checks and balances

[ cheksuhn bal-uhn-siz ]
/ ˈtʃɛks ən ˈbæl ən sɪz /
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plural noun
limits imposed on all branches of a government by vesting in each branch the right to amend or void those acts of another that fall within its purview.


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Origin of checks and balances

First recorded in 1780–90

Words nearby checks and balances

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What does checks and balances mean?

Checks and balances refers to a system of power that is divided into parts or branches. Each branch can stop or limit the powers of the others. Checks and balances are frequently used in governments, especially national governments.

A system of checks and balances is fundamental to the United States’s federal government. The first three articles of the U.S. Constitution establish this system. The checks and balances ensure no one person or group has all the political power and can’t unjustly enforce their will on the nation’s citizens. The system is also intended to encourage cooperation, compromise, and debate between the branches of government.

America’s system of government is divided into the legislative branch, the judicial branch, and the executive branch. Each branch has ways it can limit the power of the others. Checks and balances exist at every level  of American government (federal, state, and sometimes local).

At the federal level, the legislative branch is Congress, the judicial branch is the federal court system (at the top of which is the Supreme Court), and the executive branch is led by the president. Creating laws is one way the U.S. uses checks and balances. Congress suggests a law in a bill. When it has enough votes, the bill goes to the president, who can accept or reject (veto) it. If the president vetoes a bill, it goes back to Congress. Congress can make changes or vote on it again. If two-thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives (the two parts of Congress) approve it, the bill becomes a law. However, the Supreme Court can rule a law unconstitutional, which means it is no longer a law.

Why is checks and balances important?

The first records of the phrase checks and balances come from the 1780s, but the idea is much older. The modern system of checks and balances for a government comes from the political idea of a separation of powers, that is, the idea that a government’s power is shared among its branches.

Checks and balances don’t have to involve all the branches of a government. They can also be applied within a branch. The U.S. Congress, for example, is divided into the Senate and the House of Representatives, which have to agree on a bill in order for it to become a law.

Checks and balances also exist at the state level in the United States. All 50 states have state legislators, state judges, and state executives (governors) who have abilities to curb each other’s power similar to the federal level. Local governments (such as those of counties or cities) usually don’t follow this exact system, but a city may have a mayor and city council, which can check each other’s power.

Did you know ... ?

Theories of a government separated into parts to check each other’s power come from as far back as 200 bc. Greek historian Polybius analyzed the ancient Roman form of constitutional government, which had a consul (a chief leader), a senate (acting as advisors), and citizens themselves.

What are real-life examples of checks and balances?

Many Americans learn about checks and balances in civics classes. Attempts by politicians or government officials to ignore or override this system are often criticized.



What other words are related to checks and balances?

Quiz yourself!

Under a system of checks and balances, absolute, unlimited power is given to: 

A. the legislative branch
B. the executive branch
C. the judicial branch
D. no one

How to use checks and balances in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for checks and balances

checks and balances

pl n
government, mainly US competition and mutual restraint among the various branches of government
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for checks and balances

checks and balances

A fundamental principle of American government, guaranteed by the Constitution, whereby each branch of the government (executive, judicial, and legislative) has some measure of influence over the other branches and may choose to block procedures of the other branches. Checks and balances prevent any one branch from accumulating too much power and encourage cooperation between branches as well as comprehensive debate on controversial policy issues. For example, to enact a federal law, the Senate and the House of Representatives must each vote to pass the law. In this sense, each house of Congress can check the other. Furthermore, even if the two houses do agree, the president must sign the law. If he chooses to veto the law, it can still be enacted if two-thirds of the members of both houses vote to override the veto. Under this arrangement, both Congress and the president can check each other. (See also appropriation, impeachment, judicial review, and separation of powers.)

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Other Idioms and Phrases with checks and balances

checks and balances

System whereby each branch of an organization can limit the powers of the other branches, as in The union has used a system of checks and balances to prevent any large local from dominating its policies. This system was enacted through the Constitution of the United States in order to prevent any of its three branches from dominating the Federal government. The term is occasionally transferred to other mechanisms for balancing power.

The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.