Article I creates the two sections of Congress – the Senate and the House – and outlines its powers and limits.
In the first use of the presidential veto power, George Washington vetoes a bill to apportion the House, saying it is unconstitutional. Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, W.H. Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore and James Garfield never vetoed a bill.
When the United States refuses to pay tribute to the North African Barbary pirates, who have been raiding its ships in the Mediterranean, the pasha of Tripoli declares war on the United States. President Thomas Jefferson exerts his powers as commander in chief to set a naval blockade of Tripoli that results in a peace treaty in 1805.
Britain’s interference with American shipping and a blockade of U.S. ports leads President James Madison to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Great Britain. The House votes 79 to 49 for war on June 4. The Senate votes more narrowly for war, 19 to 13, on June 18. In August 1814, British troops invade Washington, D.C., and burn the White House and Capitol, but are eventually turned back at Baltimore. The inconclusive war is ended by the Treaty of Ghent, but, before word of the treaty reached the United States, Americans score a morale-building victory at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815.
In its first major commerce clause case, Gibbons v. Ogden, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the commerce clause is intended to apply not only to the exchange of goods, but also to their transport, referring to the combined acts as “intercourse.” New York granted Aaron Ogden the exclusive right to operate steamships in the waters between New York and New Jersey, but his claim is challenged by competing steamship operator Thomas Gibbons. The Court finds in Gibbons’ favor, ruling that interstate waters are the jurisdiction of Congress under the commerce clause, and that states may not enact legislation that conflicts with federal law.
A border clash between the United States and Mexico over disputed territory between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers, leaves eleven Americans dead. President James K. Polk asks Congress for a declaration of war. The House votes 174 to 14 for war on May 11, and the Senate adopts a war resolution the next day by a vote of 40 to 2. American troops capture the Mexican capital of Mexico City. By the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico, cedes its northernmost territory to the United States, lands that today include the states of California, Arizona, Utah,Nevada,New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.
In Cooley v. Board of Wardens, the U.S. Supreme Court votes to uphold the pilotage law of Pennsylvania that requires all out-of-state ships to hire a local pilot as a guide to navigate state waters. Ship pilot Cooley failed to hire a local pilot and refuses to pay the resulting fine on the grounds that the pilotage law is a violation of the commerce clause, burdening out-of-state pilots with different requirements than state residents. The Court finds that the states have the authority to legislate on uniquely local matters, even in instances that discriminate between intrastate and interstate commerce.
Soon after the election of President Abraham Lincoln, eleven southern states secede from the Union and form the Confederacy. When Lincoln declines to surrender Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, Confederate forces fire upon and capture the fort. Lincoln then declares that an insurrection exists and calls on Northerners to volunteer for military service. Lincoln calls Congress into emergency session on July 4 but does not seek a formal declaration of war. After four brutal years of fighting, the South surrenders in April 1865.
Citing the threat to the Union posed by Confederate spies, President Abraham Lincoln suspends the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland and parts of Midwestern states. Habeas corpus is the right to challenge the lawfulness of a prisoner’s detention before a court in a timely manner. The suspension allows suspected spies to be held indefinitely without formal charges.
Citing threats to the Union, President Abraham Lincoln suspends the writ of habeas corpus for all states. Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution permits such a suspension only “when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” (Habeas corpus is Latin for “You have the body,” and the writ is used to challenge the legality of a prisoner’s detention.) Although the U.S. Supreme Court later will rule that only Congress has the power to suspend the writ, Lincoln ignores the high court.
John Merryman is a Maryland citizen who supports the Confederates. Charged with assisting the rebellion, he is arrested. Chief Justice Roger Taney issues a writ of habeas corpus, requiring the military commander to bring Merryman before the U.S. Supreme Court. The commander refuses because of President Abraham Lincoln’s executive order suspending habeas corpus (a legal procedure through which a prisoner can challenge his detention).
Taney writes an opinion condemning Lincoln’s order as unconstitutional and declaring that Merryman is free. Taney sends a copy of his opinion to Lincoln, who ignores it and later goes before Congress to defend his right to suspend habeas corpus.
President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all people held as slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union are free. The proclamation omits areas under Union control, including some areas of Louisiana, a few counties in Virginia, and all of Tennessee. The validity of this proclamation issued under the war powers of the president is questioned and will lead to proposal of the 13th Amendment two years later.
The American public is outraged over reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba, and the explosion and sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. President William McKinley responds to sentiments in Congress with a war message on April 11. On April 25, the House and Senate declare war by voice votes. The brief conflict sees American victories against the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines.
In 1914 the Triple Entente of Great Britain, France, and Russia goes to war against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The United States stays neutral until German attacks on American shipping convince President Woodrow Wilson to ask Congress, in 1917, for a declaration of war. The Senate passes the war resolution by a vote of 82 to 6 on April 4, and the House by a vote of 373 to 50 on April 6. Entry of U.S. forces into the conflict tips the balance against Germany, which accepts an armistice in November 1918. The Senate twice defeats the Treaty of Versailles. But, the Senate finally approves a treaty with Germany that formally ends the war in 1921.
In Newberry v. United States, a Senate candidate in a state primary election challenges the constitutionality of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act. The candidate had been convicted of violating federal limits on the amount of money that could be used in primary and general elections.
The Court notes that although the 17th Amendment changed who elects senators (from state legislatures to voters in each state), it did not modify Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution. This provision gives states the power to determine the time, place and manner of holding Senate elections, unless Congress alters state rules. Here, where Congress has specifically spoken, the federal rules are permissible.
In Reed v. County Commissioners of Delaware County, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a special committee of the Senate has the power to investigate a Pennsylvania Senate election. The Court holds that the 17th Amendment acknowledges a federal right to elect senators and that the Senate is authorized to protect these rights. The Court also finds that the power of the Senate committee comes from the Senate’s authority to judge the elections, votes, and qualifications of members of the Senate as written in Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution.
On December 7, 1941, a Japanese surprise attack destroys the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which is a U.S. territory. President Franklin Roosevelt calls for a declaration of war against Japan, which Congress adopts with only one dissenting vote in the House. Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy, also declare war on the United States, and Congress unanimously declares war against them. In June 1942, Congress again unanimously declares war on three of Germany’s allies, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Italy is defeated in 1943, and Germany surrenders in May 1945. Following the use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan announces its surrender in August 1945, signing the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on September 2. World War II marks the last time that the U.S. Congress officially declares war against another nation.
In United Public Workers v. Mitchell, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits federal employees from participating in many electoral activities does not violate the First Amendment. In a strong dissent, Justice Hugo Black argues that the law muzzles several million citizens and threatens popular government, because it deprives citizens of the right to participate in the political process.
Such limitations, he argues, would be inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition. Moreover, Black finds that the Hatch Act would violate, or come dangerously close to violating, Article I and the 17th Amendment, which protect the right of the people to vote for their representatives in the House and Senate and to have their votes counted.
North Korean troops invade South Korea in 1950. President Harry S.Truman does not ask Congress for a declaration of war in support of South Korea but instead dispatches U.S. troops to support the United Nations’ effort in Korea, which he calls a police action. An armistice reached in 1953 leaves Korea divided.
Congress directs the appointment of a three-member Board of Elections to oversee the election of local political party officers, party committee members, and delegates to political party national conventions.
A three-judge District Court holds that a certificate of residence requirement established by the Virginia legislature as an alternative to payment of a poll tax in federal elections is an additional qualification to voting that violates the 17th Amendment and Article I, Section 2. In 1965, the Supreme Court, in Harman v. Forssenius will agree but bases its ruling on the 24th Amendment, rather than the 17th.
In Wesberry v. Sanders, voters in Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District challenge a state law dividing congressional districts because their district has two to three times more voters than other districts. Arguing that the votes in smaller districts would have a greater impact on the election than those lumped together in the larger districts, the Fifth District voters seek to have the divisions ruled unconstitutional and the election stopped.
The Court holds that the requirement in Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution that representatives be chosen “by the People of the several States” and the Seventeenth Amendment, which says that senators shall be “elected by the people,” mean that congressional districts should as close to the same size as practical.
After President Lyndon Johnson reports that North Vietnamese patrol boats have fired on American naval vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. It authorizes the President to take all necessary measures to repel another armed attack and to prevent further aggression. President Johnson later uses the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as a declaration of war enabling him to commit several hundred thousand American troops to South Vietnam. The United States withdraws its troops from South Vietnam in 1973, after signing a peace treaty. Hostilities between the North and South continue until Congress finally cuts off all military aid to the South in 1975. North Vietnam prevails and unites Vietnam under its rule.
Congressional frustration with the prolonged war in Vietnam leads to passage of the War Powers Resolution on Nov. 7, 1973, over President Richard Nixon’s veto. The resolution requires presidents to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing U.S. combat troops abroad, and establishes a 60-day limit on the deployment of troops in combat overseas without congressional approval. The resolution remains controversial, with varying arguments over its effect on the power of Congress, as well as that of the president.
In National League of Cities v. Usery, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act cannot be extended to cover all state and local employees. Although the fair labor law is a proper exercise of the federal government’s commerce clause power, the Court rules that the 10th Amendment requires the states to keep control over their own operations, and that the wage and hour requirements for government employees are part of such operations. The Court will overrule Usery nine years later, in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Authority.
After Iraq invades Kuwait and threatens Saudi Arabia, President George H.W. Bush organizes a multinational coalition and persuades the United Nations to impose sanctions on Iraq and set a deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal. Congress passes a resolution authorizing the use of force in support of the United Nations. On January 16, 1991, American-led coalition forces attack Iraqi positions. The war ends in one hundred hours, with Kuwait freed from Iraqi occupation.
In the landmark decision in United States v. Lopez, for the first time in over 50 years the U.S. Supreme Court limits the powers of Congress under the commerce clause when it strikes down the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act. Alfonso Lopez Jr. is caught in his San Antonio high school with a handgun and bullets. He is arrested and accused of violating the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which prohibits the possession of guns in school zones. The Court says the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which bars people from knowingly carrying a gun in a school zone, exceeds the power of Congress to legislate under the commerce clause. Possession of a gun in a local school zone is not an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, have a substantial effect on interstate commerce.
William Jefferson Clinton becomes the second U.S. president to be impeached. The House charges against Clinton are perjury and obstruction of justice. The impeachment is rooted in a series of events triggered by a lawsuit filed in 1994 by Paula Jones. She charged that Clinton made sexual advances on her when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a state employee. The suit led to an investigation of the president’s relationship with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. The Senate acquits Clinton on Feb. 12, 1999. William H. Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States, presides at the trial.
In United States v. Morrison, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a provision in the federal Violence Against Women Act as exceeding Congress’ commerce clause authority and impinging on an area of state control. The provision, which permitted victims of sex-based violence to bring a federal lawsuit against their attackers, is found to invade states’ “police power.” Legislation about domestic violence and family law is traditionally left to the states.
The United States responds to terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, by attacking Afghanistan, which had hosted the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks. President George W. Bush then asserts the nation’s right to fight preemptive wars. He identifies Iraq as having links to terrorists and warns that it possesses weapons of mass destruction.
In the case of Granholm v. Heald, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the states cannot bar out-of-state shipments of wine to their residents, despite the provision of the Twenty-first Amendment, which leaves the regulation of liquor sales to the states. In this case, the Court strikes down state laws that discriminate against interstate commerce in violation of the commerce clause and concludes that such discrimination is neither authorized nor permitted by the Twenty-first Amendment.
In Gonzales v. Raich, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that drug regulation, even within individual states, is within congressional authority. Angel Raich was prescribed medical marijuana by a doctor, made legal under California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996, but her home was raided by the FDA under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Raich files suit to enjoin enforcement of the federal law on the grounds that medicinal marijuana purchased in California for use only in California exceeds Congress’ commerce clause authority. The Court finds that it is within congressional authority to regulate local drug sale and use.