Separation of Powers

September 12, 1973

Report Outline
Clash Over Constitutional Question
Tripartite Plan of U.S. Government
Issues of the Current Confrontation
Special Focus

Clash Over Constitutional Question

Every american child is taught early in his school years that the government of his country is based on the principle of separation of powers and that adherence to this principle is one of the major safeguards of liberty in a democratic state. Yet the question of how to apply the principle in practice has been a source of political tension ever since the nation began and there are still no fixed charts of office to show exactly where the lines of power are drawn between the President and Congress and the judiciary. This is almost entirely because the founding fathers, by design, introduced into this tripartite structure an element called checks and balances which provides an overlapping of powers among the three branches of government. It is in these areas of overlap that political tension perennially arises.

But rarely has the tension reached such a degree of strain as it has in this first year of President Nixon's second term. The Senate investigation of the Watergate scandal, beginning with hearings in May 1973, brought long-building tension to points of confrontation, requiring difficult decisions on the relative powers of the three branches. Several of these issues are now before the courts, headed for the Supreme Court.

One of the interesting consequences of the televised Watergate hearings has been the popularization of the separation-of-powers question. Millions of words of exegesis and learned argument have been devoted in recent years to the problem of how power is, or should be, distributed in American governance. While the public has always enjoyed a good “scrap” between the branches, especially when it has involved a President, the overall question of the constitutional limits of the powers of each of the branches has been the concern mainly of scholars. The Watergate hearings dramatized the problem of power distribution and television brought that drama to the attention of millions.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Constitution and Separation of Powers
Sep. 07, 2012  Re-examining the Constitution
Jan. 29, 1988  Treaty Ratification
Mar. 27, 1987  Bicentennial of the Constitution
Jan. 31, 1986  Constitution Debate Renewed
Mar. 16, 1979  Calls for Constitutional Conventions
Jul. 04, 1976  Appraising the American Revolution
Sep. 12, 1973  Separation of Powers
Jul. 12, 1972  Treaty Ratification
Apr. 19, 1967  Foreign Policy Making and the Congress
Mar. 05, 1947  Contempt of Congress
May 10, 1945  The Tariff Power
Jul. 01, 1943  Executive Agreements
Jun. 01, 1943  Advice and Consent of the Senate
May 24, 1943  Modernization of Congress
Jan. 18, 1943  The Treaty Power
Aug. 24, 1942  Congress and the Conduct of War
May 09, 1940  Congressional Powers of Inquiry
Nov. 09, 1939  Participation by Congress in Control of Foreign Policy
Apr. 21, 1937  Revision of the Constitution
Feb. 24, 1936  Advance Opinions on Constitutional Questions
Oct. 04, 1935  Federal Powers Under the Commerce Clause
Jun. 19, 1935  The President, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court
Sep. 10, 1928  The Senate and the Multilateral Treaty
Dec. 16, 1926  The Senate's Power of Investigation
Oct. 03, 1924  Pending Proposals to Amend the Constitution
Powers and History of the Presidency
Separation of Powers
Supreme Court History and Decisions