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How does the balance of power between the government branches shift year to year?

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Constitutionally, the three branches of the federal government (legislative, executive, and judicial) have equal power. This system of "checks and balances" is designed so that no single office becomes too powerful.

Still, in practice, the three branches rarely hold exactly the same amount of power. Over time, the executive branch...

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Constitutionally, the three branches of the federal government (legislative, executive, and judicial) have equal power. This system of "checks and balances" is designed so that no single office becomes too powerful.

Still, in practice, the three branches rarely hold exactly the same amount of power. Over time, the executive branch has become more powerful, as presidents gain more authority in times of crisis, executive orders are becoming more common, and media provides a centralized platform from which the president can sway public opinion.

The most common year-to-year (or election-to-election) power shifts occur in the election of Congress. When the president's political party is also the Congressional majority, the executive branch gains more power, as it is easier to pass the legislation desired by the executive branch. Alternatively, when the president faces an opposing Congress, the executive branch must work much harder to pass its desired policies. Essentially, the legislative and executive branches both become more powerful when they share a party. When they don't, the both need to work a bit harder.

In a less clear way, the judicial branch can fluctuate in power depending on what kinds of cases are presented in a given year. For example, 1954 was a year of immense power for the legislative branch, as the Supreme Court passed down the Brown v. Board of Education ruling (which drastically changed the course of American history). In any other given year, however, the cases may be more nuanced and the court may not provide "landmark" rulings.

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In the Constitution, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches are equally weighted. The balance of power, while ideally at equilibrium, tends to shift primarily on a biennial rather than annual basis through the congressional elections. This in turn influences the executive branch, as the president’s power tends to increase when his party controls one or both parts of Congress. Finally, both those changes can increase the power of the judicial branch through the appointment of justices, especially in the Supreme Court. The outcome of the mid-term elections may cause changes each year but there is no built-in mechanism for effecting annual change at the national level, but state and local elections are held annually.

The most important shift occurs through the elections for the House of Representatives. As all members of the House are elected every two years, its composition can shift significantly. Similar changes are effected in the Senate; even though each senator serves a six-year term, one-third of them are elected every two years. The changes pertain largely to the relative liberal or conservative perspective of each member of Congress, generally indicated by their party affiliation.

The executive branch is strengthened when the president’s party has a majority of seats in either chamber of Congress, and especially if it controls both the House and the Senate. The likelihood that legislation favored by the president will be passed is substantially increased when his party controls Congress.

By extension, the power of the judiciary will be affected by the perspectives of particular appointees, especially in the Supreme Court, which must be confirmed by Congress. The liberal or conservative orientation of the majority of justices can increase the Court’s power through its decisions on specific types of cases—both its decision whether to hear the case at all, and if it does so, the decision made and its effect on national laws and policies.

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The balance of powers between the three branches of the federal government does not shift in any predictable or systematic way from year to year.  Over the years, the executive branch has become more powerful, but this does not necessarily happen on a year-to-year basis.  In other words, we cannot know that the executive branch will have more power next year than it had this year.  Instead, power shifts somewhat randomly, depending on political circumstances.

Over time, the executive branch has gotten stronger.  This has generally happened because of wars and other crises. When the country faces a crisis, Americans generally want the President to be strong so as to lead them out of the crisis. When this happens, the executive branch gets powers that it rarely relinquishes after the crisis is over.  In addition, the increasing importance of the media has helped presidents gain more power over Congress through the years.  This is because the President is the one face of the country and can get plenty of media attention very easily.  Members of Congress have a much harder time, thus making it much easier for the president to lead the country.

From year to year, though, the balance of power between the branches does not necessarily change.  It changes randomly, based on circumstances.  If there is a major crisis (like the 9/11 attacks) it shifts to the executive as Americans want strong leadership.  If the economy gets worse, the president’s approval ratings can go down and Congress can gain some power.  If the president and Congress are of different parties (as things are now), a stalemate occurs, with the two branches’ powers canceling one another out.  Power can shift based on whether the President is a particularly effective or ineffective politician.  Power can shift if a Congressional leader arises who is a very good politician.  All of these are relatively random things, so we cannot  predict which branch will have more power on a year-to-year basis.

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