Powers of the National Government: A Simple Breakdown

The national government, also known as the federal government, has the right to exercise certain powers. These powers include those named in the United States Constitution as well as implied and inherent powers of government. Keep reading for examples of the powers of the national government that keep the country functioning.

powers of the national government represented by US Capitol powers of the national government represented by US Capitol

Enumerated Powers of the National Government

Enumerated powers, also called delegated powers, are expressly named in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution. These are powers held only by the national government (federal powers) and not the states. There are 27 specific enumerated powers in total, which fall into the following categories.

Lay and Collect Taxes

The national government has the power to set, collect and spend federal taxes. The article also gives the national government the power to collect "duties, imports, and excises." Similar to the national government, state governments have the power to levy state taxes.

Regulate Commerce

The power to regulate commerce gives the national government the ability to create financial relationships. These relationships can be with "foreign nations, among the several States, and with the Native American Tribes." The national government can also borrow money on the country's credit.

Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization

Naturalization is the act of admitting a foreign person to a country's citizenship. It makes the foreign person a new citizen. The national government alone can create a rule regarding the naturalization of new citizens.

Create Bankruptcy Laws

The national government has the power to establish and regulate laws concerning financial bankruptcy. The clause was interpreted in 1898 as the Bankruptcy Act, which allowed individuals to declare bankruptcy voluntarily, no matter their financial status or occupation.

Coin Money

Creating and regulating currency is another power of the national government. It also has the right to fix standards of weights and measures and levy punishment for counterfeiting American currency.

Establish Post Offices

If you've ever wondered who decided to put in a new post office, it was the federal government. Article I gives the government the power to construct post offices and post roads. It also has the power to regulate the mail.

Promote the Progress of Science and Arts

It doesn't sound like a power, but this section of Article I is known as the Copyright Clause. It gives the national government the power to issue copyrights to authors and scientists that give them the "exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Establish Federal Courts

The U.S. Constitution called for the creation of the Supreme Court, but that was the only federal court explicitly established in its text. Instead, it gives the national government the power to establish lower federal courts ("tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court") that feed into the Supreme Court.

Define and Punish Piracy

The enumerated power explicitly gives the national government the power to "define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations." The clause was initially meant for actual pirates who stole from ships at sea, but it states that the national government also has the power to define (or redefine) the meaning of "piracy."

Conduct Foreign Affairs

Relationships between foreign countries are also under the purview of the national government. According to Article I, the national government can "declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land Water." States do not have the power to conduct these relationships with foreign nations in the way that the federal government can.

Raise and Maintain Armed Forces

The Constitution gives the national government the power to "raise and support Armies" as well as "provide and maintain a Navy." It stipulates that the appropriation of money for an army should be no longer than two years. The national government can also make rules to govern and regulate these military forces.

Call Forth and Organize Militias

Although a militia is a force raised by the civil population, the national government has the power to call forth such a group "to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions." It can also organize, arm, discipline, and govern these militias.

Power Over the Seat of Government

Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States, and the national government has the power to "exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever" in the District of Columbia. It has authority over the territory and can regulate the erection of federal buildings such as forts, arsenals and dockyards.

Implied and Inherent Powers of the National Government

Not all powers of the national government are expressly named in the Constitution. The last clause of Article I, Section 8 is Clause 18, which is often known as the "necessary and proper" clause. It gives Congress the power to make laws that enforce the powers of the federal government. The clause makes the power of the national government more elastic and wide-reaching.

Throughout American history, Congress and the court system has used the "necessary clause to define the implied powers and inherent powers of the government" — that is, powers that are not stated in the Constitution, but that can be inferred from its text.

Implied Powers

Implied powers of the national government are set by precedent in legislation or in court. They are deemed necessary for the government to operate by the "necessary and proper" clause based on the enumerated powers in the Constitution. Examples of the implied powers of the national government include:

  • creation of the First Bank of the United States (under the power to regulate commerce)
  • creation of the Internal Revenue Service (under the power to collect taxes)
  • implementation of the military draft (under the power to raise armies)
  • prosecuting media piracy (under the power to punish piracy)
implied powers of the Constitution of the United States

Inherent Powers

Some powers belong to a government simply because the government exists. These powers are shared by all governments, not just the United States. They include:

  • exploring and acquiring territory
  • controlling national borders and immigration
  • defense against revolution

Throughout history, the three branches of the federal government (executive, judicial and legislative) have interpreted these powers as they relate to a changing future. Those who wish to limit the powers of the national government are called strict constructionists — they believe that the government can only exercise enumerated powers, and nothing more. Loose constructionists allow for more interpretation of the enumerated powers.

Keeping Balance in the Government

What does the federal government do? Generally speaking, a government should be both strong enough to protect its citizens and small enough to prevent running its citizens' lives. When a federal government can find this balance, democracy can flourish. Learn all about the different types of government around the world for more information. If you're curious about what powers the Constitution gives to the individual states, take a look at these examples of reserved powers under the 10th Amendment. You can also explore state and local powers and responsibilities.

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