Delegated Powers: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 How Do We Know What…
  • 1:22 What Are Delegated Powers?
  • 2:00 The Legislative Branch
  • 4:23 The Executive Branch
  • 5:30 The Judicial Branch
  • 7:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy

Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

How do we know what the government can - and can't - do? The delegated powers of the federal government are those specifically described and assigned in the U.S. Constitution.

How Do We Know What Government Can Do?

What can the government do? Sometimes it seems the right question is what can't it do - since clearly a government that can send people into space, build highways, launch wars, and print money can do quite a lot. But how do we know what it can do, when it's overreaching, or doing something it shouldn't? The delegated powers of government mean powers that are specifically assigned to the various branches of the federal government, but even that isn't an easy thing to nail down.

The U.S. Constitution is pointed to regularly as a model for effective governance and one of the reasons for this is because of its succinctness. In just seven articles, or six pages (depending on how you print it), plus twenty-seven amendments, the Constitution describes a government that currently operates in a nation of over three hundred million people. How does it do it? One way is by spending as little time as possible listing all the powers a government has - which would be quite a lot - and by describing a set of rules for knowing who gets to do what in our constitutional system. The powers the federal government actually gets to have are known by several different names: expressed powers, enumerated powers, or, as in this lesson, delegated powers.

What Are Delegated Powers?

The Constitution describes the three main branches of government in the first three Articles. Article I is about the legislative (Congress); Article II is about the executive (the president); and Article III is about the judicial (the Supreme Court and federal court system). That last section, on the Supreme Court, is one of the few places where the Constitution's ambiguity is pretty pronounced (it doesn't even, for example, list how many justices should be on the Court). In the first two sections, however, the Constitution spells out what powers each branch gets; in other words, it enumerates them.

The Legislative Branch

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution outlines what Congress is allowed to do, and it's pretty clear from the description that the Founding Fathers envisioned that branch as the most powerful (that's the reason it's first!). Congress' powers include the right to lay and collect taxes and to borrow against U.S. credit. It also has the obligation to provide for the common defense of the country, and to that end, it can declare war, make rules for military conduct and enforce them in trials and tribunals, as well as raise and maintain armies and navies, when necessary.

Maybe the most ambiguous power is the one allowing Congress to regulate commerce with foreign nations, among the states, and with the Indian tribes. This term, 'commerce,' has come to mean just about any kind of commercial enterprise or transaction and has given the federal government a great deal more authority than it had in the past. Some are uncomfortable with this, claiming that Congress has far outstripped its original authority, while some are just fine with it, pointing out that very few of the Founding Fathers could have imagined the commercial intricacies of the modern world and the Internet.

Another 'power,' for lack of a better word, exists because of an unusual phrase in the Constitution. Congress has the power to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers. This sentence has caused no end of debate and anxiety among members of all three branches. People who interpret the Constitution literally, called 'strict constructionists,' think that Congress should be limited to only the powers that are clearly defined in the Constitution. People who believe that the Constitution should be able to adjust to the times and 'roll with the punches,' called 'loose constructionists,' believe that this clause gives Congress the rather sweeping authority to make any law in the furtherance of its duties. As you might imagine, the necessary and proper clause has created a much more powerful legislative branch than many of the Founding Fathers might have envisioned in 1787.

The Executive Branch

The President was imagined to be less powerful than Congress, and that's obvious in the powers delegated to that office. The President is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, though this meant a lot less when the idea of a permanent army wasn't on the horizon. He can grant pardons to those convicted of a federal crime; he can also appoint Supreme Court justices, who must first be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, along with other personnel in the executive branch, and he can negotiate treaties with foreign powers that, again, have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

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