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Which powers are granted to Congress by the Constitution?

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The powers granted to Congress include the power to declare war, levy taxes, coin and define money, borrow on national credit, and establish a postal system.

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In Article I of the Constitution are listed the powers granted to Congress.  Generally, Congress is empowered to create all legislation for the United States. This is stated in the first section of the article.  The subject matters of this legislation, what are often called the enumerated powers, are listed in Section 8 and in various amendments, and these cover a broad range.

Congress can legislate to impose taxes, provide for the payment of debt and for incurring debt, and for payment for the defense of the country. It may legislate on any matter affecting interstate commerce and on commerce with native Americans and other countries. It is the sole body that can create bankruptcy law.  It is responsible for legislation on immigration and naturalization.  It is responsible for coining money, that is to say, for its production and value, as well as for what punishments ensue for counterfeiting American money. The postal system is a creature of Congress, which established its enabling legislation and continues to control it to this day.  Patent and copyright law are the responsibility of Congress.  While the Constitution establishes the Supreme Court of the United States, all other lower courts are established by Congress through legislation. This includes the federal district and circuit courts.  Congress legislates to establish maritime law, which is the law of the sea. Its military powers are broad, to declare war, to create military entities and to fund then, and to create the rules that govern those military entities. An army and navy are mentioned specifically, but of course, there was no air force when the Constitution was created. Also part of this group of powers is the power to create and call forth the state militias, which we now refer to as the National Guard.  Congress also has complete legislative authority over Washington, D.C., which is not a state at all, but the center of federal government. Additionally, each time an amendment has been passed that required some legislative authority, included within the amendment is the granting of power to Congress to enforce that amendment through legislation. 

Any power that is not enumerated in the Constitution and its amendments is a power that falls to the states. This is why most criminal law, family law, and negligence law, to name a few examples, are created by state legislatures, and why there is variability in these areas from one state to another.

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What are the powers granted to Congress?

The Constitution establishes the United States Congress as the legislative branch of government and assigns to it a number of specific roles in the federal system. In general, Congress creates rules to govern the respective chambers. Congress also passes laws to govern the nation.

The House serves as the origin of money bills, while the Senate handles appointment confirmations and treaty ratification. Congress also determines the size and composition of the federal court system, including the Supreme Court. Section 8 of the Constitution lists a number of additional specific responsibilities, such as declaring war, levying taxes, and other essential powers. It also allows Congress to coin and define money, borrow on national credit, and establish a postal system and roads. Congress is prohibited from imposing specific punitive measure or providing unfair advantages to states.

Congress is governed by laws and traditions outside of the Constitution as well. From British and English traditions of representative government, the US Congress is expected to respect many traditions, such as those laid down in the English Bill of Rights. These traditions help to establish the legislative branch’s role in checking the power of its houses and also the executive branch. Among the most important of these is the active right to check the head of the executive branch if they strive to create law on their own or enforce authority outside of the limits of the law.

Over the past century, as the federal government has grown in size, it has also expanded in complexity. Cabinet departments have expanded into hundreds of agencies, commissions, and other units of administration. Congress over time has ceded more decision-making authority within broader laws to these departments and agencies. They can now craft regulatory law within guidelines established by Congress.

Finally, case law from the United States Supreme Court and other federal courts can limit and define Congressional actions. Starting in the early 1800s with the case of Marbury v. Madison, the USSC has the power to strike down laws as unconstitutional. The USSC can strike down, redefine, or even compel action with its rulings. Congress must act and exercise its powers within the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law.

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