Congressional Powers

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13767

Even though the Constitution states what powers Congress has, this legislative body's powers have expanded greatly over its more-than-two-century existence.

categories

Government, People and Their Environment, United States

subject
History
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

tiered pyramid

You know there are three branches to the federal government: legislative, executive, and judicial.

  • But which of these three branches of government is the most powerful?

Through a system of checks and balances, each branch can keep the others in check. However, Congress is the most powerful governmental body because it is the most representative of the will of the people.

  • So what can Congress do?

Enumerated Powers

constitution

The Founding Fathers believed the British government was tyrannical. So, after gaining independence, they constructed the Constitution in a way to maximize a representation of the will of the American people.

Unlike the president or the Supreme Court, Congress members represent smaller constituencies, which means they can focus on the interests of specific states and counties.

The Constitution specifically states, or enumerates, what each branch can do. Because the legislative branch is the most democratic of the three branches of government, the powers enumerated to Congress are much more expansive than the executive or judicial branches.

Read this excerpt from Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution and pay attention to how these powers inhibit the U.S. government from doing anything Congress does not approve of:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes...borrow money... coin money... establish post offices and post roads... define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offenses against the law of nations... declare war... raise and support armies...[and] To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.

supreme court

  • What is the one thing a government is not able to operate without?

Without money, it doesn't matter what the president wants to do because he or she could never pay for the programs or expenses themselves. The job of acquiring this money via taxes and loans is up to the House of Representatives.

While the Senate is made up of two senators per state, the House is made up of members proportional to the size of states, making it the most representative governing body in the United States of America.

For this reason, the House has been given the purse-strings of the government, meaning no money can be spent without first being approved in the House.

Moreover, Congress is the only body in the United States that can declare war. If a president wants to attack a country, (typically) he has to get it approved by Congress in the form of a declaration of war.

coin purse

These two abilities already give Congress an incredible amount of power; however, the last statement in Article 1, Section 8 is one of the most important clauses in the entire Constitution.

Implied Powers

To make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.

This sentence is known as the necessary and proper clause or the elastic clause.

  • After reading it again, why do you think this clause could be considered elastic?

rubber band

This clause is called elastic because, by citing this clause, Congress members have been able to expand their powers far beyond what the Constitution strictly dictates.

Ever since the nation's founding, people have disagreed on how to properly interupret the Constitution.

Some believed that the words in the Constitution only allow for a few specific things, and the federal government should be limited to whatever is expressly stated in the document.

However, as the country expanded and sought to modernize and compete with European powers, there were just as many people who argued that the elastic clause permits the country to create laws that are necessary and proper for effective governance.

If the argument can be made that a law is necessary and proper, there is a good chance that it will be considered constitutional.

One of the first instances where this clause was utilized is the Supreme Court case McCulloch v. Maryland. As you watch the video below, pay attention to the reason Maryland thought it could tax the United States.

McCulloch v. Maryland Case Brief Summary | Law Case Explained from Quimbee:

Maryland did not think it was constitutional for the U.S. government to establish a national bank, so the state tried to inflict a $15,000 annual tax on the national bank locations inside its borders.

Once the case got to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Marshall and a majority of the court decided that, because it appeared the U.S. national bank was "necessary and proper" for effective governance and money management, it was deemed constitutional in 1819.

John Marshall, 1832

Image by Henry Inman, via Virginia Memory on Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Over the past two centuries, this principle has expanded the size of government and its powers greatly. From the New Deal to the Patriot Act, presidents and Congress members alike expand their power and further their agenda by making a case for this implied power.

The elastic clause is the major way Congressional power can be implied; however, there are many other clauses in the Constitution that have expanded the reach of the legislative body over the centuries.

Inherent Powers

capitol

Like implied powers, inherent powers are also not specifically stated in the Constitution. However, unlike implied powers, they are not drawn from any clauses in the Constitution.

Inherent powers are those that are inherent in the job of governing and don't need any document to specify.

These include the power to:

  • control national borders
  • purchase or otherwise acquire new territory
  • defend the country from revolution
  • add departments to the federal government to effectively govern

barbed wire do not enter

Inherent powers are often exercised by the president. However, there is a major area of legislation that, while not mentioned in the Constitution at all, is presumed to be something Congress can act on simply because it is inherent in governance.

As you watch this next video, pay attention to how accepted the idea of federal regulation of immigration is.

House passes immigration reform, it remains a long shot in the Senate from ABC15 Arizona:

There are countless other examples as well of the U.S. restricting immigration in some capacity because it is a part of the inherent ability of governments to control national borders.

Continue on to the Got It? section to make sure you understand the distinction between the three governing powers and how they are used.

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