How can political commentators, politicians and academics get away with statements like "Reagan budget deficits," "Clinton budget surplus," "Bush budget deficits" or "Obama's tax increases"? The only answer is that they, or the people who believe such statements, are ignorant, conniving or just plain stupid. Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution reads: "All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills." A president has no power to raise or lower taxes. He can propose tax measures or veto them but since Congress can ignore presidential proposals and override a presidential veto, it has the ultimate taxing power. The same principle applies to spending. A president cannot spend a dime that Congress does not first appropriate. As such, presidents cannot be held responsible for budget deficits or surpluses. That means that credit for a budget surplus or blame for budget deficits rests on the congressional majority at the time.
Thinking about today's massive deficits, we might ask: Where in the U.S. Constitution is Congress given the authority to do anything about the economy? Between 1787 and 1930, we have had both mild and severe economic downturns that have ranged from one to seven years. During that time there was no thought that Congress should enact New Deal legislation or stimulus packages along with massive corporate handouts. It took the Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt administrations to massively intervene in the economy. As a result, they turned what might have been a two or three-year sharp downturn into a 16-year depression that ended in 1946. How they accomplished that is covered very well in a book authored by Jim Powell titled "FDR's Folly." Here's my question: Were the presidents in office and congresses assembled from 1787 to 1930 ignorant of their constitutional authority to manage and save the economy?
If you asked President Obama or a congressman to cite the specific constitutional authority for the bailouts, handouts and corporate takeover, I'd bet the rent money that they would say that their authority lies in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that reads: "The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Impost, Excises to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States." They'd tell you that their authority comes from the Constitution's "general welfare" clause.
James Madison, the father of our constitution, explained, "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, and will promote the general welfare, the government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one subject to particular exceptions." He later 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." Thomas Jefferson said, "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated." That means only those powers listed.
The Constitution provides, through Article V, a means by which the Constitution can be altered. My question to my fellow Americans whether they are liberal or conservative: Has the Constitution been amended to permit Congress to manage the economy? I'd also ask that question to members of the U.S. Supreme Court. I personally know of no such amendment. What we're witnessing today is nothing less than a massive escalation in White House and congressional thuggery. Secure in the knowledge that the American people are compliant and willing to cast off the limitations imposed on Washington by the nation's founders, future administrations are probably going to be even more emboldened than Obama and the current Congress.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.