What Powers Does the Constitution Grant to the National Government

Have you ever wondered about what powers does the constitution grant to the national government? The United States has a unique type of government. We can call it as a federal system. In this system, there are a power sharing between the a national (federal) government and state governments.  For the U.S. citizens, it is very common to have a multi-layered government. In fact, there are only 15 federal republics worldwide with a this similar structure.

In the United States, the federalist system developed. It is because the states originated from individual colonies with diverse populations and unique requirements. The creators of the Constitution anticipated that state governments, rather than the national government, would primarily serve as the main governing body for citizens in their daily lives.

In some respects, that’s still true today. States continue to handle matters. For example, issuing marriage licenses, establishing divorce rules, issuing driver’s licenses, and managing car registrations. They also set statewide speed limits and vehicle inspection requirements.

However, the Framers of the Constitution might be surprised by the extent to which the federal and state governments are interconnected in modern times. The distribution of power between these two levels has shifted over time in response to changing societal needs. Therefore, you should know more about what powers does the constitution grant to the national government.


What Powers does the Constitution Grant to the National Government – The Framework

To answer the question about what powers does the constitution grant to the national government, we need to know the framework of power sharing between the National government and the state government. To talk about this topic, it means that we talk about the Article IV of the US Constitution. This rule outlines the relationships and obligations between individual states, between the federal government and the states. It serves as a framework for what powers does the constitution grant to the national government.

Section 1 of Article IV mandates that states must respect and recognize the public acts and legal proceedings of all other states. In simpler terms, this means that states must honor the decisions and legal judgments made in other states. For instance, if someone gets married in one state, their marriage remains valid if they move to another state. Also, if an individual is convicted of a crime in one state, the legal consequences still apply if they relocate to a different state.

Section 2 specifies that the citizens of each state have the right to enjoy all the “privileges and immunities” that citizens in other states have. This principle prevents states from treating newcomers or people from other states worse than their own residents. For instance, the Supreme Court has ruled that a California law that denied welfare benefits to new residents for a year was unconstitutional. The reason is, it treated newcomers unfairly.

What Are the Powers of National Government?

The Founders had several reasons for establishing a federalist government in order to strike a balance between order and liberty. First, it is to prevent the intervention of power. Also, they wanted to avoid the possibility of tyranny that could arise if one centralized government had too much authority.

Furthermore, Federalism allows for greater citizen involvement in governance. Well, individuals can participate in both state and national politics. Thus, the government can hear the voice of the citizen.

Moreover, States can serve as experimental grounds for testing new policies and programs. If a state adopts an unsuccessful policy, it does not have disastrous consequences for the entire nation. Conversely, if a state’s innovative policies prove successful, they can serve as models. So, other states can adopt and adapt it according to their own needs.

As highlighted by James Madison in The Federalist No. 10, federalism acts as a safeguard against the rapid spread of destructive ideas or policies by “factious leaders” within a particular state. It prevents an individual who gains control of one state from easily gaining control over the entire federal government. This is preserving a system of checks and balances.

Types of Powers for National Government

The Constitution of the United States grants three types of power to the national government:

1. Delegated (Enumerated or Expressed) Powers

You can find these powers, listed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution explicitly. They include the authority to coin money, regulate commerce, declare war, maintain armed forces, and establish a Post Office, among others. In total, the Constitution supports 27 powers to the federal government.

2. Implied Powers

The Constitution does not state these powers directly. But, it can be inferred from the elastic clause. We name it “necessary and proper” clause (according to Article I, Section 8). This clause grants Congress, “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and other powers vested in the government of the United States.” As these powers are not clearly outlined, the courts often have to determine what constitutes an implied power.

3. Inherent Powers

These powers are not directly listed in the Constitution. But, they naturally arise from the very existence of the national government. For instance, the United States has the power to acquire territory through exploration and occupation It is because most governments assert this right as part of their sovereignty.

These three types of powers collectively define the scope and authority of the national government in the United States. They reflect a combination of expressly granted, implied, and inherent powers. Therefore, they enable the federal government to carry out its functions and responsibilities.

4. Reserved Powers

The Constitution also recognizes reserved powers, which are specifically for the states. These powers are not listed explicitly but are safeguarded by the Tenth Amendment, which states: “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.”

Reserved powers are those that the states inherently possess and are not granted to the federal government. Some typical examples of reserved powers include the regulation of trade within a state, the establishment of local government structures, and the administration of elections.

Additionally, there are powers that both the federal and state governments share. For instance, they both have the authority to impose taxes, create and enforce laws, and borrow money. These overlapping powers are referred to as concurrent powers. These powers are not exclusively granted to the national government, nor are they denied to the states, allowing both levels of government to exercise them within their respective jurisdictions.

5. Prohibited Powers

Prohibited powers are those that are expressly denied to either the national government, state governments, or sometimes to both. You can find the outline in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution. An important principle is that the national government cannot use its powers in a manner that interferes with the states’ capacity to fulfill their duties.

For example, the national government cannot act in ways that would hinder the states in carrying out their responsibilities. This helps maintain the balance of power between the federal and state governments.

Also, the states are prohibited from certain actions such as taxing imports or exports, coining money, or issuing bills of credit. These restrictions prevent states from undermining the national government’s authority in areas like trade and currency.

The System of Prohibitions

The Constitution carefully delineates which powers are reserved for each level of government and also specifies where neither should interfere with the other. This system of prohibitions helps preserve the intended balance and separation of powers between the national and state governments.

Article IV of the Constitution outlines the responsibilities and obligations states have towards each other. It contains provisions such as the requirement for each state to give “full faith and credit” to the public acts, records, and civil judicial proceedings of every other state. This means that all states recognize business contracts and marriages. Additionally, Article IV mandates the practice of extradition. This involves returning an accused criminal to the state where the crime was committed.

The Founders were extremely deliberate in dividing powers between federal and state governments. The colonial resistance to King George III’s tyranny and Articles of Confederation influenced the decision. The careful allocation and blending of state and national powers served several crucial purposes.

For example, safeguarding against tyranny, increasing citizen participation in government, and providing a mechanism for implementing new policies and programs. At the same time, these are preserving the integrity of the United States as a federal system.

Exclusive and Concurrent Powers

So, what powers does the constitution grant to the national government? The ongoing debate over the division of authority between states and the federal government is partly due to their exclusive and concurrent powers. Exclusive powers are those that are specifically for the federal government or the states.

Concurrent powers,  where the federal government and the states shared and exercised the powers simultaneously. This distinction plays a significant role in shaping the relationship and responsibilities of these two levels of government in the United States.

The federal government possesses exclusive powers that are crucial for the functioning of the nation as a whole. For instance, only the federal government can coin money, manage postal services, declare war, and handle foreign affairs. These exclusive powers prevent situations like individual states declaring war or creating their own currencies, which would be chaotic.

States, however, still hold substantial authority. They oversee all elections, including presidential elections, and have the responsibility to approve constitutional amendments. As long as their laws don’t conflict with federal laws, state governments can make policies regarding commerce, taxation, healthcare, education, and various other matters within their own state.

Importantly, both states and the federal government share certain powers, including the ability to impose taxes, create and enforce laws, charter banks, and borrow money. This division of powers is integral. The goal is the intricate balance of authority in the United States.

States vs. Federal Government – The Changes of Power Distribution

The distribution of power between states and the federal government in the United States has evolved significantly over time. Initially, the distinction between state and federal powers was quite clear. States regulating their own affairs and the federal government handling national and international matters.

However, since the Civil War in the 1860s, the authority of the federal government has expanded. Sometimes, it is overlapping with and intertwining state powers. During periods of crisis, such as the Great Depression, the federal government has stepped in to provide assistance in areas typically managed by states.

While there has been a general trend towards increasing federal power, states have also pushed back. For instance, in the 1995 case US v. Lopez, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had exceeded its authority by attempting to ban guns from school grounds under the Commerce Clause. Since guns on school grounds are not directly related to interstate commerce, the Court deemed the ban unconstitutional.

Federal Government can Influence States Through Grants

The federal government can influence states through the distribution of grants, incentives, and aid. State and local governments often seek federal funding, but this funding frequently comes with specific conditions. Categorical grants, for instance, are available only for particular purposes. Also, often include provisions against discrimination, ensuring that the funding will not discriminate certain groups.

Additionally, the federal government can pass unfunded mandates that link federal funding to certain conditions. For instance, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 required states to have a minimum drinking age of 21 to receive full federal highway funding.

Not all federal funding is as tightly controlled. Block grants are provided to states or localities for broader purposes. Thus, allowing them to allocate the funds as they see fit. Today, federalism in the United States is quite complex. It is at the center of many contemporary government debates, including issues related to healthcare and education policy.

Good and Bad Sides of Federalism

Federalism is a system of government that involves multiple levels of authority. It features a central federal government with overarching powers and smaller, localized forms of government responsible for regional and local matters. The purpose of this system is to tailor governance to the unique needs of different areas within a country. However, this division of powers can also give rise to certain challenges and complications.

Benefits of Federalism

After understanding more about what powers does the constitution grant to the national government, it is important to know more the benefits of federalism. Federalism offers several notable advantages, including the promotion of policy innovation, increased political participation, and the accommodation of diverse opinions.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis emphasized the potential for policy innovation within states, stating that “a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try social and economic experiments that bring no risks to the rest of the country.”

New Policies and Innovations

This concept means that states can use their constitutional authority to pioneer new policies and experiments that might eventually be adopted by other states and even at the national level. Examples of such policy innovations include child labor laws, which were influenced by state policies during the New Deal era, and women’s suffrage, as several states granted women the right to vote just like the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Additionally, states like California have taken the lead in establishing environmental standards, and health insurance exchanges in Connecticut, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Washington have served as models for other states looking to enhance their own healthcare exchange systems. These examples demonstrate how federalism can encourage policy experimentation and provide valuable models for broader implementation.


Another significant advantage of federalism is that it provides multiple levels of government with the capacity to take action. If a particular policy goal cannot be achieved at one level of government, it may be possible to secure support and enact the desired policy at another level. This flexibility allows individuals, interest groups, and social movements to actively participate in the political process and influence public policy.

In essence, federalism encourages political engagement and activism because it offers more opportunities for citizens and groups to have a say in the decision-making process. It fosters a system where different levels of government can serve as checks and balances, ensuring that a broad range of perspectives and interests are considered in the policymaking process. This increased participation and the ability to seek support at various governmental levels are key strengths of the federalist system.

The system of checks and balances in the politic often prevents the federal government from imposing uniform policies across the whole country. Consequently, states and local communities have the freedom to address policy issues based on the specific needs and interests of their citizens. This diversity in public viewpoints across states is reflected in variations in how states handle issues such as abortion access, alcohol distribution, gun control, and social welfare benefits.

The Drawbacks of Federalism

However, federalism also has its drawbacks. Some of the main disadvantages include economic disparities across states, the race-to-the-bottom phenomenon where states compete to attract businesses by lowering taxes and regulations, and the challenge of taking unified action on issues of national significance.

Economic Disparities

Economic disparities across states have a significant impact on the well-being of citizens. For example, in 2014, Maryland had the highest median household income, while Mississippi had the lowest. There are also substantial disparities in school funding, with New York spending considerably more per student on elementary and secondary education than Utah, for instance. Additionally, healthcare access, costs, and quality vary significantly from one state to another.

Critics argue that federalism has, in some cases, hindered national efforts to address and reduce these disparities, particularly in terms of social justice and equalizing opportunities for all citizens. The competition between states to attract businesses by reducing taxes and regulations, known as the race-to-the-bottom dynamic, can exacerbate these economic disparities and undermine efforts to implement national policies aimed at achieving more equitable outcomes.

The economic strategy of using “race-to-the-bottom” tactics to compete with other states in attracting new businesses does have social costs. For example, when workplace regulations are less strict in an effort to attract businesses. This can lead to a reduction in worker safety and wages. Additionally, the reduction in payroll taxes for employers has resulted in underfunded unemployment insurance programs in some states.

Nineteen states have chosen not to expand Medicaid coverage for more of their residents, despite encouragement from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. They fear that this expansion would increase state public spending and raise employers’ costs for employee benefits, even though there are provisions in place for the federal government to cover a significant portion of the expansion’s cost. Notably, a majority of these states are located in the southern part of the United States.

Racial Discrimination

The federal design of the U.S. Constitution, with its system of checks and balances, has at times hindered or outright blocked federal responses to significant national issues. For example, during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to combat the Great Depression, the Supreme Court rejected his initiatives. In more recent times, President Barack Obama’s efforts to make health insurance more accessible under the Affordable Care Act faced legal challenges from certain states.

However, the Supreme Court ultimately supported the act. Nevertheless, the federal government’s ability to protect citizens’ voting rights suffered a setback when the Supreme Court, in 2013, struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These instances reflect the complexities and challenges of governing within the federal system.

Indeed, one significant change in recent years is that the nine states with historical records of racial discrimination in their voting processes are no longer mandated to submit their plans for voting-related changes to the federal government for approval. This shift shows a larger transformation in the dynamics of federalism.


To end our topic about what powers does the constitution grant to the national government, we can conclude some important things. First, the powers of state governments. We call it “reserve powers,” and the Tenth Amendment grant the powers to the states.

Examples of national powers granted by the U.S. Constitution include the authority to declare war, regulate interstate commerce, and coin money. State powers include the ability to ratify amendments to the U.S. Constitution and oversee the time, place, and manner of elections.

Second, national government-exclusive powers, as granted by the U.S. Constitution, include declaring war, raising and maintaining an army and navy, regulating interstate and foreign commerce, and coining money. There are no grants for these powers to the states.

The key difference between state powers and national powers is that state has limited powers related to actions and regulations within the boundaries of the state. Meanwhile, all states in the country can apply and enforce the national powers.

Federalism has both its advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, it can foster increased political participation, incentivize states to engage in policy innovation. Even it can provide a platform for accommodating a wide range of viewpoints across the nation.

However, there are also drawbacks. For example, the potential for states to engage in a “race to the bottom”. This can lead to economic and social disparities between states, and the challenges it poses to the federal government’s efforts to address national issues. The impact of federalism on governance in the United States is complex and multifaceted.