The American government had the extent of its powers laid out in the constitution. The Founding Fathers constructed a system in which the administrative and legislative arms of the government adhere to the interpretation of the constitution by the judicial branch; The Supreme Court. The constitution lies out that the government has both implied powers and reserved powers. What are these powers, and how have the Supreme Court rulings changed them? Likewise, how is the federal government separated from the state governments?
In article I, section 8 of the constitution, the constitution lists the enumerated powers, which are specifically granted to congress. However, the constitution also mentions that congress may take any necessary measures needed that can enable congress to enact and enforce its enumerated powers. An example of an implied power would be congress voting in favor of investing tax money in weapons research. If congress has the enumerated power to keep armies and navies, then the implied power would be that congress would have the ability and right to invest in research relating to procuring better weapons. These implied powers allow congress flexibility in the applications of their power, as many things can change over time. Surely, the founding fathers could not have foreseen something like the internet, much less the telephone or cellular phone. The implied powers would allow congress to flexibly make laws that can regulate something such as the internet. While certain parts of the internet might fall under the category of interstate commerce, what about things that break the law, such as copyright piracy? The implied powers allow congress to make and enforce laws pertaining to complex issues like the internet.
Another facet of the implied powers would be allowing Congress the ability to establish institutions relating to their enumerated powers. Congress has the power to keep an army and navy, thus the implied powers would also allow for Congress to establish and fund schools to train soldiers and sailors. As discussed below, Congress has the power to regulate commerce, thus it has the authority to charter a bank. In effect, the implied powers are flexible, and are a way for Congress to more efficiently enact their enumerated powers.
The idea of implied powers was challenged early on. In the case of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), there were those who were upset on the fact that congress had chartered its own bank. The chief justice at the time, John Marshall, ruled that the government was fully justified in the act. If the government has the enumerated power to mint coinage, then an implied power would be that it could also oversee financial affairs to some extent. This case cemented the idea that congress and the federal government have a wide range of powers that have been granted by the constitution through the idea of implied powers. While later supreme courts would make rulings in favor of state rights, eventually the Supreme Court returned to ruling in favor of the federalist view. Regardless, the fact that the government has implied powers has become a natural part of our government.
In the 10th amendment of the constitution, the reserved powers are laid out. Reserved powers are the powers that are given to the states. These include the ability to manage commerce within state borders, manage and use a police force to uphold the law, and create and manage local (city, county, village, etc.) governments. Basically, the reserved powers are whatever is left over after the enumerated and implied powers granted to the federal government, and the powers denied to the state are taken into consideration. As stated above, these powers can be used to create police forces or create local governments. However, States do have the authority to levy taxes as long they do not interfere with or override federal taxes and interstate commerce.
The reserve powers were granted to the states in order to guarantee the states some amount of freedom in the decisions they make. The founding fathers knew that what is beneficial for one region of the nation, could be detrimental to another region. Thus, it was necessary for the states to have their own amount of autonomy. It would not be fair for a group of states in the west to make laws that only affect a small area in the east. While the states are not sovereign, they do have the ability to decide what is best for the citizens in their own borders, and make decisions on issues that pertain only to their own state.
In essence, the founding fathers firmly asserted in the constitution that the Federal government would be superior the state government. What if the state government disagreed with the federal government’s decisions and laws? This was the main issue of the Civil War. The southern states disagreed with the decision to outlaw slavery, and succeed from the union. After this event, the rulings of the Supreme Court have sided with the federalist view. The founding fathers also made it possible for the federal government to flexibly apply its power depending on the situation.
In conclusion, the legislative branch of the federal government has stated powers and powers that are implied and flexible. While these powers have been challenged, they have been proven to be fully admissible under the constitution. The states have powers that have been reserved to them, but they are limited in nature. The federal government has a small amount of separation from the states, but ultimately the federal government has the authority to make decisions of national importance. If the United States government were a pyramid, the Federal government would be the top block, the states would be the middle section, and the local governments would be the bottom. The local government props the states up, and the states create the structure for the federal government. The decisions of the top block, the federal government, flow down through the “pyramid” and affect every part of it.