Congress and the Constitution

The Balance of Power between the Legislative and Executive Branches

Clock 150 minutes

The constitutional principles of the American Founding that guided American politics before the Civil War were increasingly altered as a new approach to governance become predominant in the early twentieth century. The rise of an administrative state centralized more power in the hands of federal agencies in the executive branch and which blurred the relationship of the branches of government and their respective constitutional powers. Even though the Constitution specifically granted authority to Congress to regulate interstate commerce in its enumerated powers in Article I, Section 8, Congress increasingly delegated that authority to the executive branch.

Founding Principles

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.

Separation of Powers image

Separation of Powers

A system of distinct powers built into the Constitution to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.

Quotes

James Wilson [Pennsylvania]: “He wished for vigor in the government, but he wished that vigorous authority to flow immediately from the legitimate source of all authority. The government ought to possess, not only, first, the force, but second, the mind or sense, of the people at large. The Legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole society. Representation is made necessary only because it is impossible for the people to act collectively. The opposition was to be expected, he said, from the governments, not from the citizens of the States. The latter had parted, as was observed by Mr. KING, with all the necessary powers; and it was immaterial to them by whom they were exercised, if well exercised. The State officers were to be the losers of power. The people, he supposed, would be rather more attached to the National Government than to the State Governments, as being more important in itself, and more flattering to their pride. There is no danger of improper elections, if made by large districts. Bad elections proceed from the smallness of the districts, which give an opportunity to bad men to intrigue themselves into office.” - THE DEBATES IN THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 (MAY 31, 1787)

Overview

The constitutional principles of the American Founding that guided American politics before the Civil War were increasingly altered as a new approach to governance become predominant in the early twentieth century. The rise of an administrative state centralized more power in the hands of federal agencies in the executive branch and blurred the relationship of the branches of government and their respective constitutional powers. Even though the Constitution specifically granted authority to Congress to regulate interstate commerce in its enumerated powers in Article I, Section 8, Congress increasingly delegated that authority to the executive branch.

Objectives

  • Students will evaluate how the growth of an administrative state in the United States has affected constitutional principles.
  • Students will evaluate the shift of power from the legislative to executive branch in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Students will analyze legislation to determine the ways in which it may have increased executive power and will understand the effects of such policies.

Materials

  • Handout A: Background Essay—The Balance of Power Between the Legislative and Executive Branches
  • Handout B: Excerpts from the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887
  • Handout C: Excerpts from The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933
  • Handout D: Excerpts from The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933
  • Handout E: Excerpts from the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964
  • Handout F: Comparing Legislation Graphic Organizer

Key Terms

  • Administrative state
  • Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933
  • Apothegm
  • Bureaucracy
  • Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914
  • Economic Opportunity Act of 1964
  • Enlightened administrator
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • Interstate commerce
  • Interstate Commerce Act of 1887
  • Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC)
  • Hepburn Act of 1906
  • National Industrial Recovery Act of 1934 (NIRA)
  • National Recovery Administration (NRA)
  • Progressive
  • Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States (1935)
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906)
  • War Industries Board

Standards

  • National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS): D2.Civ.1.6-8, D2.Civ.2.9-12, D2.Civ.4.6-8, D2.Civ.4.9-12
  • Center for Civic Education (CCE): I: B, II: D, III: A, III: B, III: D
  • UCLA Department of History (NCHS): Era 3, Standard 3; Era 7, Standard 1; Era 7, Standard 3

Background Homework10 min.

  1. As homework, have students read Handout A: Background Essay—The Balance of Power Between the Legislative and Executive Branches and answer the questions that follow.
  2. In class, discuss students’ answers to the questions as a large group and introduce the key terms for the lesson.

Activities 60+ min.

  1. Break students into four groups. Assign each group one of the following pieces of legislation:
    1. Handout B: Excerpts from the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887
    2. Handout C: Excerpts from The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933
    3. Handout D: Excerpts from The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933
    4. Handout E: Excerpts from the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964
  2. Students will work in groups to complete the column for their specific legislation on Handout F: Comparing Legislation.
  3. They should then create a visual representation of the legislation by developing a PowerPoint presentation, video, or skit. Each group’s presentation should explain the information on their graphic organizer on Handout F.

Wrap-up Discussion 30 min.

  1. Students should present their visual representation of the legislation to the class. The class should record the information provided in their graphic organizer.
  2. Briefly discuss how power has shifted from the legislative to executive branch over time and the pros and cons of such changes as a large group.

Extensions 30 min.

  1. Have students research one of the executive agencies that started in the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries and write a brief essay about their findings. The essay should include:
    1. The legislation or executive order that started the agency. (Is the agency still open? If not, when was it closed and why?)
    2. The reason for starting the agency.
    3. The powers of the agency.
    4. The actions the agency has taken in its history.
    5. The effects of agency actions on the balance of power between the branches of government.
    6. Examples of agencies include:
      1. Food and Drug Administration
      2. Environmental Protection Agency
      3. Federal Emergency Management Agency
      4. Federal Housing Administration
      5. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
      6. Federal Bureau of Investigation
      7. United States Customs and Border Protection
      8. National Recovery Administration
      9. Interstate Commerce Commission
      10. Federal Trade Commission
      11. National Labor Relations Board
      12. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
      13. Works Progress Administration
      14. A list of additional agencies can be found at https://www.usa.gov/federal-agencies/a

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