Enumerated Powers Defined in the Constitution
Published on December 13, 2021
constitution define enumerated powers

One evening I received a call on my old, out of date cell phone from my mobile phone company offering me an amazing deal.  If I added a line to my plan, and committed to 2 more years of service, then they would give me a free, latest model iPhone!  I had already been kicking around the idea of adding a line, and I had no plans to change companies so I decided to do it.  It sounded too good to be true!  Well, maybe it was…  I immediately started seeing charges on my bill to pay for the new phone.  I called my company and told them they lied to me and I threatened to leave them forever and tell the world to leave them forever also!  After several calls to escalating levels of their management, they began manually crediting my account to try to make it right.  So, our relationship has limped along on the brink of an ugly separation.  I have repeatedly invited them to reference the recordings of my call that fateful night, but wouldn’t it be easier if I had something in writing that clearly stated what I was promised! 

Get it in Writing! 

“Enumerated Powers” means simply if it isn’t listed in the Constitution, the federal government can’t do it!  People have trouble understanding there is any significant limit on the authority of the federal government – but there is!  Or at least, there is supposed to be…  However, unlike the promise I received for a free phone, this one is in writing! 

The Tenth Amendment

This idea of Enumerated Powers has been so removed from American education systems and has been largely ignored by those in public office, regardless of political party, for so long that it might seem a little strange.  Much like my cell phone offer, maybe it seems “too good to be true”.  If something is not specifically listed in the Constitution, then it is off limits and there is no authority for Congress to legislate in that area.  Let’s consider something official that will clearly illustrate what we are talking about here.  The 10th Amendment to the United States Constitution is the last of the 10 Amendments collectively referred to as the “Bill of Rights”.  It reads… 

“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.”

– Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

The 10th Amendment makes it clear – if it isn’t specifically authorized in the Constitution, then the federal government can’t do it! 

Other Entities Can Act

Just because something can’t be done by the federal government, doesn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done…  Each of us can think of things that need attention, or need help!  Depending on what the particular things are, they could still be done by the state or local government levels, or by a private organization, or by a church, a family, or even an individual citizen – but just not by the federal government.  The federal government can only do things they are authorized to do in the U.S. Constitution.  Our system was set up where the closer an entity is to the people – the more power they have to influence the everyday lives of the people. 

“The powers delegated by the…Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

– James Madison
Enumerate Powers Defined in the Constiitution

I Need a Meeting! 

If I am trying to figure out how much influence a level of government should have, it helps to consider a series of “Which is easier?” questions about a potential meeting.  Would it be easier to get a meeting with the President of the United States, or with my State Governor?  Neither would be easy, but I’d have a significantly better chance with my Governor.  Would it be easier to get a meeting with my U.S. Representative, or with my State Representative?  This is an easy one for me.  I know my State Representative – my kids helped him campaign.  This gets even easier when you get to the County Commissioner or City Council.  I have a good chance of running into those folks at the donut shop on Saturday morning, where I could let them know what I think about their latest actions!  Certainly, I could arrange a meeting with these people to let my voice be heard.  Our system is built this way intentionally.  The levels closest to the people have more power over the lives of Americans – not less.  When we need to talk with our officials to exert the will of “We the People”, it is much easier to reach the closer levels.  This is the reason the Tenth Amendment is in there.  Power at the federal level is limited, and it is limited on purpose!  Power at the state and local level is designed to be much broader.

Prohibited by it to the States

That second part of the 10th Amendment, “Nor prohibited by it to the states” sounds a little confusing.  It simply means, however, that if the Constitution prohibits states from doing something (things listed in Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution, for example) like entering treaties or coining money, then that means those functions are intended for the federal government, representing all of the states together.  So, for the federal government to be authorized to do something, it has to be either specifically listed in the Constitution for them to do (these items are listed in Article 1, Section 8), or it has to be specifically prohibited by the Constitution for the states to do, which then means the intention was for it to be done at the federal level.  If it doesn’t fit into one of those two categories, then the federal government cannot legitimately do it!

Reign Them Back in!

This idea of limited government, and Enumerated Powers is a key principle upon which our federal government was founded.  The reason it may not sound familiar to us is that our officials have been ignoring this idea for a long time…  Nowadays, prevailing thought says, if there is something we would like to see the federal government do, then we look for a time when a particular party controls congress, or maybe we hope for the right justices to be nominated to the Supreme Court, or we hope to win the next Presidential election.  Certainly, if we can get all three of the branches of government on “our side”, then we like to think we could do anything we want.  There is only one problem with this line of thinking that we all seem to do these days – it is not Constitutional.  Whether we like it or not – whether it is something we would support or not…  if it isn’t an Enumerated Power, the federal government can’t legitimately do it.  Both major political parties are guilty – way guilty – of doing lots of things that are outside their Constitutional boundaries.  Let’s reign them back in to their proper limits! 

 

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Comments

18 Comments

  1. Carol R.

    Very well said!

    Reply
    • Jason Southerland

      Thank you for your comment, Carol! Yes, these things are there in our documents for all to see and read. We just have to take notice and start holding our officials accountable for following the oath they took when they swore to support the Constitution.

      Reply
  2. Catherine Morris

    Good information on the 10th Amendment. So much of this we need to put together in our thought process like a big puzzle and thankfully all the pieces do fit! We just need to be able to recognize them and be able to put thm in their correct placement.
    Very good blog!!!
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Jason Southerland

      Thank you! Yes, so much of this information (which was once shared freely across the nation) has been removed from our public and educational institutions. So we need to rediscover and then hold our officials accountable! Thank you again for your comment!

      Reply
  3. Marjorie Kligerman

    Wow, our federal government especially is far from following Enumerated Powers as defined in the Constitution, and has been for years. The question is, how do We the People get the government back on track? It seems to be almost impossible to do.

    Reply
    • Jason Southerland

      It has to start with learning the truths that have been removed from our educational systems and public institutions.
      We can’t hold these folks accountable to their oath to the Constitution without knowing what it says. “Every member of the State ought diligently to read and to study the constitution of his country, and teach the rising generation to be free. By knowing their rights, they will sooner perceive when they are violated, and be the better prepared to defend and assert them.” – John Jay, First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Beyond that, we just do our duty, and leave the results up to God! Thank you so much for your participation in class and for the comment!

      Reply
  4. Sherry Nolte

    Thank you for this article on enumerated powers. I have a better understanding now on what is enumerated and what is not and what should belong to the federal government, which is very limited and what should belong to the states, which had much more power, but also better able to be controlled by the people. What I have discovered by reading the Constitution and Bill of Rights is there is for the most part very clear and simple instructions for each level of government. I hope and pray we can return what belongs to the states & the people back to the states and that the Federal government will return to its limited power that our founding fathers so brilliantly crafted in to protect the citizens from tyranny.

    Reply
    • Jason Southerland

      Thank you for your kind words! And thank you for your participation in class! Yes, Maam, I also pray we can return back to the American system of limited government! It has to start with Americans like us re-learning the principles of our government and holding our officials accountable. In the modern game of pitting red vs blue and vice versa, it is wonderful that everyone regardless of political party and at all levels of government are sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We have to hold them to that! Thank you again for your comment!

      Reply
  5. Marsha Hill

    We need to find ways of sitting down with these employees of ours and educate them a little
    on our Constitution. They don’t know and mostly don’t care and we keep putting them in office.
    They forget easily that they work for us!
    Thank you, both for doing the classes

    Reply
    • Jason Southerland

      Thank you for being part of our class! Yes Maam, we need to let these folks know we expect them to be faithful to their oath to support the Constitution. We can certainly book an appointment with them to discuss, but we can also remind them of their oath when we attend and/or speak or ask questions at meetings of the School Board, City Council, Town Hall meetings of Congressional Representatives, etc. You can share with them the “charter” of government in this country from the Declaration of Independence (to secure unalienable rights we received from God), or the way we carry out that form of government as found in our Constitution, etc. When you have some of those conversations, let us know how it goes! Then we all need to vote out the ones who don’t listen! Thank you for the comment!

      Reply
  6. Randy Parker

    Great article on Enumerated Powers! I wonder how many of us accept the overreach and overstepping of our federal government as long as it benefits ourselves but complain when the federal government overreaches and oversteps when it does not benefit ourselves. This is human nature. We should all read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, or even watch the three movies (acceptable but not done great), lobbyists in K Street live in the congressional offices and on the calendars of the representatives and senators so they can get “their own pet legislation passed”. I call my representative and my senators on a regular basis and always ask to speak to them, request that they call me back, and yet this never happens. I challenge their answering machine or their office aides that if I was a CEO of a company employing 10,000 people that they would call me back within 24 hours – the aides go silent.

    Reply
    • Jason Southerland

      Yes, what you mentioned is definitely an issue, that we turn our heads to limited, enumerated powers if it benefits us. That is a big problem! We have to learn to insist upon our government sticking to its Constitutional limits, and if we want it to do something additional, then we need a constitutional amendment to grant new powers. Thank you for making your voice heard with your elected officials. Even if you don’t get that call back – they know you are calling! Thank you for your comment!

      Reply
  7. Tim Rennie

    Good blog post.

    I have had mixed results in contacting either of my two Senators or Representative – except when it comes time for re-election and I can always count on the never ending text messages soliciting donations! Seems that the web pages they all have setup to contact them electronically are focused on harvesting information for donations, as not every contact I send even gets a response. I guess even their staffers decide who to send canned responses to or not.

    Once I received a personally written and signed letter from my Representative – it truly was appreciated.

    The local elected officials are much more responsive, especially in the rural county I reside. They even remember your name when you attend meetings and talk to them afterwards!

    I will not be deterred, though, and will continue to provide my feedback when I feel it is needed as a constituent. It is my constitutional duty!

    Reply
    • Jason Southerland

      Yes, I agree they are all much more willing and prepared to solicit donations than to answer hard questions about how they are doing their job! That’s ok… keep asking and they will get used to it! 🙂 Yes, the local folks are much easier to talk to – we all need to take advantage of that and make our voices heard… Thank you for your comment and for your involvement with your officials!

      Reply
  8. Savannah

    I like how you pointed out how government makes and does a lot of things they know are not constitutional but do it anyway behind the backs of other branches of government. also, I like how you pointed out that there is too much power at the Congress level when the power should be from the people, however we have let that happen. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Jason Southerland

      Thank you for your encouraging words. The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution makes it clear that the federal government only has the powers specifically granted by the Constitution – everything else belongs to the States, or to the people. We gotta get them back to that! Thank you for your comment!

      Reply
  9. Madison

    There is a lot of power at the congress level when is should be at our level, we should be deciding certain things and not the government. I really like this

    Reply
    • Jason Southerland

      Yes maam! Congress should be the most powerful branch of the federal government, but even the role of Congress is very limited and they can only legislate in the areas where they have been specifically granted authority by the US Constitution. But yes, if a power isn’t specifically given to Congress, it stays with the states, or the people. Thank you for your comment!

      Reply

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