Congressional Power And Its Scope

2bpositive By 2bpositive, 25th Oct 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Essays

This is a short paper I presented as part of my research project many years ago. It covers the issues surrounding Congressional Power and how the Supreme Court, over the years, has utilized its balancing power to keep Congress in check.

The United States Supreme Court Keeping Congress in Check

The Supreme Court has done an excellent job of both limiting the scope of congressional power, and at the same time still affording Congress enough power to govern effectively.

Congress wields great power. It is, therefore, well understood why the Anti-Federalists were so fearful of creating a strong centralized government. Past experience has shown that power begets power. It follows then that the government has the nature of becoming tyrannical when it is given powers which cannot be adequately checked and restrained. The abuse of the legal process would otherwise be more prevalent, and freely flourish absent devices built into the system to prevent this abusive power.

I believe that it is the inner workings of Congress, and their methods of controlling and exercising their own power, which enables them to successfully execute their true role as law makers. The Supreme Court has done a good job in its judicial capacity of interpreting the constitutionality of congressional acts, as well as the power and limitations of congressional authority as a whole. One recent case which bears upon the scope of congressional authority in the realm of its legislative veto power is the Chadha case.

In INS v. Chadha (1983), the Court ruled the congressional veto provision unconstitutional because it violated Article I, section 7's Presentment Clause, requiring every bill to be presented to the President so that he may invoke his executive veto privilege should he choose to do so. In addition, since the legislative veto provision in issue could be exercised by one house alone, it violated the bicameral requirement of Article I, sections I & VII, as well. The Court's holding was vital in preserving the balance of power originally constructed by the Framers. This balance, for the most part, rests in the power of presidential veto itself. In no way would the Court ever allow such a circumvention of the lawmaking process. The Presidential veto was a design of the Framers to enable the President to act as a watchdog, so to speak, on the Federal legislature and allow him to strike down inefficient or bad laws.

My argument in support of the Court's holding rests in addressing Justice White's dissenting opinion. I would agree with Justice White that Congress should be allowed to reserve a check on legislative power for itself. However, this should extend only as far as such power concerns the workings within the legislative branch. Here, as the majority pointed out, Congress' veto provision had the consequences of altering the rights of persons, such as the Attorney General and Chadha, outside the spheres of the legislative branch. Furthermore, Justice White argues that if Congress may delegate lawmaking power to independent and executive agencies then by implication Article I would allow Congress to reserve a check on the delegation of that power. This part of his argument in support of the veto provision is a bit weak when considering it alongside Federalist #37. Madison stated that "nergy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws which enter the very definition of good government." Good government requires both stability and energy. it is not difficult to see how allowing Congress this veto would be counterproductive. It wastes energy, and infringes on its own governmental structure. On the one hand, you are giving Congress the power to carry out its responsibilities recognizing the need to allow them to delegate some of that authority to the Attorney General in the interests of that goal being carried out. On the other hand, you allow them to then scrutinize the exercise of that authority. Therefore, what purpose does the Attorney General serve when his determinations can be overridden? Congress is wasting its time and the taxpayer's money. Moreover, to allow Congress this veto is like allowing the members of the Supreme Court to sit in judgment over themselves. Why? surely to override the decisions of the Attorney General by Congress requires a judicial determination of the scope neither implied nor enumerated by our Constitution. hence, it was a necessary measure that these veto provisions be struck down. only then can a balance of power be secured so as to provide the ability for a stable government to effectively operate.

Other limitations that the Court placed on Congress were in the areas of congressional investigations. In Watkins v. United States (1957), the Court reversed Watkins' conviction sending Congress the message--abuses of their investigatory powers would not be tolerated. In this case, the Court asserted that while Congress has wide authority to conduct investigations for the purposes of formulating legislation, they could not encroach into areas unrelated to congressional lawmaking processes. The authorizing legislation was too broad, and thus allowed the committee the ability to intrude into areas protected by the First Amendment. Here, the Court wisely saw that the committee's intent was not solely to gather information, but to expose Communist affiliations as well by asking questions that by their very nature seek to scrutinize and ridicule. The committee targeted Watkins making him the conduit for their objective. They sought to "expose for the sake of exposure." This unquestionably violated the allowable scope of the committee's authority, notwithstanding any legislative provision to the contrary.

Our Legislative Branch of Government

While the Court limited the scope of Congress' authority to investigate, it carefully narrowed its decision so as not to weaken the ability of Congress to function in their information gathering capacity. The Court recognized the real dangers as being related to "...those investigations that are conducted by use of compulsory process...." the Court censured Congress pointing out that their investigatory process lacked the constitutional safeguards necessary when bordering the area of First Amendment protections. What is crucial to ensure these protections is that "...the instructions to an investigating committee spell out that group's jurisdiction and purpose with sufficient particularity." I believe the Supreme Court did a good job in limiting this power. Were Congress not subject to these constitutional limitations, their power to choke off unpopular viewpoint would be enormous. People would be reluctant to voice disagreement with the government. This would only result in a stifling of the marketplace of ideas.

Another example of the Court's assertive attempts to broaden the scope of Congressional powers can be seen in the landmark case of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). The Court addressed and resolved important issues which have been accepted and rooted into the fabric of our government structure. Marshall's ruling interpreting the encompassing power of the national supremacy clause, I believe, represents the breath of life into the Framer's intended scope of national powers. By addressing the issue of whether Congress has an enumerated power to create a bank, he was able to explore what followed logically--the necessary existence of implied or incidental powers. Clearly, Marshall's argument in response to Maryland's claim that the Tenth Amendment precludes the existence of any national power to create a bank, was brilliant. Everything hinged on the interpretation of the necessary and proper clause, and that it must indeed follow that incidental and implied powers exist. Marshall took Maryland's argument that the powers of Congress are limited to their enumerated powers, and used it against them supporting a contrary position. If listed powers are to be seen as ends, then it is logical to see how the Framers would have intended to give Congress the power to exercise the means by which to achieve those ends.

One of the Court's decisions that shaped the understanding of the Commerce power and its scope was in Wickard v. Filburn (1942). In this case, Congress under their Commerce power regulated agricultural production for home use on farms. Although, admittedly, acknowledged to be a matter local in character (similar to Darby and Heart of Atlanta Motel cases), the Court still found that a lack of congressional regulation here would have economic effects in "Commerce Among the Several States." I agree with the Court's finding in part. Congress must be allowed to regulate affairs that are interstate, whose effects would impact adversely upon the national economy. However, what did the Court mean when it stated, "but although appellee's activity be local and though it may not be regarded as commerce, it may still, whatever its nature, be reached by Congress if it exerts a SUBSTANTIAL economic effect on interstate commerce, and this irrespective of whether such effect is what might at some earlier time have been defined as "direct" or "indirect." (emphasis added)

The substantial effect in this case was the potential damages inherent in the influencing of price and market conditions. Obviously, this would only occur if many farmers chose to grow wheat in excess of proscribed regulations. But where is the line to be drawn? Under such a construction, would it not be possible for Congress to call anything Commerce so long as there exists even the smallest effect on commerce among the several states. While I agree with the ends sought to be achieved by this act, I would argue that given the broad interpretation the Court gave to congressional power under Commerce, Congress could intrude into the domain of the state's interests under the guise of there existing substantial economic effects on national interests in intrastate commerce, when in reality the effects might be quite minimal. Why didn't the Court restrict itself to a more narrow decision? Instead it opened the door for the promulgation of more governmental regulations, again, so long as what Congress seeks to control is something that has substantial effects on interstate Commerce.

Over the years, the Court has been faced with the important and cumbersome task of interpreting the law in the realm of congressional power. At times, the Court takes an active role in striking down legislative acts, especially when these acts are perceived as allowing more power to Congress than that which the Constitution originally provided. However, the Court has never lost touch with the need to have an effective legislative branch of government. The decision handed down in McCulloch v. Maryland only reaffirmed the need for a strong national government. At the same time, the Court has continually upheld congressional power under various clauses of the Constitution. In the areas of regulating commerce among the several states, and with the interpretation given to the national Supremacy Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause, Congress' power has been broadened enough to allow them to govern more effectively.

By and large, the Supreme Court serves the highest function of all. It stands as the last word, barring congressional Amendment, toward preventing abuses of congressional power. Surely, without judicial scrutiny a more effective way of balancing the opposing forces in our government could never be achieved.


Article I, Chadha, Clause, Commerce, Congress, Constitution, Essay, Federalist, First Amendment, Government, Ins, Justices, Legislature, Madison, Mcculloch, Necessary And Proper Clause, Power, President, Research Project, Supreme Court, Veto Power, Watkins, Wickard

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author avatar 2bpositive
A Poet and Philosopher. Prophecy portends the future, while poetry helps make sense of the past.
Poetry with a message. Sometimes an eternal message, because this world IS the doorway to our eternity. My poetry, more than merely words on paper, is...(more)

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author avatar Delicia Powers
28th Oct 2011 (#)

Great information and history...

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