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Congressional Powers

Congressional Powers

The authority to introduce and pass legislation is a very strong power. But it is only one of the many that Congress possesses. In general, congressional powers can be divided into three types: enumerated, implied, and inherent. An enumerated power is a power explicitly stated in the Constitution. An implied power is one not specifically detailed in the Constitution but inferred as necessary to achieve the objectives of the national government. And an inherent power, while not enumerated or implied, must be assumed to exist as a direct result of the country’s existence. In this section, we will learn about each type of power and the foundations of legitimacy they claim. We will also learn about the way the different branches of government have historically appropriated powers not previously granted to them and the way congressional power has recently suffered in this process.

Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution details the enumerated powers of the legislature. These include the power to levy and collect taxes, declare war, raise an army and navy, coin money, borrow money, regulate commerce among the states and with foreign nations, establish federal courts and bankruptcy rules, establish rules for immigration and naturalization, and issue patents and copyrights. Other powers, such as the ability of Congress to override a presidential veto with a two-thirds vote of both houses, are found elsewhere in the Constitution (Article II, Section 7, in the case of the veto override). The first of these enumerated powers, to levy taxes, is quite possibly the most important power Congress possesses. Without it, most of the others, whether enumerated, implied, or inherent, would be largely theoretical. The power to levy and collect taxes, along with the appropriations power, gives Congress what is typically referred to as “the power of the purse”. This means Congress controls the money.

A pie chart titled Federal Tax Revenue in Fiscal Year 2015

The ability to levy and collect taxes is the first, and most important, of Congress’s enumerated powers. In 2015, U.S. federal tax revenue totaled $3.25 trillion.

Some enumerated powers invested in the Congress were included specifically to serve as checks on the other powerful branches of government. These include Congress’s sole power to introduce legislation, the Senate’s final say on many presidential nominations and treaties signed by the president, and the House’s ability to impeach or formally accuse the president or other federal officials of wrongdoing (the first step in removing the person from office; the second step, trial and removal, takes place in the U.S. Senate). Each of these powers also grants Congress oversight of the actions of the president and his or her administration—that is, the right to review and monitor other bodies such as the executive branch. The fact that Congress has the sole power to introduce legislation effectively limits the power of the president to develop the same laws he or she is empowered to enforce. The Senate’s exclusive power to give final approval for many of the president’s nominees, including cabinet members and judicial appointments, compels the president to consider the needs and desires of Congress when selecting top government officials. Finally, removing a president from office who has been elected by the entire country should never be done lightly. Giving this responsibility to a large deliberative body of elected officials ensures it will occur only very rarely.

Despite the fact that the Constitution outlines specific enumerated powers, most of the actions Congress takes on a day-to-day basis are not actually included in this list. The reason is that the Constitution not only gives Congress the power to make laws but also gives it some general direction as to what those laws should accomplish. The “necessary and proper cause” directs Congress “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.” Laws that regulate banks, establish a minimum wage, and allow for the construction and maintenance of interstate highways are all possible because of the implied powers granted by the necessary and proper clause. Today, the overwhelming portion of Congress’s work is tied to the necessary and proper clause.

Finally, Congress’s inherent powers are unlike either the enumerated or the implied powers. Inherent powers are not only not mentioned in the Constitution, but they do not even have a convenient clause in the Constitution to provide for them. Instead, they are powers Congress has determined it must assume if the government is going to work at all. The general assumption is that these powers were deemed so essential to any functioning government that the framers saw no need to spell them out. Such powers include the power to control borders of the state, the power to expand the territory of the state, and the power to defend itself from internal revolution or coups. These powers are not granted to the Congress, or to any other branch of the government for that matter, but they exist because the country exists.

Understanding the Limits of Congress’s Power to Regulate

One of the most important constitutional anchors for Congress’s implicit power to regulate all manner of activities within the states is the short clause in Article I, Section 8, which says Congress is empowered to “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes.” The Supreme Court’s broad interpretation of this so-called commerce clause has greatly expanded the power and reach of Congress over the centuries.

From the earliest days of the republic until the end of the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court consistently handed down decisions that effectively broadened the Congress’s power to regulate interstate and intrastate commerce.

The growing country, the demands of its expanding economy, and the way changes in technology and transportation contributed to the shrinking of space between the states demanded that Congress be able to function as a regulator. For a short period in the 1930s when federal authority was expanded to combat the Great Depression, the Court began to interpret the commerce clause far more narrowly. But after this interlude, the court’s interpretation swung in an even-broader direction. This change proved particularly important in the 1960s, when Congress rolled back racial segregation throughout much of the South and beyond, and in the 1970s, as federal environmental regulations and programs took root.

But in United States v. Lopez, a decision issued in 1995, the Court changed course again and, for the first time in half a century, struck down a law as an unconstitutional overstepping of the commerce clause.

Five years later, the Court did it again, convincing many that the country may be witnessing the beginning of a rollback in Congress’s power to regulate in the states. When the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as the ACA, or Obamacare) came before the Supreme Court in 2012, many believed the Court would strike it down. Instead, the justices took the novel approach of upholding the law based on the Congress’s enumerated power to tax, rather than the commerce clause. The decision was a shock to many. And, by not upholding the law on the basis of the commerce clause, the Court left open the possibility that it would continue to pursue a narrower interpretation of the clause.

What are the advantages of the Supreme Court’s broad interpretation of the commerce clause? How do you think this interpretation affects the balance of power between the branches of government? Why are some people concerned that the Court’s view of the clause could change?

In the early days of the republic, Congress’s role was rarely if ever disputed. However, with its decision in Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Supreme Court asserted its authority over judicial review and assumed the power to declare laws unconstitutional.

Yet, even after that decision, the Court was reluctant to use this power and didn’t do so for over half a century. Initially, the presidency was also a fairly weak branch of government compared with the legislature. But presidents have sought to increase their power almost from the beginning, typically at the expense of the Congress. By the nature of the enumerated powers provided to the president, it is during wartime that the chief executive is most powerful and Congress least powerful. For example, President Abraham Lincoln, who oversaw the prosecution of the Civil War, stretched the bounds of his legal authority in a number of ways, such as by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the confederate states.

In the twentieth century, the modern tussle over power between the Congress and the president really began. There are two primary reasons this struggle emerged. First, as the country grew larger and more complex, the need for the government to assert its regulatory power grew. The executive branch, because of its hierarchical organization with the president at the top, is naturally seen as a more smoothly run governmental machine than the cumbersome Congress. This gives the president advantages in the struggle for power and indeed gives Congress an incentive to delegate authority to the president on processes, such as trade agreements and national monument designations, that would be difficult for the legislature to carry out. The second reason has to do with the president’s powers as commander-in-chief in the realm of foreign policy.

The twin disasters of the Great Depression in the 1930s and World War II, which lasted until the mid-1940s, provided President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a powerful platform from which to expand presidential power. His popularity and his ability to be elected four times allowed him to greatly overshadow Congress. As a result, Congress attempted to restrain the power of the presidency by proposing the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution, which limited a president to only two full terms in office. Although this limitation is a significant one, it has not held back the tendency for the presidency to assume increased power.

In the decades following World War II, the United States entered the Cold War, a seemingly endless conflict with the Soviet Union without actual war, and therefore a period that allowed the presidency to assert more authority, especially in foreign affairs. In an exercise of this increased power, in the 1950s, President Harry Truman effectively went around an enumerated power of Congress by sending troops into battle in Korea without a congressional declaration of war. By the time of the Kennedy administration in the 1960s, the presidency had assumed nearly all responsibility for creating foreign policy, effectively shutting Congress out.

Following the twin scandals of Vietnam and Watergate in the early 1970s, Congress attempted to assert itself as a coequal branch, even in creating foreign policy, but could not hold back the trend. The War Powers Resolution (covered in the foreign policy chapter) was intended to strengthen congressional war powers but ended up clarifying presidential authority in the first sixty days of a military conflict. The war on terrorism after 9/11 has also strengthened the president’s hand. Today, the seemingly endless bickering between the president and the Congress is a reminder of the ongoing struggle for power between the branches, and indeed between the parties, in Washington, DC.

An image of several soldiers surrounding an artillery piece.

President Truman did not think it necessary to go through Congress to prosecute the war in Korea. This action opened the door to an extended era in which Congress has been effectively removed from decisions about whether to go to war, an era that continues today.

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