Scope and Operation

The Necessary and Proper Clause, sometimes called the “coefficient” or “elastic” clause, is an enlargement, not a constriction, of the powers expressly granted to Congress. Chief Justice Marshall’s classic opinion in McCulloch v. Maryland1845 set the standard in words that reverberate to this day. “Let the end be legitimate,” he wrote, “let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional.”1846 Moreover, the provision gives Congress a share in the responsibilities lodged in other departments, by virtue of its right to enact legislation necessary to carry into execution all powers vested in the National Government. Conversely, where necessary for the efficient execution of its own powers, Congress may delegate some measure of legislative power to other departments.1847

Practically every power of the National Government has been expanded in some degree by the Necessary and Proper Clause. Under the authority granted it by that clause, Congress has adopted measures requisite to discharge the treaty obligations of the nation,1848 has organized the federal judicial system, and has enacted a large body of law defining and punishing crimes. Effective control of the national economy has been made possible by the authority to regulate the internal commerce of a state to the extent necessary to protect and promote interstate commerce.1849 The right of Congress to use all known and appropriate means for collecting revenue, including the distraint of property for federal taxes,1850 and to exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire property for public use,1851 have greatly extended the range of national power. But the widest application of the Necessary and Proper Clause has occurred in the field of monetary and fiscal controls. Because the various specific powers granted by Article I, § 8, do not add up to a general legislative power over such matters, the Court has relied heavily upon this clause to sustain the comprehensive control that Congress has asserted over this subject.1852

Definition of Punishment and Crimes

Although the only crimes which Congress is expressly authorized to punish are piracies, felonies on the high seas, offenses against the law of nations, treason and counterfeiting of the securities and current coin of the United States, its power to create, define, and punish crimes and offenses whenever necessary to effectuate the objects of the Federal Government is universally conceded.1853 Illustrative of the offenses which have been punished under this power are the alteration of registered bonds,1854 the bringing of counterfeit bonds into the country,1855 conspiracy to injure prisoners in custody of a United States marshal,1856 impersonation of a federal officer with intent to defraud,1857 conspiracy to injure a citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States,1858 the receipt by government officials of contributions from government employees for political purposes,1859 and advocating the overthrow of the government by force.1860 Part I of Title 18 of the United States Code comprises more than 500 sections defining penal offenses against the United States.1861

One of the most expansive interpretations of the Necessary and Proper Clause arose in the context of the administration of the federal penal system. In United States v. Comstock,1862 the Court evaluated a federal statute which allowed for the civil commitment of a federal prisoner past the term of his imprisonment if that prisoner would have serious difficulty in refraining from sexually violent conduct or child molestation.1863 The statute contained no requirement that the threatened future conduct would fall under federal jurisdiction, raising the question of what constitutional basis could be cited for its enforcement. The majority opinion in Comstock upheld the statute after considering five factors: (1) the historic breadth of the Necessary and Proper Clause; (2) the history of federal involvement in this area; (3) the reason for the statute’s enactment; (4) the statute’s accommodation of state interests; and (5) whether the scope of statute was too attenuated from Article I powers.1864

In evaluating these factors, the Court noted that previous federal involvement in the area included not only the civil commitment of defendants who were incompetent to stand trial or who became insane during the course of their imprisonment, but, starting in 1949, the continued confinement of those adjudged incompetent or insane past the end of their prison term. In upholding the sex offender statute, the Court found that protection of the public and the probability that such prisoners would not be committed by the state represented a “rational basis” for the passage of such legislation.1865 The Court further found that state interests were protected by the legislation, as the statute provided for transfer of the committed individuals to state authorities willing to accept them. Finally, the Court found that the statute was not too attenuated from the Article I powers underlying the criminal laws which had been the basis for incarceration, as it related to the responsible administration of the United States prison system.

Chartering of Banks

As an appropriate means for executing “the great powers, to lay and collect taxes; to borrow money; to regulate commerce; to declare and conduct a war; and to raise and support armies . . . ,” Congress may incorporate banks and kindred institutions.1866 Moreover, it may confer upon them private powers, which, standing alone, have no relation to the functions of the Federal Government, if those privileges are essential to the effective operation of such corporations.1867 Where necessary to meet the competition of state banks, Congress may authorize national banks to perform fiduciary functions, even though, apart from the competitive situation, federal instrumentalities might not be permitted to engage in such business.1868 The Court will not undertake to assess the relative importance of the public and private functions of a financial institution Congress has seen fit to create. It sustained the act setting up the Federal Farm Loan Banks to provide funds for mortgage loans on agricultural land against the contention that the right of the Secretary of the Treasury, which he had not exercised, to use these banks as depositories of public funds, was merely a pretext for chartering those banks for private purposes.1869

Currency Regulations

Reinforced by the necessary and proper clause, the powers “ ‘to lay and collect taxes, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States,’ and ‘to borrow money on the credit of the United States and to coin money and regulate the value thereon . . . ,’ ”1870 have been held to give Congress virtually complete control over money and currency. A prohibitive tax on the notes of state banks,1871 the issuance of treasury notes impressed with the quality of legal tender in payment of private debts1872 and the abrogation of clauses in private contracts, which called for payment in gold coin,1873 were sustained as appropriate measures for carrying into effect some or all of the foregoing powers.

Power to Charter Corporations

In addition to the creation of banks, Congress has been held to have authority to charter a railroad corporation,1874 or a corporation to construct an interstate bridge,1875 as instrumentalities for promoting commerce among the states, and to create corporations to manufacture aircraft1876 or merchant vessels1877 as incidental to the war power.

Courts and Judicial Proceedings

Because the Constitution “delineated only the great outlines of the judicial power . . . , leaving the details to Congress, . . . [t]he distribution and appropriate exercise of the judicial power must . . . be made by laws passed by Congress. . . .”1878 As a necessary and proper provision for the exercise of the jurisdiction conferred by Article III, § 2, Congress may direct the removal from a state to a federal court of a criminal prosecution against a federal officer for acts done under color of federal law,1879 may require the tolling of a state statute of limitations while a state cause of action that is supplemental to a federal claim is pending in federal court,1880 and may authorize the removal before trial of civil cases arising under the laws of the United States.1881 It may prescribe the effect to be given to judicial proceedings of the federal courts1882 and may make all laws necessary for carrying into execution the judgments of federal courts.1883 When a territory is admitted as a state, Congress may designate the court to which the records of the territorial courts shall be transferred and may prescribe the mode for enforcement and review of judgments rendered by those courts.1884 In the exercise of other powers conferred by the Constitution, apart from Article III, Congress may create legislative courts and “clothe them with functions deemed essential or helpful in carrying those powers into execution.”1885

Special Acts Concerning Claims

The Necessary and Proper Clause enables Congress to pass special laws to require other departments of the government to prosecute or adjudicate particular claims, whether asserted by the government itself or by private persons. In 1924,1886 Congress adopted a Joint Resolution directing the President to cause suit to be instituted for the cancellation of certain oil leases alleged to have been obtained from the government by fraud and to prosecute such other actions and proceedings, civil and criminal, as were warranted by the facts. This resolution also authorized the appointment of special counsel to have charge of such litigation. Private acts providing for a review of an order for compensation under the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act,1887 or conferring jurisdiction upon the Court of Claims, after it had denied recovery, to hear and determine certain claims of a contractor against the government, have been held constitutional.1888

Maritime Law

Congress may implement the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction conferred upon the federal courts by revising and amending the maritime law that existed at the time the Constitution was adopted, but in so doing, it cannot go beyond the reach of that jurisdiction.1889 This power cannot be delegated to the states; hence, acts of Congress that purported to make state workers’ compensation laws applicable to maritime cases were held unconstitutional.1890


17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819). back
17 U.S. at 420. This decision had been clearly foreshadowed fourteen years earlier by Marshall’s opinion in United States v. Fisher, 6 U.S. (2 Cr.) 358, 396 (1805). Upholding an act which gave priority to claims of the United States against the estate of a bankrupt he wrote: “The government is to pay the debt of the Union, and must be authorized to use the means which appear to itself most eligible to effect that object. It has, consequently, a right to make remittance, by bills or otherwise, and to take those precautions which will render the transaction safe.” back
See “Delegation of Legislative Power,” supra. back
Neely v. Henkel, 180 U.S. 109, 121 (1901). See also Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920). back
See discussion of “Necessary and Proper Clause” under the commerce power, supra. back
Murray’s Lessee v. Hoboken Land & Improvement Co., 59 U.S. (18 How.) 272, 281 (1856). Congress may also legislate to protect its spending power. Sabri v. United States, 541 U.S. 600 (2004) (upholding imposition of criminal penalties for bribery of state and local officials administering programs receiving federal funds). back
Kohl v. United States, 91 U.S. 367, 373 (1876); United States v. Fox, 95 U.S. 670 (1878). back
See “Fiscal and Monetary Powers of Congress,” supra. back
United States v. Fox, 95 U.S. 670, 672 (1878); United States v. Hall, 98 U.S. 343, 357 (1879); United States v. Worrall, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 384, 394 (1798); McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819). That this power has been freely exercised is attested by the pages of the United States Code devoted to Title 18, entitled “Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure.” In addition, numerous regulatory measures in other titles prescribe criminal penalties. back
Ex parte Carll, 106 U.S. 521 (1883). back
United States v. Marigold, 50 U.S. (9 How.) 560, 567 (1850). back
Logan v. United States, 144 U.S. 263 (1892). back
United States v. Barnow, 239 U.S. 74 (1915). back
Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651 (1884); United States v. Waddell, 112 U.S. 76 (1884); In re Quarles and Butler, 158 U.S. 532, 537 (1895); Motes v. United States, 178 U.S. 458 (1900); United States v. Mosley, 238 U.S. 383 (1915). See also Rakes v. United States, 212 U.S. 55 (1909). back
Ex parte Curtis, 106 U.S. 371 (1882). back
18 U.S.C. § 2385. back
See National Commission on Reform of Federal Criminal Laws, Final Report (Washington: 1970); National Commission on Reform of Federal Criminal Laws, Working Papers (Washington: 1970), 2 vols. back
560 U.S. ___, No. 08–1224, slip op. (May 17, 2010). Breyer wrote the opinion of the Court, joined by Justices Roberts, Stevens, Ginsburg and Sotomayor. Justices Kennedy and Alito concurred in the judgement, while Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented. back
In United States v. Kebodeaux, 570 U.S. ___, No. 12–418, slip op. (2013), the Court concluded that a sex offender, convicted by the Air Force in a special court-martial, had, upon his release, been subject to state sex offender registration laws, violation of which was prohibited under the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, Pub. L. No. 103–322, 108 Stat. 2038–2042 (1994). Kebodeaux was later convicted of failing to register under the “very similar” provisions of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), Pub. L. No. 109–248, Title I, 120 Stat. 587, 590, (2006) (codified at 42 U.S.C. §§ 16901 et seq.), which had superseded the Jacob Wetterling Act. The Court held Congress was well within its authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause to have modified the Jacob Wetterling Act’s registration requirements, and Kebodeaux was properly subject to SORNA requirements, even if they were enacted after his release. back
560 U.S. ___, No. 08–1224, slip op. at 22. back
Justice Kennedy, in concurrence, expressed concern that whether a statute is “rationally related” to the implementation of a power, see Williamson v. Lee Optical Co., 348 U.S. 483, 487–88 (1955) (Due Process Clause), is too deferential a standard to be used as regards the Necessary and Proper Clause. Justice Kennedy would use a more rigorous “rational basis” standard, found in Commerce Clause cases, where there must be shown a “demonstrated link in fact, based on empirical demonstration.” See Comstock, 560 U.S. ___, No. 08–1224, slip op. at 3 (Kennedy, J., concurring). back
McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 407 (1819). back
Osborn v. Bank of the United States, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 738, 862 (1824). See also Pittman v. Home Owners’ Corp., 308 U.S. 21 (1939). back
First National Bank v. Follows ex rel. Union Trust Co., 244 U.S. 416 (1917); Missouri ex rel. Burnes Nat’l Bank v. Duncan, 265 U.S. 17 (1924). back
Smith v. Kansas City Title Co., 255 U.S. 180 (1921). back
Juilliard v. Greenman, 110 U.S. 421, 449 (1884). back
Veazie Bank v. Fenno, 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 533 (1869). back
Juilliard v. Greenman, 110 U.S. 421 (1884). See also Legal Tender Cases (Knox v. Lee), 79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 457 (1871). back
Norman v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R., 294 U.S. 240, 303 (1935). back
Pacific R.R. Removal Cases, 115 U.S. 1 (1885); California v. Pacific R.R., 127 U.S. 1, 39 (1888). back
Luxton v. North River Bridge Co., 153 U.S. 525 (1894). back
Clallam County v. United States, 263 U.S. 341 (1923). back
Sloan Shipyards v. United States Fleet Corp., 258 U.S. 549 (1922). back
Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 657, 721 (1838). back
Tennessee v. Davis, 100 U.S. 257, 263 (1880). back
Jinks v. Richland County, 538 U.S. 456 (2003). back
Railway Company v. Whitton, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 270, 287 (1872). back
Embry v. Palmer, 107 U.S. 3 (1883). back
Bank of the United States v. Halstead, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 51, 53 (1825). back
Express Co. v. Kountze Bros., 75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 342, 350 (1869). back
Ex parte Bakelite Corp., 279 U.S. 438, 449 (1929). But see Northern Pipeline Constr. Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co., 458 U.S. 50, 67–69 (1982). back
43 Stat. 5 (1924). See Sinclair v. United States, 279 U.S. 263 (1929). back
Paramino Co. v. Marshall, 309 U.S. 370 (1940). back
Pope v. United States, 323 U.S. 1 (1944). back
Detroit Trust Co. v. The Thomas Barlum, 293 U.S. 21 (1934). back
Knickerbocker Ice Co. v. Stewart, 253 U.S. 149 (1920); Washington v. Dawson & Co., 264 U.S. 219 (1924). back