Is the General Welfare Clause Intentionally Broad?
An analysis of a crucial piece of our constitution.
By Etelson | 9/15/20
The first clause of Article I, Section 8, of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution reads, "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." Effectively, the clause enables Congress to provide common defense and general welfare for the country, without elaborating those parameters or even giving a simple definition of each. As a result, disputes have arisen. For centuries, the clause has ignited fierce debate about its interpretation. On one side, many libertarians and conservatives have argued that the clause grants Congress unlimited power to pass laws and spend taxpayer money to promote what they believe is the general welfare of the country–something the original framers did not intend. Others contend that the benefits reaped from the clause have bolstered the public sector’s prosperity, and as a result, the country as a whole. Given the nature of the broad interpretation of the clause, the question shouldn’t be whether or not our founding fathers allowed an interpretation that Congress is subjected to the parameters provided prior (taxes, duties, imposts, and excises), or an interpretation that granted Congress overextending powers to spend money and pass laws, but rather a more fundamental question. That being, was the general welfare clause purposely made to render a broad interpretation, or was that just mistakenly misinterpreted by others?
When the constitution was established, certain people considered the clause as a power grab move for Congress to exert broad power to pass any legislation it pleased, as long as its asserted purpose was the promotion of the general welfare of the nation and providing for the common defense. One of our founding fathers, James Madison, objected to the clause. He argued that it was inconsistent with the concept of a limited and small government, and adding to it would render the enumerated powers section–the clause that allows Congress to exercise the powers granted to it by the Constitution–obsolete. His premise was that the clause in fact does not grant Congress additional powers beyond its limitations or those given within the enumerated powers section. Thus, in his view, the words themselves served no practical purpose.
Contrary to Madison's opinion, Alexander Hamilton, another founding father, considered and accepted that the clause granted Congress the power to spend resources without limitation for the general welfare of the nation, such as for educational or agricultural purposes, so long as discrimination within the allocation of the funding needed to promote the general welfare was nonexistent. Both politicians took to the floor during the congressional debate of 1790. Madison began placing negative remarks on the Report on Manufacturing and Industry, a work of Hamilton's defense of the General Welfare clause, by asserting that Hamilton’s proposition that the clause had a broad interpretation was merely pretext for extensive government programs. Hamilton's argument held its own and subsequently prevailed throughout the beginning presidential administrations, and thus the clause effectively garnered a reputation of having a broad interpretation; however, Supreme Court rulings have still been determined otherwise.
Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co., a Supreme Court case which laid the foundation for the court's interpretation of the general welfare clause, was the first of its kind. The court ruled that the 1919 Child Labor Tax Law was unconstitutional, due to Congress attempting to utilize it in a manner to penalize employers using child labor. The logic stemmed from the belief that the attempt was impermissible due to the Commerce Clause. The Court stated that the tax imposed by the statute was actually a penalty in disguise. This narrow interpretation was later undermined in United States v. Butler, when Associate Justice Joseph Story concluded that the General Welfare Clause did not grant congress extensive legislative powers, but also denounced Madison's flawed interpretation requiring its use be dependent on the enumerated powers.
All in all, it's safe to say that the interpretation of the welfare clause was made purposefully broad by our framers. The reasoning behind this is crystal clear: leaving it to the Supreme Court justices throughout different eras to determine their interpretation of the clause enables for more diverse Supreme Court rulings. These rulings, in return, result in different interpretations, countering and overruling their predecessors, ensuring that the government never has too much legislative power, nor too little.