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Constitutional interpretations of federalism: lesson overview

A high-level overview of the key terms, themes, and concepts in this lesson. 
Federalism is the distribution of power between the federal government and state governments. However, the Constitution does not create clear-cut lines for which types of policy fall under each level of government.
This has led to questions over the balance of power between national and state governments. The appropriate distribution of power has been interpreted differently over time. At some points, measures have been taken to enhance federal power, while at other points, the Framers, and later, the Supreme Court, have enhanced state power.

Pojęcia kluczowe

commerce clausePart of Article I of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce (buying and selling of goods across state lines).
federalismAn institutional arrangement that creates two relatively autonomous levels of government, each possessing the capacity to act directly on behalf of the people with the authority granted to it by the national constitution.
enumerated powersPowers of the federal government that are explicitly named in the Constitution.
implied powersPowers of the federal government that are not explicitly named in the Constitution but are implied so that the federal government can carry out its enumerated powers.
necessary and proper clausePart of Article I of the Constitution that gives Congress the power to create laws that they find “necessary and proper” for performing their constitutional responsibilities.
Tenth AmendmentConstitutional amendment that stipulates that all powers not given to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people.
Fourteenth AmendmentConstitutional amendment that grants citizenship, equal protection, and due process under the law to all people born in the United States.

Enumerated vs. implied powers

What's the difference between enumerated and implied powers, and why should we care?
Here's a real-world example: Say that your parents tell you that they'll pay for you to get ice cream with your friends. Awesome!
You make a plan with your friends, wait for the bus to head downtown, pay the fare, ride to the ice cream shop, get ice cream, and come back by the bus. When you get home, you tell your parents that the ice cream cost you $5 and the bus fare came to $4, so you need $9, please.
Your parents respond, "We only said we'd pay for ice cream! We didn't say we'd pay for you to get to the ice cream shop. We only owe you $5."
But how could you have gotten ice cream with your friends if you couldn't get to your friends? Well, maybe you could have bought a half-gallon of ice cream and invited your friends over . . . although you still would have had to go to the grocery store to do that, too. Is it even possible to get ice cream without going through some other step?
This is the essence of enumerated vs. implied powers: enumerated powers are those things that the Constitution explicitly says Congress can do (in Article I): levy taxes, regulate commerce with other nations, borrow and coin money, establish post offices, raise an army, and declare war, among other things.
But Article I also says that Congress shall have the power to "make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers." From this "necessary and proper clause" Congress argued that it had implied powers to do those things necessary in order to achieve its enumerated powers. For example, if Congress has the power to coin money, it's implied that Congress has the power to set up mints and pay workers to run those mints. In McCulloch v. Maryland, the Supreme Court confirmed that Congress can exercise these implied powers.
Although this seems pretty straightforward, it gets more difficult to decide just what counts as an implied power if you consider how to define "necessary." What if when your parents said they'd pay for you to get ice cream with your friends, you deemed it necessary to rent a helicopter to fly to the ice cream shop in style? Was that absolutely necessary, or was that just taking advantage of the opportunity? This conflict over the limits of federal power continues today.

Kluczowe dokumenty

Constitution (1787) — The fundamental laws and principles that govern the United States. The document resulted from several compromises between Federalists and Anti-Federalists in the Constitutional Convention.
Image of the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights. Image credit: National Archives

Key cases to know

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) — Supreme Court case which guaranteed the supremacy of federal laws over state laws and declared that Congress has implied powers not listed in the Constitution in order to fulfill their enumerated powers.
US v. Lopez (1995) — Supreme Court case which stopped Congress from using the commerce clause to ban guns in schools

Najważniejsze punkty tej lekcji

Questions about federalism: Federalism refers to the distribution of power between the federal government and the state governments. The Constitution sketches a federal framework that aims to balance the forces of decentralized and centralized governance in general terms. However, the Constitution does not flesh out standard operating procedures that say precisely how the states and federal governments are to handle all policy contingencies imaginable.
Therefore, officials at the state and national levels have had some room to maneuver as they operate within the Constitution’s federal design. This has led to changes in the configuration of federalism over time, changes corresponding to different historical phases that capture distinct balances between state and federal authority.
Enhancing federal power: When the Constitution was ratified, there were still debates between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans in Congress about how much power the federal government should have.
Interpretations of particular clauses in the Constitution have led to an increase in federal power over time. The necessary and proper clause gives the federal government power to create laws that they deem “necessary and proper,” while the commerce clause gives the federal government power over interstate commerce.
In McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had implied powers to fulfill the duties of their enumerated powers. Later, the federal government enhanced its power over the states by passing the Fourteenth Amendment, which prevented the states from infringing on the rights of individuals.
Enhancing state power: Concerns over a strong central government motivated Anti-Federalists to argue for the inclusion of a Tenth Amendment in the Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment guaranteed that all powers not granted to the federal government are state powers.
In United States v. Lopez (1995), the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had infringed on states’ rights by passing the Gun-Free Schools Act and the federal government could not ban guns in schools. Although the federal government argued that the power to ban guns in schools fell under the Commerce Clause, the Supreme Court disagreed and claimed the law was unconstitutional as it violated the Tenth Amendment.

Pytanie sprawdzające

What constitutional arguments has the Supreme Court used to enhance or limit federal power over time?
What is the difference between enumerated and implied powers?
How did the Fourteenth Amendment give the federal government more power over the states?

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