Inserting the Constitution into the Budget Debate

In recent weeks, Americans have been debating issues related to the national debt and current budget. One camp calls for higher taxes while the other urges spending cuts (or at least a reduction in the rate of growth). What’s been missing from the debate is any conversation about the appropriate powers of the national government or constitutional limitations.

According to numbers provided by, the national government’s spending breaks down as follows:

Defense 25 percent; Education 3 percent, Health Care 23 percent, Pensions (social security and employee pensions) 21 percent, Welfare 13 percent, Interest on the Debt 5 percent, Protection (prisons, police, etc.) 2 percent, Transportation 2 percent, and General Government 1 percent.

Being very charitable, only about 35 percent of the the budget (items in ital above) has a firm or arguable basis in the Constitution. Most of what the national government does has no constitutional authority. The main culprit is the use of the so-called spending power which is part of the General Welfare Clause: “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 Clause is interpreted to permit Congress to spend on any matter it believes is for the general welfare of the nation. The Anti-Federalists warned that this broad language would be subject to abuse, but Madison and others assured them that their fears were misplaced because an enumeration of powers followed the Clause. Madison thought it clear that any spending would have to be pursuant to a delegated power, but his interpretation was eventually rejected.

Thus we have a national government in which at least 65 percent of its spending is for extra-constitutional purposes, i.e., objects outside of Congress’ delegated powers. Seen in this light, is there any wonder we are on the verge of a financial collapse?

If elected officials are serious about pulling our financial ox out of the ditch, they need to reexamine the constitutional limitations on federal power. So long as any object asserted to be for the “general welfare” is free game for Congress, our debt will grow. Rather than arguing about higher taxes or slowing the rate of spending growth, Congress should turn to first principles for the answer to our national ills.

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