Reserved Powers: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Reserved Powers: The…
  • 1:01 Writing a Constitution
  • 3:40 The 10th Amendment
  • 5:03 Overlapping Powers
  • 5:50 Disputes Between State…
  • 6:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
In a federal system, with two levels of government, how do we know who can practice what sort of power? The reserved powers clause of the U.S. Constitution provides a handy mechanism for sorting out who can do what in a republic like America.

Reserved Powers: The Safety Valve of the U.S. Constitution

Any community, at its most basic level, is a government--a shared agreement by the members of that community (whether it's a family, or a group of friends, or an entire nation), to live according to a certain set of rules. This is helpful to keep in mind, since forming a government isn't really as unusual as it sounds. One of the toughest questions facing the formation of any government is not so much what it can do--most of that, we can agree on--but what it can't do.

And--even more importantly in a system like the United States--who's going to do it?

In our system, the Founding Fathers in 1787 came up with a nifty, albeit not entirely perfect, mechanism in the Constitution. Called the reserved powers clause, it's actually not part of the main body of the document. It's the 10th Amendment, and put simply, it says whatever is not explicitly stated as a responsibility of the federal government, is under control of the states.

But why do we need such a mechanism? And how did it develop? And what's it doing now?

Writing a Constitution

In 1787, when the Framers of the Constitution got together in Philadelphia to revise the original national government (Articles of Confederation), there were a couple of things they all agreed on. Probably the most important of these was the fact that we were going to have a federal republic. The last word, 'republic,' simply meant that we were going to have a system of democratic representation, in which voters and states would have someone standing for them in a national assembly. What we would end up calling Congress. The first part, 'federal' - well, that's a teensy bit more complex.

A federal system is one that has at least two different levels of government. In our system, there is a national government, often called the 'central' or 'federal' government, further complicating things, and fifty state governments. At the time of the Constitution's writing, there were only thirteen states; but it was clear to the Founding Fathers, no matter what they thought of the states (and some were clearly in favor of just doing away with them altogether), the states weren't going anywhere. This was especially so in an era when most people were born, lived, and died within thirty miles of the same place--their loyalties weren't to some ambiguous nation like 'America,' but to their home states.

This was a problem for the Framers, since one of the main gripes about the Articles of Confederation was that the national government was too weak, and the states had too much power. So how could you build a central authority that could get stuff done, without so weakening the states that people grew alarmed over the threat of tyranny? Maybe even more than that, they had another, similar question: what will the national government do, and what will the states do? What responsibilities will each have…and how will we know?

The simple answer here would be to just list the powers you wanted each level of government to have. And the Framers did that, for a while--the enumerated powers, the powers federal government, were listed in the various Articles of the document. For instance, Article 1, Section 8 spells out the powers of Congress, like its ability to collect taxes or declare war; and Article 2 lists the powers of the President, like granting pardons or vetoing legislation.

The problem comes up when you realize that you can't really list every power, since you're not a mind-reader and you don't have a crystal ball; you don't know what the world's going to look like in fifty years, or a hundred. And if you want this government of yours to last beyond next weekend, you're going to have to design it well, which means not stretching it out to sixty-five pages worth of powers, especially when you can't possibly cover everything.

Take, for instance, the issue of drivers' licenses. Whose job is that? Of course, we couldn't have expected the Founding Fathers to assign a power over a device that didn't exist in the 18th century. So how do we decide which level of government will handle that?

The 10th Amendment

The answer is found in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1789, and introduced by James Madison - who wasn't originally a fan of amending the Constitution at all, but saw the need in order to appease critics of the document's design. The main gripe of these critics was that, by itself, the Constitution created a very powerful and assertive central authority, the sort of thing we just got done rebelling against, in the form of Great Britain. The 10th Amendment says, simply, that 'The 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.'

James Madison, who introduced the 10th Amendment for consideration

What this means is pretty striking: anything not described specifically in the Constitution ('delegated') as a power or obligation of the national government is, by definition, a power of the states. The Framers knew that state governments were closer to the 'people' than the central government could ever be (even today, with cell phones and the Internet), and therefore they wanted to create a sort of safety valve, which would keep the central government from growing too large. The reserved powers clause, represented in the 10th Amendment, is that safety valve. Any power not given to Washington, DC, automatically belongs to the states.

So try it out: drivers' licenses. Not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution? State power. What about education? Not in the Constitution? State power. See how it works?

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