Diane Koch (“Interpreting the Preamble,” AFN, April 13) and Randal Jacoby (“There’s only just so much room at the trough,” AFN, April 13), in rebuttal to Don Kennedy’s letter “What does the Preamble really mean?” (AFN, April 4) castigate Kennedy for putting a conservative spin on the phrase “promote the general welfare.” Then they turn around and do the exact same thing, by putting a liberal spin on the phrase. The end result is that we are no farther along in coming to a determination of the original intent of the Founders. We must learn from history.
Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution contains the enumerated powers (it lists them one by one) given to the Congress. By my count, there are only 18 such powers granted, which might give you the idea that our federal government has overstepped its bounds in much of what it does. All other powers go to the states, or to the people. The first of those powers reads, “The Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”
Right from the very start there was disagreement about what the “general welfare” actually meant. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that this clause was meant to limit the power of taxation by the federal government, that federal taxes could only be levied to support the work of the federal government as spelled out in Article 1, Section 8. Federal taxes could not be levied on states, cities, or any entity that was not in the scope of the enumerated powers. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, felt that it was a general grant of power for the federal government to spend tax money on whatever it wished. Since the original intent was never clarified, lawmakers, even back then, sided with Hamilton as his interpretation gave them unlimited spending. In the Butler case of 1936, the Supreme Court of Justice Roberts sided with Hamilton. This decision has been argued and debated as well, since in the minds of many the court’s conclusion contradicts its earlier statement that the Congress is restricted to the enumerated powers. So the answer is still clear as mud, although it is clear that the Robert’s Court did destroy the entire concept of limited government.
Madison warned: “If Congress can apply money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may undertake the regulation of all roads, other than post roads. In short, everything from the highest object of state legislation, down to the most minute object of policy, would be thrown under the power of Congress; for every object I have mentioned would admit the application of money, and might be called, if Congress pleased, provisions for the general welfare.”
The adherence to the Hamiltonian point of view has led to a bloated federal government, one that taxes, regulates, and spends with little or no restrictions. It is why our country is facing the debt crisis that threatens its very existence. At this point in our history, it will probably take a Constitutional amendment to limit the general welfare clause to the enumerated powers.