An interesting and useful example has arisen this week relevant for studies of the US Constitution and the powers of Congress and President – Congress have passed a law allowing “the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged support for the terrorists who carried out the attacks” and Obama has threatened to veto it…he has until Friday to actually do so. If he does, Mitch McConnell (Majority Leader in the Senate) believes he has the votes to override it in the Senate.

The obvious use for this example is to link it with branches of government exercising their constitutional powers and a display of checks and balances. Congress has passed the law, the President may veto it, Congress can override this with a 2/3rds vote in both Houses – all as laid out in Articles I and II of the Constitution. In this sense at least it could be argued that checks and balances are ‘working’.

For a deeper analysis, and those top A/A* marks however, a student could start looking at the timing of this veto and the party poltiics involved. This would be Obama’s 12th presidential veto, almost all of which came after 2015. This date coincides with the time that Obama lost the Senate to Republicans, making Congress exclusively Republican dominated. The importance therefore of party politics (perhaps no better example of which is in the continued failure to hold hearings for Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court) seems to be clear and could be used analytically to demonstrate a mis-use of checks and balances i.e. using them to forward a political agenda rather than as the Founding Fathers intended.

In terms of checks and balances, it also demonstrates the upperhand this power gives to the President – he, as one man, can veto the work of 535 Congressmen and Senators, and yet their ability to ‘check’ this power is highly limited by the difficulty of achieving a 2/3rds supermajority. This unequal ‘check’ therefore perhaps allows the President to dominate politically (the failure to override Keystone XL Pipeline being a good example).

Equally, it is not uncommon to see a President use more ‘imperial’ powers as he approaches the end of his presidency. Accusations often get levelled at a President during this time that he is a ‘lame duck’ (see earlier blog articles about the correct use of this term!) and therefore relies on powers which are more difficult to check, such as the veto or the pardon. It could be argued however that if a President is able to successfully exercise these powers, he is certainly not a lame duck (and despite his inability to achieve meaningful gun control reform, I would argue Obama is not a lame duck!).

This level of analysis – seeing both arguments, providing evidence, considered conclusions – is crucial for the step up to A2. In 45 markers especially, it is a good rule of thumb that the asnwer is usually “it depends” – in this case, the power of Congress or the President depend on who is in control of each branch, their popularity and how far through a presidential term we are. This kind of considered judgment makes for an essay capable of reaching top marks.