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Constitutional FAQ Answer #155

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Q155. "Who has more power, the Congress or the President?"

A. Wow, such a small question with no small answer. It is a good question, though.

Constitutionally speaking, the Congress is by far the most powerful of all the branches of the government. It is the representative of the people (and, originally, the states), and derives its power from the people. As such, it is given power to do the people's bidding and to rule over the people. It can set taxes, can raise armies, can declare war, can suspend habeas corpus, can impeach the President or judges, and can set laws touching the lives of every person in the nation. This is a lot of power, and the framers made sure that the power could not be wielded without balance. The Congress itself has to agree between its two houses on every law; the President checks the power of the Congress with the veto; the judiciary checks the power with judicial review. Even with these checks, though, the Congress is, on paper, the most powerful branch.

On paper, the President does not have a lot of power. He or she is the commander is chief of the armed forces and has almost exclusive power over foreign policy (though the Senate has to ratify any treaty and the Congress always has the power of the purse to influence foreign policy). The President also nominates judges and justices and maintains the cabinet, but these powers do not, in and of themselves, seem very powerful. In practice, however, the President can be very powerful, especially when the Congress and the President work together, such as when the presidency and the Congress are held by a single political party. In this case, it is common for the President to set policy that the Congress merely rubber-stamps. In such a case, the President can be said to be very powerful. The popularity of the President can also come into play — if the President is very popular with the people, the Congress might not be willing to challenge the President's policies.

The answer to the question, then, depends on the context of the question. The Constitution clearly makes the Congress the most powerful of the three branches of government. Depending on the circumstances, however, the President might have more influence on Congress than one would think based on the separation of powers outlined in the Constitution.


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