Federalism, State Sovereignty, and the Constitution: Basis and Limits of Congressional Power

by Sabrina I. Pacifici on September 27, 2013

“The lines of authority between states and the federal government are, to a significant extent, defined by the United States Constitution and relevant case law. In recent years, however, the Supreme Court has decided a number of cases that would seem to reevaluate this historical relationship. This report discusses state and federal legislative power generally, focusing on a number of these “federalism” cases. The report does not, however, address the larger policy issue of when it is appropriate—as opposed to constitutionally permissible—to exercise federal powers. The U.S. Constitution provides that Congress shall have the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the various states. This power has been cited as the constitutional basis for a significant portion of the laws passed by Congress over the last 50 years, and, in conjunction with the Necessary and Proper Clause, it currently represents one of the broadest bases for the exercise of congressional powers. In United States v. Lopez and subsequent cases, however, the Supreme Court did bring into question the extent to which Congress can rely on the Commerce Clause as a basis for federal jurisdiction. Another significant source of congressional power is the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses. Section 5 of that amendment provides that Congress has the power to enforce its provisions. In the case of Flores v. City of Boerne, however, the Court imposed limits on this power, requiring that there must be a “congruence and proportionality” between the injury to be remedied and the law adopted to that end.”

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