Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo
Business Law I Essentials

4.1 Commerce Clause

Business Law I Essentials4.1 Commerce Clause

A photograph shows the U.S. capitol, where Congress meets.
Figure 4.2 The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land. (Credit: 1778011/ pixabay/ License: CC0)

The Constitution and the Law

Federal and state constitutions are a major source of business law. The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States. In addition to the individual constitutions established in each state, the U.S. Constitution sets out the fundamental rules and principles by which the country and individual states are governed. Constitutional law is the term used to describe the powers and limits of the federal and state governments as established in the Constitution. The political system that divides authority to govern between the state and federal governments is known as federalism, and this too is established in the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment states that any area over which the federal government is not granted authority through the Constitution is reserved for the state. This statement means that any federal legislation impacting business and commerce must be established by an expressed constitutional grant of authority.

Federal Preemption

The Founding Fathers created a federal system that would, at times, “preempt” state law through the supremacy clause, outlined in Article VI of the Constitution. In other words, since the U.S. Constitution is the “supreme law of the land,” if a state law conflicts with the U.S. Constitution, the state law is declared invalid. When the federal constitutional law prevails over the state law, it is said that the state law has been preempted. Before that determination is made, the courts try to determine if Congress intended to preempt state law in enacting the particular provision in question. If the answer is “no,” then those who are asserting protections of state law may make claims under state law. If the answer is “yes,” however, federal law prevails.

The Tenth Amendment to the Constitution gives the states powers over areas of law not held exclusively by the federal government through the U.S. Constitution, e.g., states can make laws about how to get married, who may get married, or how to dissolve a marriage, as well as which activities are crimes and how the crimes will be punished. If the U.S. Constitution does give the federal government some power, however, then the federal government may exercise it, free from state interference. For instance, the U.S. Congress (the legislative branch of the federal government) has the power, among other things, to coin money, to create a military, to establish post offices, and to declare war. Since there is specific mention of these powers, states may not create their own currency, military, or postal service, and they may not declare war.

The Commerce Clause and The Affordable Care Act

After much debate, negotiation, and political wrangling, Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in 2010, which was designed to increase the number of Americans who had access to health insurance (a policy initiative known as Obamacare). The Act included a provision mandating that individuals not insured through employment or who were otherwise exempt from receiving health insurance obtain minimum essential health insurance or face a penalty issued through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), supported by 26 of the 50 states, challenged the constitutionality of this particular provision, known as the individual mandate. Their argument was upheld by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Congress did not have the authority to enact this provision. Later, however, the appellate court determined that the individual mandate was severable from the remainder of the PPACA, so ultimately the Act was upheld.

The main source of authority for the federal regulation of interstate and international commerce is the commerce clause. This clause is established in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. The Article grants Congress the power to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” Thus, the commerce clause serves to simultaneously empower the federal government, while limiting state power.

So long as a federal regulation impacts interstate commerce, that regulation can be described as constitutional, according to the commerce clause. However, since the Constitution was first written, there have often been occasions when the judiciary system has needed to step in to interpret the meaning and implications of the commerce clause. In particular, there have been disputes over the intended meaning of the phrase “among the several States.” Up until the 1930s, this phrase was interpreted in a literal way, so that activities subject to federal regulation were required to involve trade between the states. This strict interpretation actually served to limit the federal regulation of commerce.

The turning point in the interpretation of the commerce clause came with the 1937 case, NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. The previous year, in the Carter v. Carter Coal Co case, the court invalidated a program, initiated under the New Deal, that had tried to regulate the labor practices of coal firms on the basis that these practices were local, and therefore had only an indirect impact on interstate commerce. In NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp, the court deviated from that decision by ruling that Congress could regulate employment practices at a steel plant because any stoppages at that plant would have a serious, detrimental impact on interstate commerce. The court concluded that since the steel industry is a networked industry that incorporates mines, plants, and factories from Minnesota to Pennsylvania, the manufacturing of steel properly falls under the jurisdiction of the commerce clause. In summing up, the court concluded that:

“Although activities may be intrastate in character when separately considered, if they have such a close and substantial relationship to interstate commerce that their control is essential or appropriate to protect that commerce from burdens or obstructions, Congress cannot be denied the power to exercise that control” (NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp., 301 U.S. 1 1937).

Challenges to and Reinterpretations of the Commerce Clause

Ever since the NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp case, Congress has invoked the commerce clause to rule on a diverse range of business and commercial activities, as well as to support social reforms that indirectly impact state commerce. Examination of the United States Code reveals that there are more than 700 legislative provisions that explicitly refer to foreign or interstate commerce. What is perhaps most remarkable is the sheer diversity of statutory areas covered by the commerce clause. Areas covered include the regulation of sporting activities, endangered species, energy regulation, gambling, firearms control, and even terrorism.

Examples of Federal Legislation Passed by Invoking the Commerce Clause

  • The Controlled Substances Act
  • The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act
  • The Civil Rights Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • The Indian Child Welfare Act

While businesses have often challenged these statutes as existing outside of the realm of congressional authority, in most cases, the courts have upheld the statutes as being valid exercises of congressional power in line with the commerce clause. An exception is the 1995 case, United States v. Lopez. The case centered around the legality of the Gun-Free School Zone Act, which was a federal law that outlawed the possession of guns within 1,000 feet of a school. In a landmark case, the Court ruled that the Act was outside the scope of the commerce clause, and that Congress did not have the authority to regulate in an area that had “nothing to do with commerce, or any sort of enterprise.”

A recent controversy pertaining to the commerce clause relates to the passing of the Affordable Care Act, as described earlier. Protestors claimed that the individual mandate aspect of the ACA should be treated as a regulation that affects interstate commerce. According to their argument, after the Act was implemented, there would be an increase in the sale and purchase of health care insurance, such that the market for health care should be seen as being significantly impacted by the Act. However, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Roberts, ruled that actions that create new business activity do not affect interstate commerce.

Police Power and the Dormant Commerce Clause

The authority of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce has, at times, come into conflict with state authority over the same area of regulation. The courts have tried to resolve these conflicts with reference to the police power of the states.

Police power refers to the residual powers granted to each state to safeguard the welfare of their inhabitants. Examples of areas in which states tend to exercise their police power are zoning regulations, building codes, and sanitation standards for eating places. However, there are times when the states’ use of police power impacts interstate commerce. If the exercise of the power interferes with, or discriminates against, interstate commerce, then the action is generally deemed to be unconstitutional. The limitation on the authority of states to regulate in areas that impact interstate commerce is known as the dormant commerce clause.

In using the dormant commerce clause to resolve conflicts between state and federal authority, the courts consider the extent to which the state law has a legitimate purpose. If it is determined that the state law has a legitimate purpose, then the court tries to determine whether the impact on interstate commerce is in the interest of the citizens of the state, and will rule accordingly. For instance, an ordinance that banned spray paint, issued in the city of Chicago, was challenged by paint manufacturers under the dormant commerce clause, but was ultimately upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals because the ban was intended to reduce graffiti and related crimes.

Today, Congress uses its authority to regulate commercial activity in four general areas relating to the commerce clause:

  1. Regulation of the channels of interstate commerce
  2. Regulation of the instrumentalities of interstate commerce
  3. Regulation of intangibles and tangibles that cross state lines
  4. Regulation of activities that are deemed to be both economic and to have a substantial impact on interstate commerce
Area of Regulation Explanation Examples
Regulation of the channels of interstate commerce Channels of interstate commerce describe the passages of transportation between the states. Thus, the commerce clause authorizes Congress to regulate activities pertaining to the nation’s airways, waterways, and roadways, and even where the activity itself takes place entirely in a single state. For example, Congress can pass regulations that restrict what can be carried on airlines or on ships.
Regulation of the instrumentalities of interstate commerce Instrumentalities of commerce are understood to be any resource employed in the carrying out of commerce. Examples of these resources are machines, equipment, vehicles, and personnel. Thus, Congress has the power to regulate these areas. Congress could pass regulations mandating certain safety standards for equipment used in manufacturing plants.
Regulation of intangibles and tangibles that cross state lines Any object, tangible or intangible, that crosses state lines can be regulated under the commerce clause. Tangible objects include goods purchased by consumers, as well as raw materials and equipment used in the production of goods for sale. Intangible objects include services, as well as electronic databases. The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) regulates the sale of information contained in the Department of Motor Vehicles’ (DMV’s) records.
Regulation of activities that are deemed to have a substantial impact on interstate commerce Federal regulation of economic commercial activity expected to have a significant (as opposed to minor) effect on interstate commerce is constitutional, according to the commerce clause. Noneconomic commercial activity is not covered. The courts in the United States vs. Lopez case described earlier deemed the Act to be unconstitutional because its terms have “nothing to do with ‘commerce’ or any sort of economic enterprise.”
Table 4.1
Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.


This book may not be used in the training of large language models or otherwise be ingested into large language models or generative AI offerings without OpenStax's permission.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at
Citation information

© Mar 31, 2023 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.