Foreign Commerce Power

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ArtI.S8.C3.1.1 Foreign Commerce Power

Article I, Section 8, Clause 3:

[The Congress shall have Power . . . ] To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes; . . .

There are certain dicta urging or suggesting that Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce restrictively is less than its analogous power over foreign commerce, the argument being that whereas the latter is a branch of the Nation's unlimited power over foreign relations, the former was conferred upon the National Government primarily in order to protect freedom of commerce from state interference. The four dissenting Justices in the Lottery Case endorsed this view in the following words: “[T]he power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and the power to regulate interstate commerce, are to be taken diverso intuitu, for the latter was intended to secure equality and freedom in commercial intercourse as between the States, not to permit the creation of impediments to such intercourse; while the former clothed Congress with that power over international commerce, pertaining to a sovereign nation in its intercourse with foreign nations, and subject, generally speaking, to no implied or reserved power in the States. The laws which would be necessary and proper in the one case, would not be necessary or proper in the other.” 1

Twelve years later, Chief Justice White, speaking for the Court, expressed the same view: “In the argument reference is made to decisions of this court dealing with the subject of the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce, but the very postulate upon which the authority of Congress to absolutely prohibit foreign importations as expounded by the decisions of this court rests is the broad distinction which exists between the two powers and therefore the cases cited and many more which might be cited announcing the principles which they uphold have obviously no relation to the question in hand.” 2

But dicta to the contrary are much more numerous and span a far longer period of time. Thus Chief Justice Taney wrote in 1847: “The power to regulate commerce among the several States is granted to Congress in the same clause, and by the same words, as the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and is coextensive with it.” 3 And nearly fifty years later, Justice Field, speaking for the Court, said: “The power to regulate commerce among the several States was granted to Congress in terms as absolute as is the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations.” 4 Today it is firmly established that the power to regulate commerce, whether with foreign nations or among the several states, comprises the power to restrain or prohibit it at all times for the welfare of the public, provided only that the specific limitations imposed upon Congress’s powers, as by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, are not transgressed.5

Instruments of Commerce

The applicability of Congress’s power to the agents and instruments of commerce is implied in Marshall's opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden,6 where the waters of the State of New York in their quality as highways of interstate and foreign transportation were held to be governed by the overriding power of Congress. Likewise, the same opinion recognizes that in “the progress of things,” new and other instruments of commerce will make their appearance. When the Licensing Act of 1793 was passed, the only craft to which it could apply were sailing vessels, but it and the power by which it was enacted were, Marshall asserted, indifferent to the “principle” by which vessels were moved. Its provisions therefore reached steam vessels as well. A little over half a century later the principle embodied in this holding was given its classic expression in the opinion of Chief Justice Waite in the case of the Pensacola Telegraph Co. v. Western Union Telegraph Co.,7 a case closely paralleling Gibbons v. Ogden in other respects also. “The powers thus granted are not confined to the instrumentalities of commerce, or the postal service known or in use when the Constitution was adopted, but they keep pace with the progress of the country, and adapt themselves to the new developments of times and circumstances. They extend from the horse with its rider to the stage-coach, from the sailing-vessel to the steamboat, from the coach and the steamboat to the railroad, and from the railroad to the telegraph, as these new agencies are successively brought into use to meet the demands of increasing population and wealth. They were intended for the government of the business to which they relate, at all times and under all circumstances. As they were intrusted to the general government for the good of the nation, it is not only the right, but the duty, of Congress to see to it that intercourse among the States and the transmission of intelligence are not obstructed or unnecessarily encumbered by State legislation.” 8

The Radio Act of 19279 et seq. whereby “all forms of interstate and foreign radio transmissions within the United States, its Territories and possessions” were brought under national control, affords another illustration. Because of the doctrine thus stated, the measure met no serious constitutional challenge either on the floors of Congress or in the Courts.10

Lottery Case (Champion v. Ames), 188 U.S. 321, 373 (1903). back
Brolan v. United States, 236 U.S. 216, 222 (1915). The most recent dicta to this effect appears in Japan Line v. County of Los Angeles, 441 U.S. 434, 448–51 (1979), a “dormant” commerce clause case involving state taxation with an impact on foreign commerce. In context, the distinction seems unexceptionable, but the language extends beyond context. back
License Cases, 46 U.S. (5 How.) 504, 578 (1847). back
Pittsburg & Southern Coal Co. v. Bates, 156 U.S. 577, 587 (1895). back
United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 147–148 (1938). back
22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 217, 221 (1824). back
96 U.S. 1 (1878). See also Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Texas, 105 U.S. 460 (1882). back
96 U.S. at 9. “Commerce embraces appliances necessarily employed in carrying on transportation by land and water.” Railroad Co. v. Fuller, 84 U.S. (17 Wall.) 560, 568 (1873). back
Act of March 28, 1927, 45 Stat. 373, superseded by the Communications Act of 1934, 48 Stat. 1064, 47 U.S.C. §§ 151 et seq. back
“No question is presented as to the power of the Congress, in its regulation of interstate commerce, to regulate radio communication.” Chief Justice Hughes speaking for the Court in Federal Radio Comm'n v. Nelson Bros. Bond & Mortgage Co., 289 U.S. 266, 279 (1933). See also Fisher's Blend Station v. Tax Comm'n, 297 U.S. 650, 654–55 (1936). back

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