23 Reading: The Powers of Congress

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. What are the powers of Congress as enumerated in the U.S. Constitution?
  2. What powers are reserved specifically for the House of Representatives, and what powers are held by the Senate alone?
  3. What is the Constitution’s elastic clause, and how is it used to expand the powers of Congress?

The institution of Congress is responsible for carrying out the legislative duties of the federal government. The powers of Congress are enumerated in Article I of the Constitution. The founders established Congress in Article I, Section 1, which states, “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.” By instituting Congress in the first article of the Constitution the founders asserted their belief that the legislative branch should be the chief policymaking body. They preferred a government with power vested in the legislature, which they considered most representative of the people, rather than one where the executive was preeminent. They associated the executive branch with the British monarchy, which they had fought against in the Revolutionary War, so they relegated the presidency to the second article of the Constitution. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, “In a republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”[1]

Constitutional Powers

Congress was granted tremendous political power by the founders. These powers are listed primarily in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution, which states that Congress has broad discretion to “provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” To achieve this end, Congress has the authority to make and implement laws.

The Constitution lists a number of specific powers entrusted to Congress. These include responsibility for the nation’s budget and commerce, such as the power to lay and collect taxes, to pay the debts, to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states, to coin money, and to establish post offices. Congress is assigned the power to declare war and to raise an army and navy. Congress has the right to propose amendments to the Constitution and to create new states.

Article 1, Section 8, reads:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout 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 thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

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 Offenses 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 Appropriation 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, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

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, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards and other needful Buildings;-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.

Article IV, Section 3, reads:

New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

Amendment XVI (Ratified February 3, 1913) reads:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

Certain powers are granted specifically to the House, such as the power to initiate all tax and spending bills. While the Senate cannot propose such bills, it can accept, reject, or amend them. The Senate has certain authority not vested in the House. High-level presidential nominees, such as cabinet officers, Supreme Court justices, and ambassadors, must gain Senate approval. The Senate also must concur in treaties with foreign countries.

The final paragraph of Article I, Section 8, grants to Congress the power “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers.” This provision is known as the elastic clause because it is used to expand the powers of Congress, especially when national laws come into conflict with state laws. Legislation making it a federal crime to transport a kidnapped person across state lines was justified on the basis that the elastic clause allowed Congress to apply its power to regulate commerce in this situation. The reach of congressional power is explored on the website of the University of Missouri–Kansas City Law School.

Key Takeaways

Article I of the Constitution establishes Congress as the legislative branch of government with broad powers to provide for the “common defense and general welfare of the United States,” along with specific powers in important areas of domestic and foreign affairs. Certain powers, such as the ability to initiate taxing and spending bills, rest exclusively with the House of Representatives. Other powers, including the approval of presidential appointments, lie solely with the Senate. The powers of Congress have been extended through the elastic clause of the Constitution, which states that Congress can make all laws that are “necessary and proper” for carrying out its duties.

  1. Clinton Rossiter, ed., “Federalist 51,” in The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (New York: Mentor, 1961), 322. 


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