I hope you’ve enjoyed studying through the United States Constitution! We now have only two more sections to cover in Article 1.
Today, we will study some of Section 8, which lays out the specific powers (what I will call “rules”) of Congress. In order to do justice to this section, I will only cover two “rules” today, which both deal with monetary issues. It is vitally important that we understand the specific powers delegated to Congress, and therefore, those powers that are reserved to the states.
Our first rule from Section 8 says,
“The Congress shall have the 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:”
There are actually two clauses in the paragraph, so I have divided them by underlining each clause.
The first underlined part is called the Spending Clause. This clause gives two qualifications for taxation that congress must follow. Taxation must be “to pay the debts of the United States, and to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” For quite some time, the understood meaning of the term “General Welfare” was a far cry from the modern interpretation. For some of the founders, such as James Madison, this phrase meant that “the power to tax and spend did not confer upon Congress the right to do whatever it thought to be in the best interest of the nation, but only to further the ends specifically enumerated elsewhere in the Constitution…”
Another interpretation was the idea that “general” referred to “national.” John C. Eastman, in an essay from Heritage Foundation, writes on this, saying, “President James Monroe later adopted this position…in his 1822 message vetoing a bill to preserve and repair the Cumberland Road. Monroe contended that Congress’s power to spend was restricted “to purposes of common defence, and of general, national, not local, or state, benefit.”
As America stands now, there is nearly no restraint on Congress’s interpretation of “general welfare.” As we have seen with Obamacare, some individuals claim that government run healthcare is allowed in that phrase. KrisAnne Hall points out that this is not the first time there has been controversy over the definition of “general welfare,” and if we desire to preserve the liberty we enjoy, we must uphold a strict definition. She writes the following:
“Since James Madison is called the Father of our Constitution, it makes sense that we would look to him for clarification on this point. Madison discussed this very issue in an argument he was making against subsidizing a cod fisherman in 1792.
“I, sir, have always conceived — I believe those who proposed the Constitution conceived — it is still more fully known, and more material to observe, that those who ratified the Constitution conceived — that this is not an indefinite government, deriving its powers from the general terms prefixed to the specified powers — but a limited government, tied down to the specified powers, which explain and define the general terms.” James Madison, On the Cod Fishery Bill, granting Bounties 1792
Madison was very simply explaining that the clause “common defense and general welfare” was not meant to expand the power of the government beyond its limitations, but to describe the purpose of the power delegated within strict confinement of those boundaries. How we have flipped this nation on its head! We have allowed our government to take the description of the purpose of its power and turn it into its very power. This aberration of our founder’s intent is not without consequence. We cannot have it both ways; it is either a limited government or one completely without limits.”
The second underlined part of Rule 1 is called the Uniformity Clause: “all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States”.
This was written in order to guard against discrimination the states had experienced under the Articles of Confederation. Each of these checks and balances is designed to protect against governmental overreach. Again, from Heritage Foundation, comes this explanation:
“At the Constitutional Convention, the Uniformity Clause was initially joined with what is now the Port Preference Clause (Article I, Section 9, Clause 6), which forbids Congress to give preferences “by any Regulation of Commerce or Revenue” to the ports of one state over those of another. Along with other provisions restricting congressional power over taxes and commercial regulations, these two were designed to forestall economically oppressive discrimination. The Port Preference Clause limits both the commerce and taxing powers, whereas the Uniformity Clause applies to the taxing power alone. Their common origin, however, is a sign of their common purpose: each was meant to prevent geographic discrimination that would give one state or region a competitive advantage or disadvantage in its commercial relations with the others.”
“The Congress shall have the power:
To borrow money on the credit of the United States:”
This rule is the Borrowing Clause.
“As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible: avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”
Those are the words of George Washington, from his Farewell Address. He recognizes the necessity of borrowing money, while stressing the importance of paying off those debts. I think it’s fair to say that many of our politicians should heed Mr. Washington’s words.
Claire Priest, a professor of law at Yale Law School, writes the following in an essay on the Borrowing Clause.
“The power to borrow money is essential to the existence and survival of a national government. In the Founding era, political leaders expected that in peacetime the Congress would craft the federal government’s budget so that revenues equaled or surpassed expenditures.”
The Borrowing Clause does not give specific guidelines for when Congress should stop borrowing more money, so, the question becomes, at what point does debt become out of control. While I am not an economist, I believe there are a few simple things we can all understand when it comes to excessive government debt. Through my observation and study, it seems that excessive debt is socialist in nature, and it becomes a great threat to our liberty. Consider these following points:
1. As Daniel showed us a couple weeks ago in his article, “Greece: A Socialist Success Story,” Greece was once a flourishing nation, whose citizens enjoyed “low retirement age, massive benefits, high pensions, and lots of government jobs.” The problem though, is just as Margaret Thatcher said, “…Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They [socialists] always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite a characteristic of them.”
Continuing from Daniel’s article, “The Greeks took out massive loans, clueless of how they would repay them. True, this wasn’t the purest form of socialism (because it wasn’t taxing everything from its own civilians), but it was certainly using someone else’s money to buy extravagance…
In 2015, the crisis reached a breaking point. The Greeks had to pay part of their debt, and they couldn’t do it. The big banks and creditors of Europe offered them bailouts, but only with an expensive string: raise taxes, cut benefits, and drain the coffers of the Greek citizens.
The Greeks vainly imagined that they could vote themselves out of this desperate situation. They voted for a far-left politician, hoping that he would just say ‘no’ to the creditors. He promised the Greeks that he would fight austerity. In the end, when he gained office, he came face-to-face with the reality of bankruptcy, and realized that austerity was not simply an option: it was the only path forward for the impoverished nation.”
2. Consider this from Natural News:
“Take Venezuela, Cuba and the former Soviet Union; there, the economies are planned and “managed” by state bureaucrats. Prices are artificially set by government to win favor among the masses, not set by companies seeking profit – which is why companies fail (they cannot charge a price that sustains the business model) and citizens then do without; services are created and imposed by the state (not naturally occurring because there is a need or market for them); and massively bureaucratic welfare and benefits programs seek to provide every good, service and need to citizens, thus killing incentives to work and create wealth. Soon, there are too many takers and not enough producers to provide for them.”
Consider this from Huffington Post:
“Though countries like Germany, France, UK, the U.S. and Japan continue to have relatively stable economies despite their massive debt, this may not always be the case. Last year, Standard & Poor’s downgraded both France and the U.S. from perfect AAA ratings. Yesterday, Moody’s gave France and the UK negative outlooks.
While many of these economies have started to recover from the recession, they continue to accrue debt. In some cases, even the world’s wealthiest economies have been forced to pass austerity measures of their own. Many U.S. states, for example, have made substantial cuts to government workforces.”
Lastly, this from the Washington Times:
“Many countries, including Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France — as well as the United States — experimented with quasi-socialist governments. Now the bitter price is being paid.
This more than anything else explains why the world is twisting in financial turmoil in recent weeks. Not just Greece, but at least a half a dozen nations appear to be on the verge of bankruptcy because they can’t afford the social welfare states they have, and the bills are coming due. The socialists are getting hammered.
Meanwhile, China’s government is responding to a manufactured stock market bubble with more promises of Keynesian monetary and fiscal stimulus — interventions that will work there as well as they have in Japan and the United States.
Wall Street is acting as though more government intervention will calm financial markets, when it is excessive intervention of government that created the crisis in the first place. Greece is socialism on steroids — a place where the government gives a lot of things away for free, few people work, and millions receive government pensions, paychecks or welfare benefits. Fifty percent of young people don’t have a job and over half of Greeks retire before age 60. The wagon is full and no one is left to pull it. Now Greece thinks that the Germans or the, EU, the IMF or the United States is going to pay for it all. The crash is coming very soon and the standard of living in Greece will surely plummet. Thank you, socialism.”
We must not succumb to the fate of so many socialist nations, that insist on plunging into massive debt; but instead, we must end the spending of other people’s money.
I hope you have not only learned more about the constitution, but have learned more about how it works in real life. As with any handbook, you must read it more than once in order to apply it to everyday issues. Keep studying, keep fighting!
Heritage Foundation articles:
KrisAnne Hall – General welfare/Obamacare: