“The most numerous objects of legislation belong to the States. Those of the National Legislature [are] but few.”
–Rufus King, at the Federal Constitutional Convention

In constitutional form, the federal government is one of enumerated powers, and all powers not enumerated are reserved exclusively to the states and the people. The federal government’s enumerated powers have been construed so broadly, however, that the modern student may be pardoned for asking if anything really has been reserved. Even forty years ago, Professor Lindsey Cowen could say “As things now stand, there may not be any powers which are ‘not delegated to the United States by the Constitution,'” and, of course, the federal government has grown a good deal since then.

Over the past century, the power to regulate commerce has come to include the power to regulate agriculture, the power to tax has become the power to control inheritances, and the power to spend for the “general Welfare” has enabled the federal government to create programs to inculcate and educate, as well as for many other purposes.

The proffered legal basis for most of this expansion of federal power is the wording of the original Constitution. Subsequent amendment justifies relatively little of it. This fact, in turn, raises the oft-argued question of whether the powers granted the federal government in the original Constitution, especially as modified by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, really encompass such subjects as agriculture, education, health care, and the like.

The drafters of the Constitution chose to enumerate the powers of the federal government but not, with a few procedural exceptions, the exclusive powers of states. However, that decision should not be understood as implying that exclusive state powers were narrow, but rather that they were vast.

As the drafters explained, they had decided not to enumerate the states’ reserved powers for the same reasons they had decided not to include a bill of rights: first, the reserved powers were too extensive to enumerate; second, a discrete list would encourage the pretense that the federal government could act everywhere else.

On the other hand, if we did have an enumeration of exclusive reserved state powers, perhaps it would enable us to understand more precisely the scope of the granted powers. Such an enumeration also could shed light on basic principles of American federalism. For example, an enumeration might help us determine whether it is constitutionally true, as is sometimes claimed, that growing national economic interdependence justifies more expansive interpretation of federal powers. Put another way, an enumeration could help us determine whether the presence of externalities – spill-over effects – from one state to another creates a constitutionally defensible reason for further central control.

In point of fact, leading federalists left in the historical record some rather specific enumerations of the reserved powers of states. They offered these lists as part of the basis of the political bargain by which the Constitution was ratified. As such, these lists help us divine the actual meaning of such phrases as “general Welfare” and “Commerce . . . among the several States.”

Surprisingly, there has been almost no attention in the legal literature to the federalists’ enumeration of state powers for the benefit of the ratifying public. In this Article, I distill the essence of these enumerations for the modern reader. After doing so, I conclude that the listed items strongly suggest that a guiding principle of American federalism is a Coasean one: externalities and/or interdependence, without more, generally do not serve as constitutional justifications for further centralization.

Excerpted from a paper originally published in 2003 in the Nevada Law Journal. CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE FULL PAPER

Rob Natelson

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