example, the State of New York cannot enforce a law that prohibits women to vote because the national government has established a law giving all U.S. Citizens the right to vote.
Checks and Balances
Because of a system of checks and balances, no branch or level of government can become too powerful. Each level of government “checks” the power of another to guarantee power is balanced.
For example, there are three branches of government in the federal level (with similar branches found within the state and local governments):
- The legislative branch introduces and votes on a bill.
- The bill then travels to the executive branch where the President decides if the bill is beneficial for the country. If he signs the bill, it becomes a law. The President can veto a bill, sending the bill back to the legislative branch for revisions. The legislative branch can override the executive branch’s veto with enough votes, turning the bill into a law.
- The system of checks and balances doesn’t stop there. The judicial branch tests the laws through the court system. If a law is believed to be unfair, a lawsuit can be filed. Lawyers develop cases for or against the claim, and a judge decides which side presents the most convincing argument. A lawsuit could reach the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.
At this point, the legislative branch can introduce a new piece of legislation if they don’t agree with how the judicial branch interpreted the law. This starts the system of checks and balances all over again.