What Our Constitution Permits

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Here’s the
House of Representatives new rule: “A bill or joint resolution may
not be introduced unless the sponsor has submitted for printing
in the Congressional Record a statement citing as specifically as
practicable the power or powers granted to Congress in the Constitution
to enact the bill or joint resolution.” Unless a congressional bill
or resolution meets this requirement, it cannot be introduced.

If the House
of Representatives had the courage to follow through on this rule,
their ability to spend and confer legislative favors would be virtually
eliminated. Also, if the rule were to be applied to existing law,
they’d wind up repealing at least two-thirds to three-quarters of
congressional spending.

You might think,
for example, that there’s constitutional authority for Congress
to spend for highway construction and bridges. President James Madison
on March 3, 1817 vetoed a public works bill saying: “Having considered
the bill this day presented to me entitled ‘An act to set apart
and pledge certain funds for internal improvements,’ and which sets
apart and pledges funds ‘for constructing roads and canals, and
improving the navigation of water courses, in order to facilitate,
promote, and give security to internal commerce among the several
States, and to render more easy and less expensive the means and
provisions for the common defense,’ I am constrained by the insuperable
difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution
of the United States and to return it with that objection to the
House of Representatives, in which it originated.”

Madison, who
is sometimes referred to as the father of our Constitution, added
to his veto statement, “The legislative powers vested in Congress
are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first
article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power
proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.”

Here’s my question
to any member of the House who might vote for funds for “constructing
roads and canals, and improving the navigation of water courses”:
Was Madison just plain constitutionally ignorant or has the Constitution
been amended to permit such spending?

What about
handouts to poor people, businesses, senior citizens and foreigners?

Madison said,
“Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government.”

In 1854, President
Franklin Piece vetoed a bill to help the mentally ill, saying, “I
cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity.
(To approve the measure) would be contrary to the letter and spirit
of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which
the Union of these States is founded.”

President Grover
Cleveland vetoed a bill for charity relief, saying, “I can find
no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I
do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government
ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which
is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.”

Again, my question
to House members who’d vote for handouts is: Were these leaders
just plain constitutionally ignorant or mean-spirited, or has our
Constitution been amended to authorize charity?

Suppose
a congressman attempts to comply with the new rule by asserting
that his measure is authorized by the Constitution’s general welfare
clause. Here’s what Thomas Jefferson said: “Congress has not unlimited
powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically
enumerated.”

Madison added,
“With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always
regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with
them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis
of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs
was not contemplated by its creators.”

John Adams
warned, “A Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom,
can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.” I am
all too afraid that’s where our nation stands today and the blame
lies with the American people.

January
11, 2011

Walter
E. Williams is the John M. Olin distinguished professor of economics
at George Mason University, and a nationally syndicated columnist.
To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other
Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators
Syndicate web page
.

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