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Article I: The Legislative Branch—The Enumerated Powers (Section 8)

February 21, 2014 by NCC Staff


Article I of the Constitution defines the role of Congress, the federal legislative branch. Section 8 contains the enumerated powers of the federal government delegated to Congress.


The following was prepared by the Office of the Secretary of the Senate with the assistance of the Library of Congress, providing the original text of each clause of the Constitution with an accompanying explanation of its meaning and how that meaning has changed over time. Source: U.S. Senate, Library Of Congress


Sections 1, 2 and 3 (Legislative Powers) | Sections 4, 5, 6 and 7 (Elections and Legislative Process) | Section 8 (Enumerated Powers)  |  Sections 9 and 10 (Powers Denied To Congress and States)

Article I, Section 8:  Powers of Congress
Section 8, Clause 1:  Power to Tax and Spend
Text   Explanation
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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;   Section 8 begins the enumerated powers of the federal government delegated to Congress.  The first is the power to tax and to spend the money raised by taxes, to provide for the nation’s defense and general welfare.  This section was supplemented by the 16th amendment, which permitted Congress to levy an income tax.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 2:  Borrowing Power
Text   Explanation
To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;   Congress can borrow money through the issuance of bonds and other means.  When it borrows money, the United States creates a binding obligation to repay the debt and cannot repudiate it.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 3:  Commerce Power
Text   Explanation
To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;   The “commerce clause” is one of the most far-reaching grants of power to Congress.  Interstate commerce covers all movement of people and things across state lines, and every form of communication and transportation.  The commerce clause has permitted a wide variety of federal laws, from the regulation of business to outlawing of racial segregation.  The “Indian commerce clause” has become the main source of power for congressional legislation dealing with Native Americans.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 4:  Naturalization and Bankruptcies
Text   Explanation
To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;   Acts of Congress define the requirements by which immigrants can become citizens.  Only the federal government, not the states, can determine who becomes a citizen.  Bankruptcy laws make provisions for individuals or corporations that fail to pay their debts.
Article I, Section 8, Clauses 5 and 6:  Money
Text   Explanation
To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;   These clauses permit Congress to coin money and to issue paper currency.  By extension, under its ability to enact laws “necessary and proper” to carry out these powers (as stated at the end of Article 1, Section 8), Congress created the Federal Reserve System to regulate the nation’s monetary supply.
To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
Article I, Section 8, Clause 7:  Post Office
Text   Explanation
To establish Post Offices and post Roads;   The postal powers embrace all measures necessary to establish the system and to insure the safe and speedy transit and prompt delivery of the mails.  Congress may also punish those who use the mails for unlawful purposes.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 8:  Copyrights and Patents
Text   Explanation
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;   Copyright and patent protection of authors and inventors are authorized by this clause, although it uses neither word.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 9:  Creation of Courts
Text   Explanation
To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;   The Constitution provides only for a Supreme Court, and left it to Congress to create lower (“inferior”) courts, and to set their jurisdictions and duties.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 10:  Maritime Crimes
Text   Explanation
To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;   Every sovereign nation possesses these powers, and Congress has acted under this authority from the beginning.
Article I, Section 8, Clauses 11, 12, 13, 14: War; Military Establishment
Text   Explanation
To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;   The “war powers” are defined here and in Article 2, Section 2.  Congress declares war, while the president wages war.  However, presidents have committed U.S. forces leading to conflict without congressional declaration of war in Korea, Vietnam, and other places, provoking national argument over the meaning of these powers.  Congress’ control of funding the military provides another check on the executive branch.
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;
Article I, Section 8, Clauses 15 and 16:  The Militia
Text   Explanation
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;   Under these provisions, the right of the states to maintain a militia, including what is now the National Guard, is always subordinate to the power of Congress.  In 1795 Congress first gave the president authority to call out the militia to suppress insurrections.  Presidents employed this power to enforce federal law during desegregation disputes during the 1950s, and later during the civil disturbances in various cities during the 1960s
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;
Article I, Section 8, Clause 17: District of Columbia; Federal Property
Text   Explanation
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   This clause enables Congress to govern the District of Columbia.  Congress has now delegated that power to a locally elected government, subject to federal oversight.  Congress also governs forts, arsenals, and other places obtained from the states for the federal government’s purposes.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 18:  Necessary and Proper Clause
Text   Explanation
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.   The “elastic clause” enlarges legislative power by enabling Congress to use any means it thinks reasonable to put these powers into action.  This clause also authorizes Congress to enact legislation necessary to carry out the powers of the other branches, for example to organize and reorganize the executive branch.

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