What Are Inherent Powers? Definition and Examples

US Constitution with scales of justice and gavel
US Constitution with scales of justice and gavel. Bill Oxford/Getty Images

Inherent powers are powers not explicitly specified in the Constitution that enable the government to take actions necessary to efficiently perform essential duties. Both the President of the United States and Congress exercise inherent powers. While not granted by the Constitution, inherent powers are a reasonable and logical extension of the powers delegated to the president and Congress. Examples of inherent powers include regulating immigration, acquiring territory, and ending labor strikes.

Key Takeaways: Inherent Powers

  • The inherent powers are those powers of the President of the United States and Congress that are not explicitly specified in the Constitution.
  • The inherent powers of the president stem from the “Vesting Clause” in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution.
  • The inherent powers of the president are subject to review by the courts.
  • The inherent powers are considered a logical extension of constitutionally granted powers.
  • The inherent powers enable the government to efficiently take actions needed to perform essential duties. 

Inherent Powers of the President

The inherent powers of the president are derived from the vaguely worded “Vesting Clause” in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, which states that “the executive Power shall be vested in a President.”

The courts and presidents since George Washington have interpreted the Vesting Clause as meaning that the inherited powers of the president are those that can be inferred from the Constitution.

For example, Article II Section 2 of the Constitution gives the president a major role in foreign policy, such as the power to negotiate treaties and to appoint and receive ambassadors. In 1793, President George Washington exercised an inherited power implied in Article II Section 2 when he declared that the United States would remain neutral in the war between France and Great Britain.

Similarly, Article II Section 2 of the Constitution declares the president to be the Commander in Chief of all U.S. military forces. In January 1991, President George H.W. Bush exercised a power inherited from the Commander in Chief clause to deploy over 500,000 U.S. troops without Congressional authorization to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region in response to Iraq’s August 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Inherent powers also allow presidents to respond quickly to national emergencies. Examples include Abraham Lincoln's response to the Civil War, Franklin D. Roosevelt's response to the Great Depression and World War II, and George W. Bush's response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Key Court Cases

While it might seem that the Vesting Clause gives the president unlimited power, presidential actions based on inherent powers are subject to review by the Supreme Court.

In re Debs

In 1894, for example, President Grover Cleveland ended the business-crippling Pullman Strike by issuing an injunction ordering striking railroad workers back to work. When Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, refused to end the strike, he was arrested and briefly jailed for contempt of court and criminal conspiracy to interfere with the delivery of the U.S. mail.

Debs appealed to the courts, arguing that Cleveland lacked the constitutional authority to issue injunctions dealing with both interstate and intrastate commerce and shipping on rail cars. In the landmark case of In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 (1896), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Constitution’s Vesting Clause gave the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce and to ensure the operations of the Postal Service based on the government’s responsibility to “ensure the general welfare of the public.”

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. v. Sawyer

In 1950, President Harry Truman exercised his inherited powers by involving the United States in the Korean War without the approval of Congress. Concerned that a looming strike by the United Steelworkers of America would hurt the war effort, Truman again used his inherited powers by forcing the nation’s steel mills to remain open, similar to how President Roosevelt had seized the aviation industry during World War II.

On April 8, 1952, Truman ordered the Secretary of Commerce to “take possession of and operate the plants and facilities of certain steel companies.” In his executive order seizing the steel mills, Truman warned that work stoppage in the steel industry would “add to the continuing danger of our soldiers, sailors, and airmen engaged in combat in the field.”

On April 24, 1952, the District Court for the District of Columbia issued an injunction barring the Truman administration from controlling the seized steel mills. The steelworkers immediately began their strike, and the government appealed the injunction to the Supreme Court.

On June 2, 1952, the Supreme Court ruled that Truman lacked the constitutional authority to seize and operate the steel mills. In the 6-3 majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote that “[t]he President’s power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself.” Black went on to note that the President’s constitutional powers in the legislative process are limited to recommending or vetoing laws, adding that, “He cannot overtake Congress’ role to create new laws.”

Air-Traffic Controllers Strike

At 7 a.m. on August 3, 1981, nearly 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization or PATCO went on strike after negotiations with the federal government for higher pay, a shorter workweek, and better working conditions fell apart. The strike caused the cancelation of over 7,000 flights, leaving travelers across the country stranded. PATCO’s action had also violated a law prohibiting federal government employees from striking. The same day, an angry President Ronald Reagan declared the strike illegal and threatened to fire any controller who had not returned to work within 48 hours.

Two days later, on August 5, 1981, Reagan fired the 11,359 air-traffic controllers who had refused to return to work and banned the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from ever rehiring any of the strikers. Reagan’s executive action brought air travel to a crawl for months.

For defying a federal court injunction ordering an end to the strike, a federal judge found PATCO, including its president Robert Poli to be in contempt of court. The union was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine, and some of its members were ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for each day they were on strike. On August 17, the FAA began hiring new air-traffic controllers, and on October 22 the Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified PATCO.

Though criticized by some as an overreach of government, Reagan’s decisive move significantly enhanced the power of the presidency at that time.

Inherent Powers in Other Branches

Along with its constitutionally expressed powers, the legislative branch—Congress—also possesses a limited set of inherent powers.

Washington DC Capitol building captured at night
Washington DC Capitol building captured at night. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

Like those of the president, the inherent powers of Congress are not explicitly listed in the Constitution but are considered inherent to the governments of all sovereign nations like the United States. In not expressly stating these powers in the Constitution, the Founding Fathers assumed that as an independent, sovereign state, the United States government would have these inherent powers as well.

Though few, the inherent powers of Congress are some of the most important. They include:

  • The power to control the nation’s borders
  • The power to grant or deny diplomatic recognition to other countries
  • The power to acquire new territories for national expansion
  • The power to defend the government from revolutions

While they are easily confused, the inherent powers of Congress are different from the implied powers of Congress. While the inherent powers are established by the very existence of the Constitution, the implied powers are merely implied by Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18; the so-called “Necessary and Proper Clause” clause, which gives Congress the broad power “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

Sources

  • An Inherent Power. Cornell Law School; “Legal Information Institute,” https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution-conan/article-3/section-1/an-inherent-power.
  • Enumerated, Implied, Resulting, and Inherent Powers. Cornell Law School; “Legal Information Institute,” https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution-conan/article-1/section-1/enumerated-implied-resulting-and-inherent-powers.
  • Papke, David Ray. “The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America.” University Press of Kansas. 1999, ISBN 0-7006-0954-7
  • Presidential Action in the Domain of Congress: The Steel Seizure Case. “Constitution Annotated; Congress.gov,” https://constitution.congress.gov/browse/essay/artII_S2_C3_2_1/.
  • McCartin, Joseph A. “Collision course: Ronald Reagan, the air traffic controllers, and the strike that changed America.” Oxford University Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0199325207.
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Longley, Robert. "What Are Inherent Powers? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 4, 2021, thoughtco.com/inherent-powers-definition-and-examples-5184079. Longley, Robert. (2021, August 4). What Are Inherent Powers? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/inherent-powers-definition-and-examples-5184079 Longley, Robert. "What Are Inherent Powers? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/inherent-powers-definition-and-examples-5184079 (accessed August 6, 2021).