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Federalism and State Powers

Present-day Relationship Between National Government & States

Congress has certain enumerated powers pursuant to Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. By way of example, Congress is authorized to coin money, regulate commerce between the states and with Indian tribes and foreign countries, lay and collect taxes, declare war, raise and support armies, and provide and maintain a navy. Other congressional powers include, but are not limited to, establishing a post office, fixing the standard for weights and measures, establishing a uniform rule for naturalization, and creating inferior federal courts. (Article III, Section 1 established only the Supreme Court). Furthermore, the Necessary and Proper Clause under Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the authority "[t]o 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." However, the Constitution sets forth several restrictions as to the exercise of congressional power. For example, Article I, Section 9 forbids Congress from suspending the writ of habeas corpus, except when the public safety may require it. Article I, Section 9 also bars Congress from passing bills of attainder and ex post facto laws, as well as from bestowing titles of nobility.

Moreover, Congress is required to fulfill several constitutionally-imposed mandates. Under Article IV, Section 4, Congress is obligated to guarantee each state a republican form of government and to protect the states against invasion and, upon proper application, against domestic violence. With respect to the states, the Tenth Amendment provides that "[t]he 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." In other words, the states retain their "police power" to enact laws for the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens. Similar to Congress, state legislatures are faced with constitutional limitations on their powers. For instance, Article I, Section 10 forbids states from entering into treaties, coining money, or emitting bills of credit, all of which would interfere with Congress' ability to govern.

As to the states' exercise of authority over their citizens, Article I, Section 10 precludes the states from passing bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, and laws impairing contracts. Furthermore, the restrictions placed on the federal government under the Bill of Rights are applicable to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment.

It is not uncommon for both Congress and state governments to enact legislation with respect to a particular matter. Under the doctrine of preemption, a state statute must be invalidated if Congress has "occupied the field," which means that Congress has intended to the be the sole regulator of the matter in question. For instance, Congress has clearly preempted the right to coin money. Not only is Congress empowered to coin money, but states are specifically forbidden from coining money. On the other hand, Congress and state governments may have concurrent, or shared, power with respect to certain matters. Although Congress is authorized to fix the standard of weights and measures, courts have upheld local regulations in this area.

While Congress preempts the right to regulate interstate commerce (commerce between states), states have the authority to regulate intrastate commerce (commerce within a state) pursuant to their reserved power under the Tenth Amendment. However, a state statute will be invalidated if it substantially or unreasonably places a burden on interstate commerce. All aspects of interstate commerce--from the actual transportation of a product to the wage regulation of employees involved in interstate commerce--have been subjected to congressional authority. In reality, Congress has aggressively used the Commerce Clause as a means of exercising a federal "police power" to legislate over the health, safety, and welfare of the national citizenry, at the expense of state power. For example, in Champion v. Ames (1903), the Supreme Court upheld a federal statute which prohibited the transportation of lottery tickets across state lines. Of course, Congress' underlying motive had been to control gambling, rather than oversee interstate commerce.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesFederalism and State Powers - Definition Of Federalism, History Of Federalism In America, Present-day Relationship Between National Government States