Expressed Powers: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Expressed Powers
  • 1:10 What are Expressed Powers?
  • 3:38 Which of These Powers…
  • 5:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
In this lesson, we'll be looking at the expressed powers of the United States Congress. Learn what these powers are and examples of them, and then you'll be able to test your knowledge of them with a quiz.

Expressed Powers

Superman, as any American knows, can fly. He also has X-ray vision and is really very strong. How do we know these things? They are expressed both verbally (when Superman tells people what he can do) and non-verbally (when he just does them).

Powers that aren't made clear are hard to deal with, and while that's problematic with superheroes, it's real trouble with governments, mostly because the former is fictional, while the latter is all too real.

The Founding Fathers of the United States were as deeply concerned about governmental powers as anyone who's ever lived, because in their time, they lived through a violent conflict over the nature of power and had witnessed what they saw as the abuses of a tyrant whose powers were largely undefined. So, in writing the Constitution, they were rigorously committed to stating, as clearly as possible, what the government can and can't do. These are what we call the expressed powers of the U.S. Constitution.

What are Expressed Powers?

There are three branches in the U.S. government: the legislative branch (Congress, described in Article I), the executive branch (the President, described in Article II), and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and federal court system, described in Article III). Although each of the branches has their own specific powers and duties, it's really the Congress that has the most clearly expressed powers, seeing as how the Framers of the Constitution thought that institution was going to be the most powerful.

Today, it definitely is, in a very literal sense. The President really only executes acts of legislation and is heavily constrained by the Constitution. The Congress, on the other hand, has enormous and wide-reaching powers, but today, most Americans tend to view the President as the most powerful part of the government. And this makes sense; since there's only one President, and he sure seems powerful, it's easy to forget that the Framers assumed the executive would effectively be a sort of governmental middle manager.

In Article I, Section 8, the Constitution lists the expressed powers. They're sometimes called delegated powers, sometimes called the enumerated powers. They all mean the same things: powers that are actually put down on paper. There are 27 total, but here is a slightly summarized version of the Congress' expressed powers:

  • The Power to tax and spend for the defense and general welfare of the U.S.
  • Borrow money
  • Regulate commerce with other nations and between the states
  • Coin money
  • Establish laws of naturalization (how people can become citizens)
  • Punish counterfeiters of money and securities
  • Establish post offices and roads
  • Promote the sciences and the arts through granting patents and copyrights for inventions and discoveries
  • 'Constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court' (basically, to create a federal court system)
  • Define and punish piracies and felonies on the 'high seas' (a big issue in the 18th century)
  • Declare war
  • Raise and support an army/navy
  • Make laws governing those armed forces
  • Provide for a militia to execute federal laws (and to organize and arm that militia)
  • Make the District of Columbia the home of the federal government
  • Make any laws necessary for carrying out these powers

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