The Powers of congress


After the failure of weak parliamentary rule under the Articles of Confederation, the Framers of the U.S. Constitution set out to create a federal system of a strong -- yet limited -- central government. While most of the architects of the Constitution agreed upon the need for a stronger national government, much of the debate at the Constitutional Convention revolved around the question of just how strong that government should be in relation to the already established state governments.

To be sure, the Constitution represented a plethora of compromises on these issues, but the Framers' aim is clear: that "in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity" [Preamble], the central government must be one of delegated, enumerated powers. The Framers were wary both of despotic rule (such as they had experienced under Britain's King George III) and of mob rule; as such, their version of federalism created a national government that possessed only those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution, and even those powers were limited by a system of internal checks and balances between the three branches of the central government.

As delegates to the Princeton Model Congress, you represent one of these three branches -- the legislature. In our simulation the President does indeed have veto power over legislation; still, in comparison to the United States Congress, our Congress enjoys a great deal more legislative power and freedom.

Nonetheless, as you write your bill and consider the bills of your fellow delegates, we urge you to think critically about the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution and to act within that framework in your role as a Representative or Senator. The following selections from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights should help to guide your thoughtful analysis.

Article I, Section 1: Creating the Congress

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

Article I, Section 8: Congressional Powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States;...
To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;
To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;
To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
To coin Money, regulate the Value therof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;
To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
To raise and support Armies, but no Aprropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy;
To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia...;
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States,...
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.

Article I, Section 9: What Congress Can't Do

...The Privilege of the Writ of Habeus Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.
No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.
No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.
No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State.
No Preference shall be given by any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue to the Ports of one State over those of another; nor shall Vessels bound to, or from, one State, be obliged to enter, clear, or pay Duties in another.
No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.
No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States...

The Bill of Rights: What Congress Can't Do, continued

Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment II: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Amendment VIII: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Amendment IX: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment X: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Your Responsibility

In the two centuries since the Constitution was ratified, the national government has grown much more powerful than the Framers could ever have imagined. Nonetheless, the Civil War was fought over the question of states' rights versus centralized power, and the debate over how strong the central government should be rages on still today in our courts and on the floor of Congress. Those who would interpret the Constitution to empower a strong, broad central government cite the "necessary and proper" clause found in Article I, Section 8, Paragraph 18. Those who argue for a smaller central government with more power and freedom for the states cite the Tenth Amendment. As a delegate to the Princeton Model Congress, the responsibility of reading and interpreting the Constitution now falls to you.