Those who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, 235 years ago this May, did not arrive without examples of what worked and what did not work in past empires or republics. With such wisdom, the Founding Fathers made sure the Constitution addressed regime failure. Two of those provisions are the Necessary and Proper Clause and the vesting clause of executive power.
The Necessary and Proper Clause
Article I of the United States Constitution sets forth the Congressional powers. Article I, Section 8, Clause 18 of the Constitution provides:
“[The Congress shall have Power] … To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”
This clause has been referred to as the “elastic clause” or the “sweeping clause” because the language on its face appears to expand significantly the powers of Congress. The clause has been referred to as the most important provision in the Constitution, for good reason – most federal laws are enacted under this Clause 18.
From the beginning, the clause has been debated. In Federalist No. 33, Alexander Hamilton argued the “virulent invective and petulant declamation against the proposed Constitution” caused in large measure by the Necessary and Proper Clause was misdirected, writing in part:
They are only declaratory of a truth which would have resulted by necessary and unavoidable implication from the very act of constituting a federal government and vesting it with certain specified powers. This is so clear a proposition, that moderation itself can scarcely listen to the railings which have been so copiously vented against this part of the plan, without emotions that disturb its equanimity.
“What is a power, but the ability or faculty of doing a thing? What is the ability to do a thing, but the power of employing the MEANS necessary to its execution? What is a LEGISLATIVE power, but a power of making LAWS? What are the MEANS to execute a LEGISLATIVE power but LAWS? What is the power of laying and collecting taxes, but a LEGISLATIVE POWER, or a power of MAKING LAWS, to lay and collect taxes? What are the proper means of executing such a power, but NECESSARY and PROPER laws?”
James Madison in Federalist No. 44 reiterated much the same. Anti-federalists expressed concern about the unlimited power the Clause presented. Writing in Anti-federalist No. 32, Brutus wrote: “It is truly incomprehensible. A case cannot be conceived of, which is not included in this power. It is well known that the subject of revenue is the most difficult and extensive in the science of government.” The concern would play out in the Supreme Court over the years, beginning early in the republic.
In 1819, the Court supported the views of the Federalists, in McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819). Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion, and after explaining the meaning of the clause, echoed the language of Federalist No. 44:
“We admit, as all must admit, that the powers of the Government are limited, and that its limits are not to be transcended. But we think the sound construction of the Constitution must allow to the national legislature that discretion with respect to the means by which the powers it confers are to be carried into execution which will enable that body to perform the high duties assigned to it in the manner most beneficial to the people. Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are Constitutional.”
Article II, Section 1 begins: “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States.” Known as the “vesting clause,” this clause too has been the subject of debate. With no settled meaning of the term “executive power” at the founding, some have argued that the term refers only to those powers set forth in the Constitution in other provisions. The opponents of the minimalist view assert that the power is expansive, subject only to specific limitations included in the Constitution. The latter view is referred to as the “unitary executive” and many have argued the president has such powers, often the party of the president in the White House asserting he has such powers, but not when the opposing party is inhabiting the White House.
In Federalist Nos. 69 and 70, Hamilton wrote of the need for a singular executive and the powers. In Federalist No. 70, Hamilton wrote in part:
“This unity may be destroyed in two ways: either by vesting the power in two or more magistrates of equal dignity and authority; or by vesting it ostensibly in one man, subject, in whole or in part, to the control and co-operation of others, in the capacity of counsellors to him. Of the first, the two Consuls of Rome may serve as an example; of the last, we shall find examples in the constitutions of several of the States. New York and New Jersey, if I recollect right, are the only States which have intrusted the executive authority wholly to single men. Both these methods of destroying the unity of the Executive have their partisans; but the votaries of an executive council are the most numerous. They are both liable, if not to equal, to similar objections, and may in most lights be examined in conjunction.”
The Constitution’s wisdom is shown in many ways, including with the two provisions covered by this essay. The careful drafting in 1787 has helped to ensure American Exceptionalism.
Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.