The Constitution: Article I, Powers of the Congress

  • George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence on the U.S. Constitution, printed, with marginal notes by George Washington, Sept. 12, 1787.

    George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence on the U.S. Constitution, printed, with marginal notes by George Washington, Sept. 12, 1787. Courtesy of Library of Congress

  • Retired educator Bruce Simmons of Aurora writes a guest column on the U.S. Constitution

    Retired educator Bruce Simmons of Aurora writes a guest column on the U.S. Constitution

Updated 12/12/2022 5:40 PM

This is the fourth in a series of essays about the Constitution of the United States.

The first two were introductory. The third discussed the results of the debate on how to create a legislative body that would satisfy all states.


The debate would take into consideration fears of the small states having inferior power, and states that had numerous slaves which the federal government had to protect.

A Great Compromise established two houses -- a Senate giving each state two members and a House of Representatives based on population.

The 3/5ths Compromise allowed each state to count each slave as 3/5ths of a person, which allowed states with many slaves, considered property, to be counted when establishing the number of House Representatives.

Now, we can advance to a new subject about the Legislative Branch -- its powers.

Most of the powers of the Legislative Branch are found in Article I, Section 8. Because they are written into the document, they are called enumerated powers.

The legislators have the power to create federal taxes, borrow money for federal needs, regulate commerce among states, foreign countries and Indian tribes. They have the power over naturalization (bringing in new citizens), bankruptcies, the coining of money, standard weights and measures, counterfeiting issues, the establishment of post offices and postal roads.

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They are tasked with promotion of the arts and sciences, the creation of all new federal courts below the Supreme Court, and identification of crimes committed on the high seas against our country.

The Article permits the Legislative Branch to fund our military; regulate the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard; call up the militia when they see fit; appoint all military officers; declare war; and, finally, create law that is deemed necessary and proper to carry out their responsibilities.

Section 8 provides a broad interpretation with the necessary and proper clause -- also called the elastic clause. That wording points to a new set of powers called implied powers. It raises the question of whether there is a danger of an incompetent or uneducated representative body misusing its power to create bad or inappropriate laws.

A Supreme Court or lower appellate courts may have to decide cases involving questionable legislation. Also, keep in mind that any law passed by Congress must be approved by the president.


Laws created by Congress are federal law. They apply to all states and all citizens. No one is above the law. States and communities within states pass laws too, but they must adhere to federal laws.

Many laws are so ingrained in our society that they do not have to be written down. For instance, Congress has the power to investigate anyone who they feel is abusing or breaking federal laws. Ingrained law is involved with inherent powers. Simply stated, the powers are derived from common sense.

The process to pass a law is purposely designed to be complex and often takes a long period of time.

The Framers wanted the Legislative Branch to be deliberative. Bills had to pass through many iterations, committees, compromises, debates, and readings before being voted upon.

Unless there is an emergency or our nation is under attack, the legislators endeavor to cover every possibility before sending legislation to the President for approval.

Some even have sunset clauses, meaning they may be in affect for a limited time and must be renewed or eliminated.

Some types of bills take years, and even decades, to become law. Bills involving civil rights are examples of the slow, deliberative process.

The Capitol and the Senate and House office buildings nearby not only provide formal settings for debate, but they also contain many meeting rooms for legislators and their staffs to meet and discuss, in detail, each bill under consideration.

They used to be smoke-filled. Alcohol may be present. Lobbyist viewpoints are considered. Arms are twisted, political debts are repaid or accumulated, insults and accusations levied, and deals are made. Frustration abounds.

Some compare making law to making sausage. Streamlining the process is always discussed but never acted upon.

• Bruce Simmons of Aurora is a former teacher with more than 25 years experience teaching social studies and humanities. This is one in a series of essays describing the history and meaning of the U.S. Constitution. The next installment will conclude the basic information about Article I, the Legislative Branch.

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