Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School


Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18

18:  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.

In a letter to Edward Livingston in 1800, Thomas Jefferson addressed the potential of infinite expansion of national power through the “necessary and proper clause” (Article I, Section 8, clause 18) after Congress chartered a mining company.  Jefferson derided the exercise by comparing the constitutional claims of the law’s supporters to a popular nursery rhyme:

“Congress are authorized to defend the nation. Ships are necessary for defense; copper is necessary for ships; mines, necessary for copper; a company necessary to work the mines; and who can doubt this reasoning who has ever played at ‘This is the House that Jack Built’? Under such a process of filiation of necessities the sweeping clause makes clean work..”

Who can doubt this, indeed?  Especially when, just last year, in U.S. v. Comstock, Justice Breyer led the Supreme Court in finding that the necessary and proper clause permits the national government to remit into federal civil commitment persons deemed to be sexually dangerous, even though the federal government could no longer hold them on a federal criminal charge. After applying one of the malleable multi-factor balancing tests he so favors, Justice Breyer determined that the necessary and proper clause permits Congress to enact laws that criminalize conduct that threatens the beneficial exercise of its enumerated powers; and that, therefore, Congress can imprison those who engage in that conduct; and that, therefore, Congress can pass laws to govern those prisons; and that, therefore, Congress can act as custodian of its prisoners; and that, therefore, Congress can pass a law that allows the federal government to keep those former prisoners “to protect the public from dangers created by the federal criminal justice and prison systems.” Besides, Breyer averred, the new law was only a “modest expansion” of Congress’s power.  Indeed.  Were he alive, Jefferson would recognize the game.

The necessary and proper clause is the Constitution’s version of the “implied powers” theory.  Congress is the American people’s legislative agent.  As such, the people gave Congress certain objectives to achieve.  It is a basic principle of agency law that the agent has not only the powers expressly assigned by the principal but, by implication, also those powers necessary to carry them out.  But there is no need for application of “implied powers” because the people, as Congress’s principal, themselves provided the means to carry out Congress’s assigned objectives.  The necessary and proper clause specifies that Congress has the power to make laws “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the powers conferred by the Constitution on the federal government.

The clause has long been hotly debated.  Opponents of the Constitution, especially New York’s Robert Yates (“Brutus”), repeatedly warned of the dangers from an expansive interpretation of “necessary and proper.” They predicted that an unrestrained power to accomplish formally limited powers itself effectively created an unlimited power to legislate through pretext.  Madison, responding to Yates in Federalist 44, sought to tie the clause to the other powers in a luke-warm argument that made the clause sound like the least worst alternative the Framers faced.  Moreover, he attempted to narrow the meaning of the clause to those means that were “indispensably necessary” and “required.” Ultimately, however, Madison threw up his hands, effectively conceded the argument about the dangers, but urged the people to remain alert to usurpations by Congress.

The Supreme Court weighed in with McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819.  Chief Justice Marshall rejected the restrictive interpretation of “necessary” urged by the old anti-Federalist warhorse, Maryland’s wily attorney general Luther Martin.  Martin’s interpretation had support both in the dictionary meaning of the word at the time and Madison’s slips-of-the-pen in Federalist 44.  Although this decision is correctly read as providing the constitutional material for the 20th century’s “Big Bang” expansion of federal power, Marshall apparently believed he was much more restrained and cautious.  He even took the unprecedented step of defending that view in a pseudonymous battle of editorials in the Richmond papers with Virginia’s chief justice, his cousin Spencer Roane.  Marshall insisted that, while the reading of “necessary” was to accommodate the needs of the times, the clause had to be tied to the other enumerated powers.  Any such law had to comply with both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution.  It was not enough that Congress could somehow connect a law to the form of one of its other powers.  Pretextual uses of the necessary and proper, or any other clause, would be unconstitutional.

In his almost flawless dissent in Comstock, Justice Thomas takes Justice Breyer to task for abandoning the Constitution’s text and Chief Justice Marshall’s boundaries.  Thomas points out that the Comstock majority makes no attempt to show that the law itself directly carries into effect any enumerated power of Congress.  At best, it does so through an attenuated chain, exactly as Jefferson criticized in his letter to Livingston.  The only objective that the Comstock Court mentions that the law directly advances is “to protect the public from dangers created by the federal criminal justice and prison systems.”  And that is not an enumerated power.

The necessary and proper clause is not an isolated provision.  It is part of the delicate balance of national and state powers the Framers established in the American version of federalism.  That balance is made concrete in several other provisions, beginning with Article I, Section 1, which declares that “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representative.”  That premise, along with the very fact of a limited enumeration of Congressional powers, is evidence that the letter, and certainly, the spirit of the Constitution argue against so expansive an interpretation of the necessary and proper clause that Congress is given an unrestricted power to legislate through a constitutional back door.

The Court’s expansive and unfounded reading of necessary and proper reflects the dominant Washington credo. One has heard over and over from certain partisans in the debate over the current administration’s programs that Congress has the power to do whatever it wants and that the Constitution has no part to play in the debate. Indeed, judging by the distaste, indeed hostility, shown by some Congressmen to the reading of the Constitution in that chamber at the opening of the current session, raising constitutional questions about Congress’ actions may represent some novel mutation of hate speech. Of course, indicting the Constitution (especially its formal restraints on legislative power) as an obstacle to “social advancement” is not new. Then-professor Woodrow Wilson and similarly-inclined academics charged that central tenet of Progressivism a century ago. How little has changed in the progressive world-view.

At the same time, it is undeniable that, over the years, the doctrine of enumerated powers has suffered severe erosion, an erosion that could not have occurred over so long without the tacit complicity of the American people. They have not been alert to Congressional usurpations, as Madison urged. It is inevitable, as people intuit, and as writers from Plato to Machiavelli to Yates and Madison have explained, rulers seek first to maintain and then to expand their power. Over time, there occurs an institutional accretion of power at the expense of personal liberty, as each precedent gives rise to an incremental expansion. Again, the contest over ObamaCare now playing out in the federal courts is the latest (and perhaps final) step in the enfeeblement of the doctrine.

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  Read more from Professor Knipprath at: .

3 replies
  1. Ralph T. Howarth, Jr.
    Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

    The credence of social programs rests within the purview of states. Under our federal system, states pass laws in a competitive fashion in respect to other states. When states pass good laws, then it will become an example for other states with bad laws. The eventuality of which is that states will want to adopt effective laws found in other states. In the long term, that it may be possible to nationalize a social program by a 3/4th ratification of an amendment. But the shot-gun wedding effect of usurpation is one that ascends to rushing laws that no one understands upon the national seat; and any bad law in their affects the entire country. This is an evil that was to be avoided. Any law submitted in congress ought to have been debated and written already by fifty state houses such that it becomes an omnibus bill that the whole nation knows what’s in it without any smoking mirrors. To not do so only ascends to aggregation of power in the name of social programs that falls into the hands of an oligarchy few of favortism and legally protected big business. The social program itself becomes a cartel of legalized plunder.

  2. Janine Turner
    Janine Turner says:

    Wow! Brilliant essay Professor Knipprath.
    You expressed exactly my sentiments in my earlier comment in yesterday’s essay.
    “At the same time, it is undeniable that, over the years, the doctrine of enumerated powers has suffered severe erosion, an erosion that could not have occurred over so long without the tacit complicity of the American people. They have not been alert to Congressional usurpations, as Madison urged.”
    This is truly our call to action. “rulers seek first to maintain then expand their powers.” Your words indicate the truths and lessons of history that our founding fathers knew so well and we today have been so ignorant. What is to become of the United States of America? If we lose her it will be do to either the manipulating or the blatant disregard of the Constitution with the blessing of the people through inaction and apathy.
    God bless,
    Janine Turner


Join the discussion! Post your comments below.

Your feedback and insights are welcome.
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *