How has the national government used the commerce clause to extend its power over the states?
Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution states:
"The Congress shall have Power . . . To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;"
That clause, part of the Bill of Rights, makes clear that the drafters of the Constitution intended for the federal government -- albeit by way of the peoples' elected representatives -- to have primary jurisdiction over interstate commerce. The "interstate commerce clause" of the constitution, however, has been the subject of considerable debate over the past two centuries with regard to the framers' intent and the actual restriction that imposes on states' rights to trade among each other. A series of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court over the years -- notably, Colley v. Board of Wardens (1851), Baldwin v. G.A.F. Seelig (1935), Dean Milk Co. v. Madison (1951), Edwards v. California (1941), Hunt v. Washington State Apple Association (1977), and Maine v. Taylor (1986) -- all dealt with some aspect of the division of authorities between the federal government and the states with regard to interstate commerce and all left unclear where precisely the line between the two is drawn.
Because of the history of Supreme Court rulings, it is inappropriate to suggest that the federal government has exploited the interstate commerce clause at the expense of the states. Where the court has been consistent in its interpretations of the clause is in concluding that individual states cannot unfairly deny cross-border trade for protectionist purposes. One of the court's greatest jurors, Justice Benjamin N. Cardoza, wrote in Baldwin v. G.A.F. Seelig that
"If New York [which had sought to protect its milk industry against competition from other states], in order to promote the economic welfare of her farmers, may guard them against competition with the cheaper prices of Vermont, the door has been opened to rivalries that were meant to be averted by subjecting commerce between the states to the power of the nation."
Interestingly, individual states routinely petition the federal government for assistance in facilitating the export of their goods to foreign countries believed to be practicing the same protectionist policies the State of New York used in seeking to protect its "domestic" industry from outside competition. Justice Cardoze stated the framers' position well in his decision in Baldwin v. G.A.F. Seelig:
"What is ultimate is the principle that one state, in its dealings with another, may not place itself in a positin of economic isolation . . . Neither the power to tax nor the police power may be used by the state of destination with the aim and effect of establishing an economic barrier against competition with the products of another state or the labor of its residents. Restrictions so contrived are an unreasonable clog upon the mobility of commerce."
The interstate commerce clause of the Constitution was not intended to provde the federal government the power to dictate commerce between states; it was intended to ensure that divisions between states over commercial matters did not spiral out of control in a way that could lead to bigger problems. The power was specifically vested with the Legislative Branch of government to ensure that the federal government's powers were restrained in that regard. To the extent the federal government could be seen as exploiting that power to control the states, it is mainly to ensure fair trade.