The Constitution of the United States gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. It seems the federal courts have held that only Congress, and not state legislatures, can regulate interstate commerce. In Sporhase v. Nebraska in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Nebraska law forbidding commercial exportation of water from the state was invalid because of that.

I can imagine Congress passing a statute forbidding states to regulate interstate commerce, and that would be within their power to regulate interstate commerce. Did they? Or is there some other rationale for "only"?

  • While Congress has to endorse them, states can initiate and enter into interstate compacts to regulate interstate commerce. A politically defunct example that actually set prices is en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_Dairy_Compact
    – user662852
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 12:33
  • The basic concept is called the Dormant Commerce Clause discussed at length at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dormant_Commerce_Clause The doctrine dates to 1824, just 35 years after the constitution was ratified, which suggests it wasn't far from the original intent of the Founders.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 19:28

2 Answers 2


The right belongs to the federal government because the Constitution says it does, in Article 1 (section 8, clause 3).

This, and the other rights listed in that section, are known as enumerated rights - that is, somebody has explicitly listed them out. The section begins

The Congress shall have power ..

and each clause may be read separately with that phrase prepended. They should each all be read together with the final clause, which is

  • 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.

In the context of the Constitution, this enumeration means that Congress alone has the authority to make such laws. In particular, Congress is the only legislature with the right to make laws governing commerce between states and each other, states and Indian nations, or states and foreign nations.

Other sections and their clauses enumerate rights explicitly reserved to the States and the People, and further clarify that any rights not enumerated are also reserved thusly.

  • 1
    Just to add to this... it is very clear from the discussions at the time that the founders wanted to specifically exclude states from having this ability. They did not want tariffs or other obstacles to trade to pop up between the states. Commented Dec 30, 2016 at 23:40
  • @kbelder; Exactly. They wanted America to be a free trade zone before "free trade" had a formal name.
    – Wes Sayeed
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 22:43
  • "In the context of the Constitution, this enumeration means that Congress alone..." Maybe explanation of the "context" is what is needed. Commented Mar 26, 2020 at 4:28
  • @AskAboutMonica : Where you refer to "discussions at the time", do you mean something found in Madison's notes on the Constitutional convention? Commented Mar 26, 2020 at 4:29
  • The context is the Constitution itself...
    – user4657
    Commented Mar 26, 2020 at 4:52

To answer your question generally, interstate commerce by definition involves multiple states. One state cannot pass laws that are binding on another because individual U.S. states are sovereign (with respect to each other -- they are still subject to the limits imposed by the federal Constitution), and therefore out of each others' jurisdiction to regulate. That is why interstate commerce is a federal matter exclusively -- it logically has to be. This logical inference is known as the Dormant Commerce Clause, and has been upheld by the Supreme Court in several notable cases (Gibbons v. Ogden, Zenith/Kremer Waste Sys. v. Western Lake Superior Sanitary Dist., and others).

Now, in the specific case of Sporhase v. Nebraska, there were two issues at stake:

  1. The Sporhase farm straddled both sides of the Nebraska/Colorado border. Sporhase drilled a well on the Nebraska side, but used the water to irrigate his land on the Colorado side. Nebraska state law required an export permit to carry water out of the state, but the Director of Water Resources would not issue one unless that state also allowed exportation of their water to Nebraska. This was basically Nebraska trying to regulate Colorado's behavior with a carrot-and-stick law, and thus was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
  2. Water has this annoying tendency to flow wherever it wants and doesn't respect borders very much. Even though the well in question was in Nebraska, the underground aquifer it drew from ran across parts of 6 different states; Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. Therefore, Nebraska didn't "own" that water any more than Ohio owns the Mississippi River.
  • But a prohibition against importing something into a particular state or exporting something from that state does not appear to be a violation of another state's sovereignty. If it were, then why is a prohibition against importing something into the U.S. not considered a violation of the sovereignty of states outside the U.S.? And if the Phillipines says to the U.S. "We will let you keep your naval base in the Phillipines if you don't charge tariffs on goods you import from us", that is not considered a violation of U.S. sovereignty. For those reasons your argument seems deficient. Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 20:11
  • Maybe your example involving the Mississippi River would work better if it were Illinois rather than Ohio, since Illinois is one of the states that interface with the river. Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 20:16
  • @MichaelHardy; You're right about Illinois. Good thing this isn't a geography forum :-) But Article 1, Sec. 10 of the Constitution expressly prohibits states from laying duties on imports and exports. Even if the water were a lake entirely within Nebraska's borders, there'd still be the problem with Colorado and Nebraska making a trade deal with each other. If that kind of thing were allowed, there would be all kinds of deals between states and somewhere down the line some other state would be adversely affected or excluded from trade.
    – Wes Sayeed
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 22:35
  • @MichaelHardy; Also, your example about the Philippines isn't really the same thing. States are sovereign, but only within the framework of the federal Constitution. Bona-fide nations can and do make deals like this all the time. That's what NAFTA, CAFTA, and the failed TPP were all about.
    – Wes Sayeed
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 22:37
  • No matter how meritorious your argument about adverse effects, that's only saying why it ought to be that way, not why the Constitution should be read as implying that it is that way. As for the Philippines, the argument that you gave that said "because states are sovereign, and therefore out of each others' jurisdiction" doesn't sufficiently distinguish between the relationship between the USA and the Philippines, on the one hand, and on the other hand the relationship between two states within the USA. Commented Jan 7, 2017 at 1:38

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