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

After the appearance in the preceding essay of Alexander Hamilton, Esquire, Federalist 33 sees the return of Hamilton, the rhetorical swordsman, slashing at his opponents and parrying their contentions. The target of his invective is the assertion that, though the national government’s power to tax may not be exclusive and can be exercised by the states concurrently with Congress, the necessary and proper clause allows Congress to expand the reach of its substantive powers beyond what is enumerated. Further, the supremacy clause enables Congress to override otherwise valid state laws that are in conflict with such overreaching federal law. In short, Congress might pass laws prohibiting the states to tax in various ways, as a means to protect Congress’s sources of revenue.

The heat of Hamilton’s response is a measure of the significance, then and now, of the bigger question. This is no longer about the power to tax. Rather, this implicates the breadth of the federal government’s power to act and, therefore, the very nature of the federal system and the division of sovereignty created under the Constitution.

This is not the last time that Publius addresses these topics. Madison has his turn in Federalist No. 44. Nor is The Federalist the only forum. The scope of Congress’s discretion to carry into effect its enumerated powers comes up in extended debate as early as the incorporation by the Confederation Congress of Robert Morris’s Bank of North America in 1781. It occurs again with great vigor in the debates in Congress and the Cabinet in 1791 over the chartering of the Bank of the United States. It occurs once more, in the Supreme Court in 1819, in McCulloch v. Maryland. It continues to this day. Not for nothing has this clause been termed the “elastic clause.”

In these debates the course of argument is always the same. As Hamilton points out, the necessary and proper clause merely restates a power that Congress already has by implication. Even if that clause were omitted, Congress could, by the very existence of a grant of substantive power, adopt any law needed to carry out the object of that enumerated power: “What is a power, but the ability or power of doing a thing? What is the ability to do a thing, but the power of employing the means [italics in original] necessary to its execution?…What are the proper means of executing such a power, but necessary and proper laws?” Congress may have only enumerated powers to which it must point whenever it acts. But within those enumerated powers, Congress has plenary authority, including choosing the proper means.

Once a power to adopt any means necessary and proper to an objective is conceded, it becomes necessary to limit the power. Otherwise, an unlimited power to adopt the means needed to achieve delegated and limited ends effectively creates unlimited power to legislate. These “means” can always be connected to some enumerated constitutional objective through linked justifications that, as Jefferson sneered, resemble the rhyme “This Is the House That Jack Built.”

Hamilton avers that only laws that are proper means to the constitutional objective are permitted. What is “proper” must be judged by the nature of the power to which it is directed. Thus, the federal government could not control intestacy laws because those would not be proper to the “national” nature of any federal power under the Constitution. Yet the Supreme Court recently upheld, under that same clause, a federal law that provides for the civil commitment of certain persons deemed dangerous even after they have completed their criminal sentences. While the criminal law under which these people were sentenced had a (bare) connection to the federal commerce power, it is very difficult to understand how the civil commitment law has anything but a very attenuated connection to a federal power. The connection (as Congress makes clear) is to “public safety,” which is not a delegated federal power, but, rather, a state power.

Moreover, the recent health care law imposes an “individual mandate” to purchase health insurance because that is necessary and proper to regulate the interstate health insurance market. The necessary and proper clause has long stretched, one might say, the meaning of the term “elastic.” Hamilton declares that the usual remedy for a violation must be the citizenry’s judgment. Unfortunately, when Congress expands its powers beyond previous bounds by pandering to some item on an interest group’s wish list, there is usually a collective yawn from the electorate. Will reaction to the foregoing examples be different?

Hamilton also analyzes the supremacy clause, which summarizes the fundamental principle that, within its assigned powers, Congress has plenary power that prevails over any conflicting state act. That supremacy principle extends to federal statutes and treaties, as well as to the Constitution itself. By approving the Constitution, the states accepted that its provisions superseded conflicting ones in their constitutions and laws.

Indeed, the supremacy clause principle and the specific listing of Congressional powers was the more benign proposal in Philadelphia. Madison, Hamilton, Washington, and other “large-state” nationalists supported the Virginia Plan that would have given Congress both a broader and more direct veto over state laws and the power to legislate “in all cases to which the Separate States are incompetent; or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted by the exercise of individual Legislation.” One shudders to imagine what policies such forthright grants would produce in contemporary Congresses when even the fig leaf of limited and delegated powers is removed. On the other hand, a skeptic might respond that, by constitutional subterfuge abetted by a mostly passive Supreme Court, Congress has already arrogated to itself virtually the same breadth of power.

Hamilton argues that only federal laws that themselves are constitutional can be the supreme law of the land. There is nothing to fear from that clause, as long as Congress does not exceed its powers under the other clauses. As discussed above, in that last point lies the rub.

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.  Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  His website is

Friday, June 11th, 2010

0 replies

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 *