Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Myth #7: The General Welfare Clause enables the federal government to take any action it deems necessary
This is the Seventh Myth in the series: 25 Myths of the U.S. Constitution.
Note: These articles later were updated and combined into my first book: 25 Myths of the United States Constitution.
By Douglas V. Gibbs
The politicians in Washington often argue that the General Welfare Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government a free pass to do pretty much anything they want. They especially think this to be true when it comes to entitlement programs (after all, isn't the word welfare in the clause?), or public works policies.
In James Madison's explanation of his veto of a public works bill in 1817, it is apparent that one of the arguments Congress used in their desire to use federal funding for roads and boatways is that these shovel-ready projects were needed for the general welfare of the nation. They argued the projects would create jobs, provide a roadway and boatway system better suited for commerce and the transport of military equipment and personnel, and better enable the citizens to freely travel. To the Congress of 1817, the general welfare of the nation was obviously the right encouragement they needed to make sure such projects happened.
Madison disagreed. The President agreed that improving transportation was indeed a good idea, but argued that not only did the federal government not have the authority for such an undertaking, but that their definition of the General Welfare Clause was not in line with the original intent of that clause.
In Federalist 41, James Madison explains that the General Welfare was specifically of the Republic, linked to raising revenue and providing for the common defense, and only applies to authorities granted to the federal government by the Constitution. In other words, the General Welfare does not grant powers to the federal government, but was a term meant to be an explanation as to why the federal government must have the power to tax, pay debts, and provide for the common defense. . . for the purpose of the General Welfare of the Republic.
If it was meant that the General Welfare Clause was to give the federal government the power to provide, say, entitlements to individuals, then would it not have instead said "Individual Welfare," or "Specific Welfare?"
The Founding Fathers never intended for the federal government to replace charity. Charity is a voluntary decision, the government transfer of wealth through taxation and entitlement programs is not. Government entitlement programs are by force, and are used as a tool for re-election.
The term "General Welfare" was used in the Articles of Confederation as well. The Articles of Confederation was a weak document that gave the federal government little power. In that document, General Welfare was meant to be a restraint. The term was meant to be used to benefit "generally" all Americans, not pick and choose by criteria created by the government who got to receive a gift from the treasury.
Favoring some citizens over others, as entitlement programs tend to do, generates a dangerous power play that enables elected leaders to trade promised money from the treasury for votes, as the politicians do with entitlement program participants. The politicians literally buy their way into power by promising to give people money from the richer taxpayers.
The Constitution mentions General Welfare because the federal government was to be expected to promote the General Welfare, not provide it.
-- Political Pistachio Conservative News and Commentary