Exclusive Powers: Definition & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

Expert Contributor
Maria Airth

Maria has taught University level psychology and mathematics courses for over 20 years. They have a Doctorate in Education from Nova Southeastern University, a Master of Arts in Human Factors Psychology from George Mason University and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Flagler College.

In this lesson, we'll examine the concept of exclusive powers compared to reserved powers. We'll then examine the specific exclusive powers of the federal government. Updated: 12/02/2019

Definition of Exclusive Powers

In life, there are some things that adults can do that kids cannot. Drink alcoholic beverages, for example. But likewise, there are some things that only kids can do and adults cannot, like take whole summers off and jump around in a bouncy castle. All fun aside, this is a good analogy to the way in which the American government system works. There are certain powers that only the state governments have (reserved powers), and there are certain powers that only the national government has (exclusive powers).

The Constitution of the United States spells out the exclusive powers of the federal government. These are powers that only the federal government can exercise and not the states. These powers include:

  • The right to levy tariffs on imports and exports
  • The right to regulate trade between the United States and other countries and the trade between states
  • The right to coin money
  • The right to maintain armed forces
  • The right to declare war
  • The right to establish and maintain the postal system
  • The right to establish federal courts
  • The right to control immigration processes

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Right to Levy Tariffs on Imports & Exports

First, let's talk about levying tariffs on imports and exports.

An import is a good made in a different country and brought into our country. According to the Constitution, the federal government has the sole responsibility of taxing these goods. It makes sense for this power to be exclusive to the federal government. After all, how could we trade with other countries if the tax on Chiquita bananas from Central America was 20 cents in Florida, but 40 cents in Minnesota? Confusion would most definitely result.

So, the Framers of the Constitution did us a favor and clearly specified that this was an exclusive right of the national government. A state government, however, can charge a tax to cover the inspection of incoming goods, but that is the only thing that they can really tax.

Right to Regulate International & Interstate Commerce

One very important right of the national government is the right to regulate international and interstate commerce. It's very important that international commerce be controlled by the national government and not states. For one, states could undermine international foreign policy. Take the example of Cuba. When the United States had a trade embargo against Cuba, that meant that we didn't do any business with Cuba. How would we look if one of our states, Louisiana, for instance, just tried to ignore that law and traded with Cuba anyway? That would undermine the federal government.

Another responsibility is the right to regulate interstate commerce. This clause was put into the Constitution to avoid conflicts between states that might threaten the union. How would the country look if a state like California was charging more for its grapes to some states than others? The country could break out into chaos. For this reason, the Founders knew that the federal government had to control interstate commerce.

Right to Coin Money

The federal government also has the exclusive power to coin money. Can you imagine going from Illinois to Missouri and having to change your money the way you do when you go to another country? The Framers of the Constitution knew that if the new country was to work, they would have to create a uniform coin system. For this reason, they gave the federal government the exclusive right to coin money.

Right to Declare War & Maintain Armed Forces

Another exclusive power is the right to declare war and maintain armed forces. What if Alaskans don't like the way that Canadian fishermen are fishing in international waters? Could Alaska declare war on Canada? I know this sounds silly, but this is why the exclusive power to declare war lies with the national government. International relations, thus, lie exclusively within the domain of the federal government.

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Additional Activities

Exclusive Powers Critical Review

In this activity, students will conduct a review of each constitutional exclusive power and consider how that power relates to the current state of the country.


  • Access to research materials such as:
    • A library
    • The internet


  • Take a few minutes to review each of the rights granted to the national government by the Constitution.
  • Now, pretend you have been hired by the federal government to conduct a review and analysis of the exclusive powers to determine their appropriateness in today's political environment.
    • Remember, the Constitution of the United States was written a long time ago and sometimes things change so much in a society that old rights/laws become obsolete or even wrong (like the laws related to segregation).
  • For each right listed in the lesson,
    • Summarize the power.
    • Determine whether it should still be an exclusive power, changed to a reserved power, or removed from governmental powers completely.
    • Support your opinion with evidence and facts (conduct research to find information to support your opinion).
  • Finally, consider what topics impact our society today that are not covered by these original exclusive powers.
    • Add any additional exclusive powers you think appropriate for a national government to control.
    • For example, should the right to control the internet be an exclusive power?

Group Extension (if desired)

  • If you are working in groups, discuss your additional exclusive powers.
    • Do you all agree on additional exclusive powers related to today's political environment?

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