With the speed that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was proposed and passed through Congress, few Americans had the time to really take a critical look at the spending provisions within the over 1,000 page act. Over half of the $787 billion planned is for programs characteristic of a welfare state. These programs include unemployment benefits, federal medical assistance, food stamps and even housing assistance programs. The provisions of the act exemplify an ever-increasing role of the federal government in areas of the economy previously run by private enterprise, charities and state and local governments.
The size of the federal government is ballooning out of control, with utter disregard for the checks established by the Constitution. Rather than letting the recession take its natural course towards a stabilization and a rebound, the federal government is using this period of weakness to justify seizing control over the economy through directed growth of federal agencies and departments.
The provision in the Constitution for Congress to have the power to “provide for the… general welfare of the United States” is the sole statement in the document that could be construed to give the federal government the authority to do what it is doing now. But a simple examination of the historical intent of that clause reveals that the American system has morphed into something the founders strove to prevent after revolting against the special-interest welfare policies of King George.
James Madison, principal author of the Constitution, explained the intent of the general welfare clause clearly. “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.”
Madison also said, “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.”
The era of these particular exceptions began decades ago during a time period with many corollaries to today, the Great Depression. That era too is an example of the growth of federal influence upon all facets of life in America.
It was one landmark Supreme Court decision in particular that permitted this radical shift in the balance of power. In 1936 ruling justifying the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the New Deal Supreme Court pronounced: “The power of Congress to authorize appropriations of public money for public purposes is not limited by the grants of legislative power found in the Constitution.” With this interpretation, the Constitution was essentially rewritten without an amendment. The intent of the Tenth Amendment was nullified and the door was opened for the creation of a welfare state.
It came as no surprise when various new federal departments and agencies began popping up to direct all the newfound public funding. The earlier establishment of the income tax through the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913 allowed for the redistribution of wealth by the federal government.
Gradually the income tax was expanded from taxing only the most wealthy to nearly everyone with a job. Had it not been for these two turns of events, most middle class wage earners today would not be paying over a third of their income to the federal government. With a legal way to collect and use money collected from the public against their will, the federal government grew and grew, consuming ever more of the wealth of the nation.
Reckless spending and unbalanced budgets are the legacy left today by the “progressive” lawmakers of the early twentieth century. Uncle Sam has become a leech upon the backs of innovative and hard-working Americans, dumping their fortunes and wages into a bureaucratic abyss. All the branches of the federal government share the blame for this crippling debacle.
The American people too share the blame, for electing those who promoted the formation a dominating central government. We must work to reverse this unsustainable trend of government siphoning and micromanagement before we reach the tipping point. Will our current powerful leaders tell us when the real reform is needed to accomplish this goal? I tell you again, don’t count on it.
Colin McKim is an environmental management and protection junior and a Mustang Daily political columnist.