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The Commerce Clause and the Expanding Powers of Congress

60 min


  • Students will explain how the powers of Congress have changed over time especially due to changing understandings of the Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8.
  • Students will understand the role of the Supreme Court in broadly interpreting the Commerce Clause to expand the legislative powers of Congress and to allow Congress to delegate regulatory authority to the executive branch during and after the New Deal.
  • Students will analyze the differences in length and complexity of language between laws written before 1900 and recent laws.

  • Enumerated powers
  • Commerce Clause
  • Interstate commerce
  • Legislation
  • Laissez-faire
  • Regulation
  • Administrative state

Have students read Handout A: Background Essay—The Commerce Clause and the Expanding Powers of Congress and answer the Critical Thinking questions.

Activity I » 10-15 minutes

  1. Each student will receive a copy of Handout B: Timeline of Changing Commerce Powers of Congress, and fill in the facts of each entry and analyze whether it expanded or narrowed congressional power under the Commerce Clause of Article 1, section 8, based on Handout A: The Expansion of Congressional Power. Remind them to refer to Handout A as they complete the timeline chart.
  2. Ask students to share what they wrote on Handout B. Discuss each of the seven landmarks so that everyone has the correct information.

Activity II » 30 minutes

  1. Divide the students into groups of three.
  2. Each group will receive a copy of Handout C: Article I section 8 of the Constitution, Handout D: Excerpts from U.S. v. Darby Lumber (1941), and Handout E: Excerpts from U.S. v. Lopez (1995). Have the students each read one of the documents. When they are done, have them explain the topic of their document to the other members of the group.
  3. Hand out a copy of Handout F: Interpreting Commerce Laws to each group. The groups will have two fictional laws to examine in order to consider the constitutionality of the laws and how they may have been interpreted differently in different time periods. They will be considering the laws based on the current precedent as of 1850, 1950, and 2000.
  4. The outcome will be decided by a 2-1 vote if they cannot arrive at a unanimous decision.
  5. The group members will then provide a written explanation (5-7 sentences) for each opinion. They will need to explain their decision in factual terms and cite evidence from Handouts A, B, C, D, and E to support their opinions.
  6. After students have completed their opinions, poll the class to see how they decided the cases. If they do not agree, have students compare their answers with each other and then take a class vote to see whose opinion prevailed.

  1. Introduce the idea that as Congress has taken on more and more powers, it also has written laws in an increasingly lengthy and complex manner. As an example offer up the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
  2. Have the students read the Homestead Act and parts of the Affordable Care Act in Handout G: Homestead Act of 1862 and follow the link in Handout H: Affordable Care Act of 2010.
  3. Have the students complete Handout I: Comparing Laws in which students will:
    1. Compare and contrast the length of each law
    2. Compare and contrast the complexity of the language in each law
    3. Explain the difference between laws in 1862 and 2010 and why this might be related to the increase in the powers of Congress
    4. How does the complexity reflect what is being addressed by Congress in the legislation?
    5. How might this be reflective of Congresses changing role in society?

Student Handouts

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