To Provide for the General Welfare: A History of the Federal Spending Power

To Provide for the General Welfare: A History of the Federal Spending Power

To Provide for the General Welfare: A History of the Federal Spending Power

To Provide for the General Welfare: A History of the Federal Spending Power


This book traces the course of the constitutional controversy over the spending power and the role of that power in driving an expansion in federal activity and authority from 1787 forward. Since the founding of the Republic, American statesmen have seen the federal government as a fitting source of tax dollars to finance national improvement and growth, but for decades the constitutional authority for this funding was the subject of fierce and bitter controversy. Some, like Alexander Hamilton, read the Constitution as granting authority to Congress to spend for these purposes. Others, like James madison, together with Thomas Jefferson, believed that a constitutional amendment was necessary to confer it. The true scope of the constitutional authority given to Congress to lay taxes to provide for the "general welfare of the United States" was a prominent political and legal issue until the Civil War and was not resolved by the Supreme Court until the 1930s.


Most Americans have come to accept the federal spending power or its manifestations as part of the fabric of life in today's United States. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, student financial aid, federal aid to elementary and secondary education, food stamps, welfare benefits, supplemental security income are, if not household words, familiar government programs that affect the daily lives of millions who inhabit the United States. Americans have a general sense that, in the aggregate, these programs cost billions. in fact, federal domestic spending for assistance programs to states, individuals and other recipients accounts for the bulk of the annual federal budget, now approximately $2.1 trillion, after deducting outlays for defense and interest.

Most Americans do not ask where in the United States Constitution these programs are mentioned. Are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and welfare specified in that revered document as activities about which Congress may legislate? Is federal aid to education mentioned among the so-called enumerated powers? What of aid to the arts, community development, highway construction, and federally-assisted housing?

In fact, none of these programs or areas are specifically identified in the Constitution as matters of federal or congressional concern. If this is so, how does the federal government and, more specifically, Congress enter them? On what basis does Congress annually provide billions of dollars to assist individual Americans or the states in which they reside in the many mission areas that constitute the federal budget?

The answer lies in Article I, section 8, clause 1 of the Constitution: "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....” This provision of the Constitution authorizes Congress to tax and, implicitly, to spend, for the purposes specified. the provision has come to be known as the Spending Clause or, as used . . .

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