What Does the Elastic Clause Provide?

By Marci Sothern
Congress uses the Elastic Clause as a means to increase the scope of its powers.

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In Article 1, the U.S. Constitution grants legislative powers to a Congress, composed of a House of Representatives and a Senate. One of the most important clauses dealing with legislative powers, the Necessary and Proper Clause, is found in Section 8. It grants Congress the authority "to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers." This clause, also known as the Elastic or Coefficient Clause, has been used to increase Congressional powers.

Congressional Supremacy

The Elastic Clause has played an important role in the development of the U.S. federal system. The United States began as a group of colonies under the British unitary system. After the Revolution, it became a confederation operating under the Articles of Confederation. This system failed because the Articles were too weak to resolve the financial problems and territorial disputes facing the new nation. The U.S. Constitution implemented a federal system to replace the disintegrating confederation. Two forms of federalism have dominated the U.S. political system: dual federalism and cooperative federalism. Dual federalism views the federal and state governments as co-equal sovereigns. In contrast, cooperative federalism argues that state governments are subordinate to the national government. Congress has used the Elastic Clause to solidify its supremacy over the states, which has led to the dominance of cooperative federalism.

Implied Powers Under the Clause

Article 1, Section 8, lists a wide range of powers granted to Congress, including the power to declare war, coin money, raise and support armies and regulate commerce. These powers are called enumerated, or expressed, powers because they are written down. In contrast, the Elastic Clause helps Congress carry out its implied powers, which are not specifically listed. Implied powers allow Congress to make laws regarding matters not specifically mentioned in the Constitution and to help it carry out its expressed powers. For example, Congress has the expressed power to coin money. Under the Elastic Clause, Congress has the implied power to create a Treasury Department to print money. This clause has allowed Congress to assert control in many areas, including chartering banks, defining crimes and punishments and establishing currency regulations.

Interpretive Debate About the Clause

The meaning of the Elastic Clause has been a topic of hot debate from the beginning. This debate illustrates the continuing controversy concerning whether constitutional provisions should be interpreted narrowly or broadly. The argument originated between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton argued that the clause should be interpreted broadly to mean it authorizes the exercise of many implied powers. In other words, the Elastic Clause gives Congress more flexibility in passing laws. In contrast, Jefferson, a staunch states' rights advocate, argued the word "necessary" in the clause restricted Congress to passing only legislation necessary for carrying out its expressed powers. Hamilton's view made a strong central government possible, while Jefferson's stance strengthened states' rights.

Supreme Court Rulings on the Scope of the Clause

The clause has allowed the scope of congressional power to increase since the early 1800s, due in large measure to the actions of the Supreme Court. In various court cases over the last two hundred years, the Court has upheld a broad interpretation of the Elastic Clause. In his opinion on McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819, Chief Justice John Marshall established that the clause was an enlargement, rather than a restriction, of Congress's expressed powers. He concluded that it allows lawmakers to use any reasonable means necessary to carry out these powers. Succeeding Courts have upheld Marshall's ruling in this landmark case. In 2010, the Court applied a very broad interpretation of the Elastic Clause in U.S. v. Comstock and upheld a federal law authorizing the continuing detainment of dangerous sex offenders who had completed their prison sentences. Thus, the broad interpretation of the law has prevailed throughout much of U.S. history.

About the Author

Marci Sothern has written as a tutor in the academic field since 1999. She holds a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in political science from the University of Texas at Tyler. Her main areas of expertise include American history, comparative politics, international relations and political theory.

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