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Author Topic: The General Welfare Clause
NobleHunter
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quote:
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
There seems to be two readings of the bold section
  • That it doesn't grant any powers other than those listed in the rest of Section 8.
  • The Federal government can spend the money however it wants provided it's in the general welfare, which remains undefined.

The first reading is unsatisfactory because it means the statement is essentially meaningless. So why is it there at all?

The second reading is unsatisfactory because it essentially nullifies the rest of Section 8. If the Feds can spend money so freely, why enumerate powers at all? Can there be any validity to a clause that can be so broadly construed?

In practice, I'm a fan of the broader reading because I generally prefer effective government and I think people are better off when they can appeal to a strong central government if more local levels of government are dominated by local potentates.

In principle, it annoys me because "general welfare" is undefined and reduces the usefulness of the Constitution as a litmus test for legitimacy.

But I'm also wrong, so feel free to chime in.

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Seneca
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A broad general reading is a bad idea and also counter-intuitive to the rest of the Constitution.

Think about it, why did the founders work so hard to construct a document that very specifically limited the government? They clearly did not trust a centralized strong government at all, and sought to shackle it however they could.

[ October 02, 2013, 07:14 PM: Message edited by: Seneca ]

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Pete at Home
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3rd interpretation is literal GENERAL WELFARE reading the same context as the common defense. Meaning anything that generally benefits the nation. Not minor subgroups but the nation as a whole. Public parks, for instance. Roads, infrastructure, etc. The CDC would fall under both general welfare and common defense.
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G3
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If you want to know the intent, look no further than the last 4 paragraphs of Federalist No. 41:
quote:
Some, who have not denied the necessity of the power of taxation, have grounded a very fierce attack against the Constitution, on the language in which it is defined. It has been urged and echoed, that 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," amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction.

Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it; though it would have been difficult to find a reason for so awkward a form of describing an authority to legislate in all possible cases. A power to destroy the freedom of the press, the trial by jury, or even to regulate the course of descents, or the forms of conveyances, must be very singularly expressed by the terms "to raise money for the general welfare.

"But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? If the different parts of the same instrument ought to be so expounded, as to give meaning to every part which will bear it, shall one part of the same sentence be excluded altogether from a share in the meaning; and shall the more doubtful and indefinite terms be retained in their full extent, and the clear and precise expressions be denied any signification whatsoever? For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity, which, as we are reduced to the dilemma of charging either on the authors of the objection or on the authors of the Constitution, we must take the liberty of supposing, had not its origin with the latter.

The objection here is the more extraordinary, as it appears that the language used by the convention is a copy from the articles of Confederation. The objects of the Union among the States, as described in article third, are "their common defense, security of their liberties, and mutual and general welfare. " The terms of article eighth are still more identical: "All charges of war and all other expenses that shall be incurred for the common defense or general welfare, and allowed by the United States in Congress, shall be defrayed out of a common treasury," etc. A similar language again occurs in article ninth. Construe either of these articles by the rules which would justify the construction put on the new Constitution, and they vest in the existing Congress a power to legislate in all cases whatsoever. But what would have been thought of that assembly, if, attaching themselves to these general expressions, and disregarding the specifications which ascertain and limit their import, they had exercised an unlimited power of providing for the common defense and general welfare? I appeal to the objectors themselves, whether they would in that case have employed the same reasoning in justification of Congress as they now make use of against the convention. How difficult it is for error to escape its own condemnation!

So, no, the intent was not to grant any extra powers other than those explicitly listed. Any other reading of that intent and what it means is, as Madison put it, "a misconstruction".
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Pete at Home
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G3, Madison's Statements about raising money are obviated by the 16th amendment.
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G3
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The point being?
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starLisa
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quote:
Originally posted by NobleHunter:
quote:
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
There seems to be two readings of the bold section
  • That it doesn't grant any powers other than those listed in the rest of Section 8.
  • The Federal government can spend the money however it wants provided it's in the general welfare, which remains undefined.

The first reading is unsatisfactory because it means the statement is essentially meaningless. So why is it there at all?

It isn't meaningless. It's descriptive of the following powers.

quote:
Originally posted by NobleHunter:
The second reading is unsatisfactory because it essentially nullifies the rest of Section 8. If the Feds can spend money so freely, why enumerate powers at all? Can there be any validity to a clause that can be so broadly construed?

Exactly.

quote:
Originally posted by NobleHunter:
In practice, I'm a fan of the broader reading because I generally prefer effective government and I think people are better off when they can appeal to a strong central government if more local levels of government are dominated by local potentates.

In principle, it annoys me because "general welfare" is undefined and reduces the usefulness of the Constitution as a litmus test for legitimacy.

Well, that's nothing to worry about. The Republicrats long ago stopped worrying about the Constitution as a litmus test for legitimacy.

quote:
Originally posted by NobleHunter:
But I'm also wrong, so feel free to chime in.

Indeed.
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Pete at Home
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quote:
Originally posted by G3:
The point being?

Being completely obvious, if you follow the antecedent posts.

Maddy: we can act for general welfare but we can't do so at the expense of other constitutional rights.

Passage of 16th Amendment

Maddy: []

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Seneca
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Pete, I read the 16th Amendment as allowing the feds to perform actions in states (because anywhere outside of DC or foreign soil is a state) that may not be proportionate to how much tax money the states all poured in, but what I do not see the 16th as changing is the TYPE of actions the feds can do, which you seem to be saying it does.
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Pete at Home
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Read it in conjunction with g3's quote from Madison. Raising funds was the roadblock to all that you despise.
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Pyrtolin
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The 16th amendment was a direct slap back at a Supreme Court ruling that tried to redefine income taxes from being excises into being direct taxes and thus suddenly not allowed any longer.
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KidTokyo
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Seneca,

quote:
Think about it, why did the founders work so hard to construct a document that very specifically limited the government?
They didn't. It doesn't. Which is why it hasn't.

Think about it.

G3,

The Constitution was the work of both Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

Everyone forgets this. The "Founders" were not sage luminaries. They were contentious politicians with wildly diverging agendas that they were doing their best to downplay.

The goal of the Federalists was to strengthen the federal government. Many found this frightening. So it was perfectly natural for Federalists to say "Oh, goodness, we would never.....perish the thought!."

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Pyrtolin
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Madison's opinion of how it should be interpreted seems to have lost out due as evidenced by the passage of the Bill of Rights. As Madison points out, explicitly passing such protections would be meaningless if Congress didn't have the power to do the restricted actions in the first place. The Anti-Federalists recognized that he was wrong about how it would be interpreted and won out in their assertion that it effectively allowed for arbitrary power in as much as they convinced the majority of others to interpret it that was and pass their amendments to curtail its power.
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NobleHunter
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I find that Pete's point about the 16th amendment clarifies some of the seeming contradiction. While the clause effectively allows the government to spend whatever money it thinks is a good idea, it lacked equivalent means to raise money. Then came the 16th amendment, which removed the biggest limitations on raising money.
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Pete at Home
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quote:
Originally posted by Pyrtolin:
The 16th amendment was a direct slap back at a Supreme Court ruling that tried to redefine income taxes from being excises into being direct taxes and thus suddenly not allowed any longer.

Yes, but the effect was greater than that limited intent
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