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Walter E. Williams
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What Our Constitution Permits

Comment

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.

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.

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Comments

3 Comments | Post Comment
Prof. Williams's first example of presidential veto is striking: given the obvious construction of the bill to include ‘internal commerce' and ‘common defense', it's obvious that the House intended to comply with the Constitution in its appeal for passage (almost like ‘teaching to the test').

Nevertheless, as Williams illustrates, Madison gave it a thumbs down.
Comment: #1
Posted by:
Wed Jan 12, 2011 7:33 AM
Excellent explanation of the limits placed on the federal government by the enumerated powers authorized in the Constitution. There is a lot of work to be done to reverse the many usurpations.
We have designed "15 Simple Keys" to understanding the U.S. Constitution. Key #8 is: "The Constitution was designed to control the national government, not to control the people."
Comment: #2
Posted by: Carolyn
Wed Jan 12, 2011 3:47 PM
Walter needs to do a series on the vetos presidents
Comment: #3
Posted by: Frank Livingston
Thu Jun 13, 2013 5:39 AM
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