The Spending Clause – Article I, Section 8 – and the general welfare

With the Sound Off Sister providing legal commentary on the General Welfare clause, I thought I’d toss in my opinion since the subject is closely tied to my Symptom of the Disease series. With no doubt, the interpretation of the Spending Clause is the root of many problems we have right now. Let’s take a look at some history in reference to Article I, Section 8.

Spending Clause

(Article I, Section 8, Clause 1)
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excise, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States …

So, when referring to the general welfare, how broad are these purposes and are there limits to what can be defined as general welfare for the United States?

During the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Party opinion supported an expansive view of federal spending power as long as the duties and taxes collected were uniform throughout the country. This view is current doctrine for liberals around the country, resulting in federal spending being used for local programs that have nothing to do with the general (national) welfare.

To say the disagreement between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists – who favored limiting spending to national defense and national benefits – was one of the biggest debates amongst the Founders during the convention is an understatement. In Federalist 41, James Madison writes …

For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity, which, as we are reduced to the dilemma of charging either on the authors of the objection or on the authors of the Constitution, we must take the liberty of supposing, had not its origin with the latter.

Madison – joined by Thomas Jefferson for the anti-Federalists a.k.a. the Democratic-Republicans (or simply Republicans) – was clearly concerned about the use of the general phrase, which would lead to abuse. Why put in place strict limits on the federal government’s power – 17 of them in Section 8 – and then drop in two words – general welfare – that could be referenced for an expansive view of federal spending power?

Alexander Hamilton, for the Federalists, did support a more expansive view of spending power during the Constitutional Convention as long as the taxes collected were uniform. His opinion was rejected by the Founders, but later he proposed the general welfare phrase implied spending should not be exclusive to the 17 powers listed in Section 8, rather federal funding should be approved as long as it was for the national welfare.

Future examples would be Congress’ refusal to provide funds to rebuild Savannah, Georgia after a city-wide fire in 1820, a local benefit, and their approval of a lighthouse to be built at the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, a national benefit.

Certainly, by not sticking to the 17 powers listed, it becomes more difficult to determine what would be considered general (national) welfare versus what would be defined as local welfare. Where is the line drawn?

President James Monroe did have trouble drawing the line and found some local welfare projects appealing to him near the end of his term. President John Q. Adams continued to spend on local projects throughout his term, and the topic became quite the debate issue during his campaign with Andrew Jackson, who won the election and started vetoing excessive federal spending legislation.

For the first seven or eight decades after the Constitution was adopted, Madison and Jefferson’s interpretation of the spending clause held pretty firm, but that all changed during the New Deal era, where United States v. Butler clearly implied Congress had the ability to determine what could be considered general welfare.

Uhg. In the future, Butler would be referenced to support the expansive view of federal involvement in local spending like the installation of brick sidewalks and pretty street signs. The flood gates opened. The federal government became much more powerful. The people lost liberty and freedom.

This readers, is the specific cause of the disease. Once we expect Congress to spend money on local programs, congress-critters are rated on their ability to bring federal dollars back to their people. If you bring back $2 for every $1 that goes into the federal trough, you’ve stolen enough money from other states or districts to be sent back inside the beltway to get more.

What can be done at this point? The conservative’s current fight is simply to keep the federal government from taking more power in the form of health care and environmental legislation. By taking control of health care, taxing Americans for breathing, working and keeping their homes warm or cool, and taxing businesses resulting in increased costs of everything we consume, we fall off the steep ledge without a lifeline.

Our final stand must begin today. We’ve experienced the tipping point this year through the emergence of TEA Party efforts around the country, and once this fight is won, we must continue to incrementally move spending powers back to the states and the people. This fight may well last for generations, but are you willing to move forward, teach our children about liberty and freedom and embrace the genius of the Founders?

Everything depends on your personal interpretation of the Spending Clause and your willingness to reach out to friends, family and today’s leaders. What say you?

2 replies
  1. Dimsdale
    Dimsdale says:

    People need to understand that putting "Senator" or "Congressman" in front of your name doesn't make one any smarter than if you put "Genius" in front of your name.    Winning an election is no more an indication of the fact that you will do the job competently than winning the lottery means you will spend the money wisely.


    Bottom line: after a short time, politicians believe their own BS, er, I mean campaign slogans and promises….

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