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Federal Powers

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

U.S. Constitution, Amendments, Article X

The federal government has only the authorities explicitly delegated to it by the U.S. Constitution, and those possessed by it under the natural law. Per the Tenth Amendment, all other powers are reserved to the states or the people.

Below is a comprehensive list of federal powers. Any federal activity that falls outside of these is unconstitutional and unjust.

Defend Human Rights

The purpose of every government — the reason for its very existence — is to defend the human rights of those who come under its authority. Therefore, every government, including the U.S. federal government, has authority to act in the defense of the rights to life, liberty, and property.

This authority comes from wherever human rights come from, whether you believe it is God, nature, or evolution. It exists under natural law and need not be affirmatively delegated to a government by its constitution.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….

Thomas Jefferson – The Declaration of Independence, Paragraph 2 (excerpt)

Organize Itself

Perhaps obviously, the federal government has the authority to organize itself according to the structures that are laid-out for it in the constitution:

  • The Congress, which is composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate, is authorized under Article I. This is the legislative branch.
  • The President and the executive agencies are authorized under Article II. This is the executive branch.
  • The Supreme Court and lesser courts are authorized under Article II. This is the judicial branch.

Throughout the constitution, not individually quoted here, are many additional details about how these branches coexist with one another, what checks they have on each others powers, and so-on.

Federal Elections

The states have authority over their state and local elections, but the federal government has concurrent authority with the states over congressional and presidential elections.

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

Article I, Section 4, Clause 1

The Congress may determine the Time of chusing the Electors [for President and Vice President], and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 4

Taxation

The federal government has the authority to impose taxes and duties to fund its constitutionally authorized operations and to repay its debts.

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 1

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

Amendments, Article XVI

Borrow Money

The federal government has the authority to borrow money to fund its constitutionally authorized operations.

[The Congress shall have Power] To borrow Money on the credit of the United States.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 2

Regulate Commerce

The federal government has the authority to regulate commerce with foreign nations, to regulate commerce between the states, and to regulate commerce with the Indian Tribes. Note that it does not have the authority to regulate any commerce that occurs entirely within a state.

[The Congress shall have Power] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 3

Citizenship and Naturalization

The federal government has the authority to establish rules of naturalization — that is, how one becomes a citizen.

It is implied that the federal government may also determine who is and is not a citizen at birth (i.e., a “natural born citizen”), with the exception that anybody born in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction is always a citizen under the Fourteenth Amendment.

[The Congress shall have Power] To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization….

Article I, Section 8, Clause 4 (excerpt)

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Amendments, Article XIV (excerpt)

Bankruptcies

The federal government has the authority to establish laws on bankruptcy, which are to be applied uniformly throughout the United States.

[The Congress shall have Power] To establish…uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 4 (excerpt)

Money

The federal government has the authority to coin money and to regulate the value of money, as well as to regulate exchange with foreign currencies. It also has the authority to punish counterfeiters.

[The Congress shall have Power] To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin….

Article I, Section 8, Clause 5 (excerpt)

[The Congress shall have Power] To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 6

Weights and Measures

The federal government has the authority to define the standard weights and measurements to be used in the United States.

[The Congress shall have Power] To fix the Standard of Weights and Measures.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 5 (excerpt)

Post Offices

The federal government has the authority to establish and operate post offices, and to build roads to allow for the transport and delivery of mail.

[The Congress shall have Power] To establish Post Offices and post Roads.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 7

Copyright and Patent

The federal government has the authority to establish copyright and patent protections for authors and inventors. The purpose of this provision is to promote art and science by ensuring that they can be profitable, at least for a time.

[The Congress shall have Power] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8

The High Seas

The federal government has direct authority over United States territorial waters, and may impose and enforce laws on the high seas.

[The Congress shall have Power] To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 10

War

The federal government has the authority to declare war, and to prosecute a war after it has been declared. The authority to declare war is reserved only to Congress. The president is Commander in Chief of the military and has the authority to prosecute a war, but only after it has been declared by the Congress.

[The Congress shall have Power] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 11

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States….

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 (excerpt)

The Standing Military

The federal government has the authority to establish and support a standing military. The constitution specifically refers to armies and navies, although it can be reasonably inferred that other kinds of forces — like an air force — that were not conceived of at the time of its writing are also permissible.

The federal government also has the authority to establish military bases, with the consent of the state legislatures where they are to be located. These bases are subject to the direct authority of the federal government, not the state in which it is located.

The president serves as the Commander in Chief of the military.

[The Congress shall have Power] To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 12

[The Congress shall have Power] To provide and maintain a Navy.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 13

[The Congress shall have Power] To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 14

[The Congress shall have Power] To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever…over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 (excerpt)

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States….

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 (excerpt)

The Militias

The federal government has concurrent authority with the states to establish militias, and to call them up to suppress invasions and insurrections.

The president serves as the Commander in Chief of the militias only when called into national service. In other cases, the governors of the states typically serve as the Commanders in Chief of the militias.

[The Congress shall have Power] To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 15

[The Congress shall have Power] To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 16

The President shall be Commander in Chief…of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 (excerpt)

The Federal District

The federal government has the authority to directly govern the district that serves as its seat. This district is the District of Columbia, which is not subject to the jurisdiction of any state.

[The Congress shall have Power] To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States….

Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 (excerpt)

Foreign Relations

The federal government has authority over foreign relations, including the authority to make treaties with other nations and to appoint ambassadors.

Treaties, after ratification by the Senate, become part of the law of the land except where they conflict with the constitution or natural law.

[The president] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors….

Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 (excerpt)

[A]ll Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

Article VI, Clause 2 (excerpt)

Powers Over the States

The federal government has the authority to regulate how the states give “full faith and credit” to one others’ acts and records, and to admit new states to the union. The federal government also has the authority (and responsibility) to ensure that each state has a republican form of government, to protect them from invasion and, when asked by the governor or legislature of the state, to protect them from internal violence.

The federal government also has the right to prevent the states from abridging the privileges of its citizens. This is included in the natural law authority to defend human rights, but is also explicitly established in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.

Article IV, Section 1

New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.

Article IV, Section 3, Clause 1

The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.

Article IV, Section 4

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws….

Amendments, Article XIV (excerpt)

Non-State Territories

The federal government has the authority to govern territories and properties that belong to the United States but are not part of a state.

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States….

Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 (excerpt)

Voting Rights

The federal government has the authority to enforce several civil rights relating to voting. These may be considered as additional powers over the states (see above), although they differ in that they deal with civil rather than human rights.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Amendments, Article XV (excerpt)

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Amendments, Article XIX (excerpt)

The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.

Amendment XXIV (excerpt)

The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.

Amendment XXVI (excerpt)