What is the Most Powerful Branch of Government?

November 22, 2023   Joseph Kochanek

  • Rights and Liberties
  • Blog

Most Americans are familiar with the idea that the USA has three branches of government, and in an earlier blog post we looked at the concept of separation of powers. This post takes up a related question: which of the three branches of government is most powerful, as described in the Federalist Papers? This is related to the concept of separation, but nonetheless distinct: one could imagine three branches separate in their scope of duties and nevertheless unequal in power.

The Power of the Legislative Branch

The authors of the Federalist Papers asserted that the legislature is the most powerful branch of government. This was not just a neutral observation – an important reason they were interested in so arguing was their concern that the legislature might overwhelm the powers of the rest of the government, and attempt to rule on its own. This view was offered most directly in Federalist 48, in which Madison, writing of the governments of the individual states, observed that “The legislative department is everywhere extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.”

The contrast between the likelihood that the legislature would dominate government and the likelihood that the other branches might was made clear later in Federalist 48: “On the other side, the executive power being restrained within a narrower compass, and being more simple in its nature, and the judiciary being described by landmarks still less uncertain, projects of usurpation by either of these departments would immediately betray and defeat themselves.” 

Energy in the Executive

How do citizens think about these questions now? Is it common for people to agree with the authors of the Federalist Papers about this point? To look at this from another point of view, Publius endorsed the plan to create two houses of Congress, and to give them non-overlapping duties as well as making the two houses work together on other duties. These can be thought of as dispersing the power of Congress, making the legislative branch less cohesive in its action. Contrast this with the approach to executive power in Federalist 70, among other places, in which energy in and unity of executive power was both praised and pursued.

Why are energy and unity in the executive so important? One reason is that these qualities help the executive have enough power to stand up to the power of the legislature. Perhaps one way to think about the questions above is to entertain the possibility that the steps that those writing the Constitution took to empower other branches of government, relative to the legislature, were successful in balancing the potential power of the legislature.