General Welfare Clause
The General Welfare Clause has probably been the most abused section of the Constitution which has led to massive spending on unconstitutional programs which has bankrupted this country. The current interpretation allows Congress to spend money on virtually anything it chooses, including unauthorized wars, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, Federal aid to education, bailouts of failing businesses, loans to businesses, foreign aid, the “War on Poverty”, cell phones for the poor, etc. And, much of our tax dollars are used for political patronage in order to buy votes for the party in power. To pay for these programs the Federal Government then must increase taxes, borrow money or print money, creating annual deficits and national debts that stagger the imagination.
The General Welfare Clause originated from Article I, Section 8 (Powers of Congress) of the Constitution which states:
“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”
This section then goes on to list 16 specific powers of Congress plus the right to make laws to carry out these powers. Each of these enumerated powers was meant to be used only for the “general welfare” of the United States as a whole and was not to be used for the benefit of special interests. Had the founders intended for the “general welfare” clause to allow Congress to spend money on anything it wanted, then it would not have needed to list the 16 powers separately.
The sixteen powers are:
- To borrow money on the credit of the United States
- To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.
- To establish an uniform rule of naturalization and uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States
- To coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standards of weights and measures.
- To provide for the punishment of counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States.
- To establish post-offices and post-roads (i.e. post office roads).
- To promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive rights to their respective writings and discoveries.
- To constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court.
- To define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offences against the laws of nations.
- To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.
- To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years.
- To provide and maintain a navy.
- To make rules for government and regulation of the land and naval forces.
- To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions.
- To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.
- To exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular States and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of Government of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places purchased by the consent of the Legislature of the State in which the same shall be, for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dry docks, and other needed buildings.
From the founding of the United States there has always been a debate between those who wanted to use Federal taxes for “internal improvements” and those who did not. The first group consisted of the Whig Party of Hamilton, Clay and Lincoln. No President from Washington to James Buchanan (1857 – 1861) authorized the use of Federal taxes for general improvements stating that such spending was unconstitutional. All bills passed by Congress for “internal improvements” were vetoed by the President. Lincoln was the first President to authorize spending of Federal tax dollars on internal improvements when he authorized the building of the trans-continental railroad in 1863. The spending of Federal tax dollars to build the trans-continental railroad was never challenged in the Supreme Court. If it had been challenged, the Court would have ruled it unconstitutional.
Up until 1937 the Supreme Court agreed that the Federal government could not spend tax dollars for the “general welfare”. In 1936 the Supreme Court ruled in The United States vs. Butler that the Agricultural Adjustment Act was unconstitutional because it violated States rights. However, in that decision the Court went on to rule that Congress could spend federal money for the “general welfare” and would no longer be limited to spending money on the specific items enumerated in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. In fact, the Supreme Court had ruled that eight out of ten of FDRs new deal programs were unconstitutional. An infuriated FDR then threatened to “pack” the Supreme Court by adding up to six additional justices. Chief Justice Hughes was convinced that FDRs plan to “pack” the court would pass Congress so he made the “…decision to retreat in the immediate skirmish in order to ensure victory in the larger struggle for judicial supremacy.”
In 1937 this resulted in the decision in Helvering vs. Davis (301 US 548) that the Social Security Act of 1935 was constitutional and reaffirmed Congresses right to spend money for the “general welfare”. However, with WWII looming, this new spending power was not fully utilized until President Johnson began spending on the “Great Society” in 1965.
In 1965 the national debt was $252 billion and there were virtually no unfunded liabilities. In 2011 the national debt stood at $15,000 billion ($15 trillion), and when the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare are included, the total is $121,000 billion ($121 trillion). This is an increase of 5,800% and 47,900%, respectively. The national debt now amounts to $200,000 for a family of four or $1,600,000 when you include the unfunded liabilities. The Federal Government has bankrupted this country! That’s why the founding fathers limited Federal spending to the 16 enumerated powers in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. If there were no other reason to secede, this unauthorized debt and fiscal mis-management would be sufficient.
Today, the Federal government spends over $50,000 per year for each and every family of four. That means that the Federal government spends more per family than the average family earns. At the same time, the Federal government’s tax revenues are only $37,000 per year per family. That means that the Federal government is borrowing or printing $13,000 per year per family. How long could your family survive if it managed its finances like the Federal government?