The federal government of the United States is a highly complex system. As with any man-made highly complex system, errors occur. What makes America great is our system of checks and balances designed to minimize the errors and protect the citizens. The Founding Fathers understood that each of the three branches of our government left unchecked would try to be the sole driving force of this nation. Thus they gave us a system of checks and balances in our Constitution.
So what exactly is a system of checks and balances, how does it work, and what are the dangers of it being compromised?
I can best explain how I value a system of checks and balances when I apply it to the field of aviation—a field that I am extremely familiar with. The #1 concern of aviation is safety—from private aviation to space travel. Let’s look at something most of us are familiar with. When you board a commercial airliner, you want to be able to trust that the plane you are relying on to fly you from point A to point B was designed by competent and capable engineers; that the mechanics hired to maintain that plane are dedicated to excellence and unwilling to cut corners or compromise proven procedures; that the pilots are experienced, trained, disciplined and willing to make decisions with your safety as their #1 concern.
That being said, most aircraft accidents or incidents can be traced to a human failure somewhere. For example, an airplane is designed, built, operated, and maintained by humans. Thus a failure of the airplane is really a failure of the human. The design of an airplane should, therefore, aim at reducing the likelihood of human error. Even when the errors are not self-evident, their occurrence should be clearly signaled to the crew.
Dr. James Reason’s model of accident causation focuses on understanding incidents and accidents and their contributing factors. Reason’s model is widely used in the aviation industry and has been recommended by various organizations, such as the FAA, for use in investigating the role of management policies and procedures in aircraft accidents. Reason’s model traces the root causes of accidents to errors that occur in the higher management levels of an organization. These errors are referred to as latent errors (human error which is likely to be made due to systems or routines that are formed in such a way that humans are disposed to making these errors).
Today’s technological systems involve complex multiple interacting factors that are distant in time and proximity from the immediate circumstances of an accident. Some of the salient features of Reason’s model are the following:
1. Systems are protected by multiple layers of defenses that are designed to prevent hazards or system failures from cascading into accidents.
2. Each layer of protection, however, can develop “holes” or flaws through safety deficiencies, resembling Swiss cheese.
3. As the number and size of these holes in the defenses increase, the chances of accidents also increase.
4. When the holes in each of the layers of defenses line up, an accident occurs.
How would you feel if you heard your captain make the following announcement: “Ladies and gentleman, we have discovered a small mechanical problem—a hydraulic leak—and before we depart the gate we are going to have maintenance take a look at the problem.” So far, so good? Sure. In a few minutes, you hear the captain say, “Folks, we got a thumb up from the maintenance worker on the ramp. He held up a busted leaky hydraulic line, so I take that to mean we are ‘good-to-go’.” If you are like me, you’re not feeling so good. Why? If maintenance responsibilities fall on one person instead of a qualified team of technicians, we all know that errors can easily occur. In other words, when only one person is working on an aircraft, there are no checks and balances. It is easy for one person to become distracted and miss, forget, or overlook something.
Just so you know, the above situation in real life would have been handled something like this:
1. The pilot(s) or maintenance personnel notice a problem with the airplane’s hydraulic system—perhaps a leak on the ramp beneath the plane.
2. Once noticed, the problem is entered into the aircraft’s maintenance log by the captain. At that point, the aircraft would be grounded.
3. Next, a maintenance professional, skilled in the hydraulic system of that particular aircraft system, would be dispatched to the aircraft.
4. He would check the hydraulic system and determine the cause of the leak. He would more than likely refer to FAA approved technical manuals as he analyzes the particular problem. Based on the severity of the problem, he would determine what is needed to be done to repair the hydraulic system—adjust, repair, or possibly replace a part.
5. He would then refer back to the technical manuals, often using extensive checklists, to complete the work.
6. He might then consult with technical support to determine if the adjusted/repaired/replaced part needs to be tested before flight and if it can be tested with passengers on board the airplane.
7. After all of the work and testing has been completed, he would then make an entry in the aircraft's maintenance logbook stating what repairs/replacements were made, what section(s) of the technical manual gave him the authority to make those repairs/replacements, and then he would sign the logbook indicating his work was complete.
8. After being briefed by the maintenance professional, the captain would initial the logbook entry indicating that he understood what had been done and is in agreement with the mechanic that the airplane is now safe to fly.
Aviation is a highly complex system. Your safety as a passenger depends on a functional system of checks and balances—redundancy, duplication, overlap—people constantly checking people. Modern commercial aircraft ALL have at least two engines, two pilots, two or three hydraulic systems, multiple methods of braking, triple navigation systems, two-three generators, backup pressurization, oxygen systems, multiple fire extinguishing systems, fuel reserves beyond what is needed for the trip, and every instrument is duplicated at least once and often more.
Pilots rely on a challenge-verification-response method when accomplishing checklists for both normal and emergency operations. One pilot reads the checklist and verifies that the other pilot accomplishes the checklist item. The pilot accomplishing the item verbally states the response. Every change to navigational systems is confirmed by the non-flying pilot before the change is made. Every change of altitude given to the pilots by ATC is confirmed by both pilots verbally and visually. All of these operating procedures are practiced and tested in simulators on a regular basis.
While many see the pilot as the only “man” in the system, we must remember that the ultimate safety of any commercial airline flight involves many men and women from many departments: flightcrew, ground crew, ATC, meteorologist, maintenance, security, etc. Safety is the end objective of the highly complex aviation system. Safety is not possible without a system of checks and balances that is ultimately designed to protect man against himself.
How does our system of checks and balances work within the federal government? Here are some examples: The President is the Commander in Chief of our Armed Services, yet he needs the consent of Congress to go to war. Congress can pass bills with a majority vote in both houses, but the President can veto the bill if he doesn’t agree with it. If the President vetoes a bill, the Congress can override his veto. Congress makes the laws and the President enforces the laws. The President negotiates treaties and the Senate ratifies treaties. The President appoints Federal Judges, Justices of the Supreme Court, Ambassadors, and other federal officials and the Senate must give its consent. The House of Representatives votes to impeach a President or the federal judiciary and the Senate tries the case. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides and a two thirds Senate present must vote to convict.
During the years 1787 and 1788 in several New York State newspapers, 85 essays were written outlining how the new government would operate and why this type of government was the best choice for the United States of America. These essays are referred to as the Federalist Papers. The actual authors of some of the essays are under dispute, but the general consensus is that Alexander Hamilton wrote 52, James Madison wrote 28, and John Jay contributed the remaining five.
The Federalist No. 51, “The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments”, was published in the Independent Journal, Wednesday, February 6, 1788, by James Madison. In Federalist No. 51, Madison addresses the concerns and necessities of a system of checks and balances.
The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. The Federalist No. 51
Madison knew that it is to be expected that men will abuse each other, it is human nature to do so, thus the need for a system of control “over men”. He also points out that under a divine leadership—“If angels were to govern men…”—no controls on government would be necessary. He says that the government’s primary control should be a dependence on the people.
In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself. The Federalist No. 51
He outlines the need for a “double security” to protect “the rights of the people”.
It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority -- that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable. The Federalist No. 51
Madison emphasizes that the United States is a Constitutional Republic (see: What Makes America Great – Part One), not a democracy. Madison alludes to this when he speaks to the need to “guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part”. He states that majority rule (democracy) is evil: “If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil:”.
The more you study the failed governments around the globe and throughout history, you will find that the common denominator among them all is the absence of a functioning system of checks and balances. When citizens are controlled by governments who embrace majority rule—mob rule—the end result will be chaos and ultimate failure. As Madison said, majority rule is simply “evil”.
Just as in aviation, a system of checks and balances in government is essential if we are to protect citizens against the “abuses of the government”.
Our current administration is busily passing bills which by no stretch of the imagination are allowed by the constitution (see: HR 1586; Financial Regulatory Oversight Committee; expanded powers of Federal Reserve; the Patriot Act). Many of these complex bills are being passed and never read. Consider the Dodd-Frank law of 2010, a noble attempt to thwart another financial crisis. The original Dodd-Frank bill was 848 pages (23 times longer than Glass-Steagall, the reform that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929) with every other page requiring regulators fill in further detail to complete the bill. One section of the bill, the “Volcker rule”, which aims to curb risky proprietary trading by banks, includes 383 questions that break down into 1,420 subquestions. One congressman recently stated that it has taken 22 million man hours to comply with only the first 140 pages (in comparison, it took 20 million man hours to build the Panama Canal).
Is what made America great in question? Do checks and balances still exist in America? Is the answer to our problems more regulation, more laws, more bills? Does anyone even know what is in these 1,000 page bills?
When I study the failed governments around the globe and throughout history, I see a common thread: The absence of a healthy system of checks and balances—something that made America great, but something I fear is in danger of slipping away. Listen carefully to what the captain is saying. So far so good?