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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

Guest Essayist: John S. Baker, Jr., the Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1
1:  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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

Article 1, Section 8 enumerates the powers of Congress.  Listing those powers indicates that the federal government is one of limited powers.  Unlike a unitary sovereign which has all the general powers of government, the federal government has only limited sovereignty.  At the same time, the federal government possesses the fullness of any power actually given to it. As Federalist #23 makes plain, on those matters for which the Constitution has delegated responsibility to the federal government, i.e., national defense, foreign relations, regulation of national and foreign commerce, and preserving the public peace against insurrection, the federal government’s “powers ought to exist without limitation.”  All of which is to say that the powers of the federal government are limited in number, not that a listed power itself is limited beyond what is stated in the text of the Constitution.

As a result, it becomes essential to determine the meaning of the text for each enumerated power. Improper interpretation through either expansion or contraction does damage to the legitimate role of the federal government.  Giving the federal government a power not enumerated moves it closer to possessing full sovereignty. Limiting a given power enfeebles, at least partially, the ability of the federal government to carry out its legitimate responsibilities. Experience has also taught that the federal government can be enfeebled in the exercise of its legitimate powers because it expends resources illegitimately exercising powers not enumerated in the Constitution.  The built-in efficiency of the Constitution’s federal design is that it gave to the federal government, and left to the states, those responsibilities which each level of government was best able to perform.

The federal government has in large measure been able to exercise non-enumerated power through misconstruction of the first clause in Article 1, Section 8.  This clause illustrates the interpretive challenge.  To understand the challenge, it is necessary closely to inspect the text of this clause which reads as follows: “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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”

Notice that after the word “Power” the word “To” is capitalized. Then notice that “to” before “pay” is not capitalized. Every enumerated power thereafter begins with “To,” without repeating “The Congress shall have the Power.” In other words, each clause beginning with a capitalized “To” states a separate, enumerated power. Nevertheless, books on Constitutional Law routinely treat this first clause as having two distinct powers: to tax and to spend. Textually, however, the clause states only one power which is the power to tax (in order) to pay debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.

The Supreme Court has, at times, had to struggle with whether congressional legislation which purports to impose a tax  is in fact a tax when its purpose appears to be regulatory, e.g., a tax on gambling which was illegal at the time.  If the clause in fact grants a single power which ties taxes to paying debts and providing for the common defense and general welfare, then the issue changes.  Rather than an issue of whether the tax is really a tax, the question becomes whether – even if it is a tax — it meets the purpose language of the text.  If so read, regulatory taxes that do not raise revenue to pay government expenses would become constitutionally questionable. In other words, a reading of only the taxing language of the text – I suggest – has resulted in giving Congress regulatory powers it does not possess under a reading of the language as a single power.

Incidentally, this kind of careful attention to the text is not “strict” or “narrow” construction. It is textualism of the kind that Justice Scalia writes and practices.  As he says, he is not a “strict constructionist.” He attempts to give words in the Constitution their full meaning without either narrowing or broadening their legitimate sense.

Another mischaracterization of this clause refers to it as “the General Welfare Clause.” If Congress had a power simply to legislate for the “general welfare,” there would be no need to list any other powers.  Under such a construction of the Constitution, the federal government would in no way be a limited one.  Few, if any, students of the Constitution, however, would openly claim Congress has such unlimited power.  Nevertheless, the spending language in the clause – viewed as distinct from the taxing language –can be distorted to achieve the same unlimited power.

As discussed in United States v. Butler (1936), one of the few Supreme Court cases to address the spending language of the clause, the clause has been a matter of dispute nearly since the beginning when Madison and Hamilton disagreed over its interpretation. (The legislation addressed in Butler also involved a tax collected to fund the spending.) Madison contended that the power to tax and spend for the general welfare had to be tied to one of the other enumerated powers.  Hamilton, and later Justice Joseph Story, disagreed. They said the power was a separate power, limited only by the requirement that its exercise be for “the general welfare.” Although Butler adopted the Hamilton-Story position, it declared the particular legislation unconstitutional.

If the discussion above regarding the use of “To” and “to” means that the clause does not contain two powers, it should also establish that the clause contains a power separate from those which follow, as Hamilton and Story contended. If then Madison was incorrect, does this clause create a power so broad that it makes the enumeration of other powers superfluous? Both Justice Story and the Butler opinion recognize that there must be some limits on spending for the general welfare, but Butler did not elaborate.

The Supreme Court has since ignored Butler’s notion that the clause contains any justiciable limits.  A year after Butler, the Court upheld the parts of the Social Security Act dealing with unemployment compensation, Steward Machine Co. v. Davis (1937), and old-age benefits, Helvering v. Davis (1937). In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Court rejected a challenge to federal spending that financed presidential campaigns, saying “[i]t is for Congress to decide which expenditures will promote the general welfare.”

It may be that the term “general welfare” has acquired a meaning that, at least in Congress, extends well beyond the interpretation of Hamilton and Story.  For Hamilton who promoted infrastructure spending on canals and bridges, the spending was not for local “pet projects” or so-called “earmarks.” Rather, such spending was to promote economic development generally; it benefitted more than a single state. Underlying the term “general welfare” seemed to be the idea that the federal government could spend on matters that generally benefitted the whole country. It was assumed not only that state governments would tax and spend on projects that benefitted their own state, but that they would not and should not tax and spend on projects to benefit other states.  As with the original understanding of the Commerce Clause and other provisions in the Constitution, Congress was given the taxing and spending power for the general welfare in order to do for the states as a whole what none of them individually could do.

Congress’s idea of spending for the general welfare has often been used to “persuade” states to accept policy regulations which Congress lacks any power directly to impose.  Congress achieves the regulatory end through conditioning receipt of the funds.  Certain conditions attached to spending are not only reasonable, but required. Accordingly, the federal government ensures the proper use of funds by imposing accounting and reporting requirements and establishing other standards for spending the money.  Congress, however, also manipulates conditions in what amounts to a form of “bait and switch;” it adds new conditions after states have become dependent on federal funding for such programs as highways and Medicaid. These new conditions are ones that a number of the states likely would not have accepted when the program began because they impose burdensome obligations or infringe on a state’s legislative powers.  States, nevertheless, almost always accept the new conditions because they claim to have “no choice” — that is, except to drop the program or pay for it with state funds.

Rather than raise their own state taxes, with no diminution in federal taxes, states take the money because other states do and/or they get some return on the federal taxes paid by their citizens.  Thus, the states at least acquiesce in – if not lobby for – high levels of federal spending with the accompanying federal taxes and/or deficits to support that spending. With almost all states participating in those spending programs directed to the states, the Congress can claim that those programs address the “general welfare.”

States have not been successful before the Supreme Court in claiming Congress’s imposition of new conditions is unconstitutional because they “coerce” states which have “no choice” other than to agree to the new conditions.  In South Carolina v. Dole (1987), the Court rejected a constitutional challenge to Congress’s direction that the Transportation Department withhold 5% of the highway funds due to a state if the state did not prohibit persons under the age of 21 from purchasing or possessing alcoholic beverages.  Congress certainly had no power under which it could directly establish a national drinking age.  The Constitution left such police power issues with the states.  Nevertheless, the Court determined, inter alia, that drunk driving was a “national concern.” Of course, it was not a concern that each state was incapable of addressing individually.  Justice O’Connor argued in dissent that the condition was an unconstitutional infringement on state powers and noted that the Court’s discussion of federal spending in United States v. Butler (as distinct from other reasoning in the case) remains valid.

The last part of the clause (“all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”) guarantees that one region of the country having more voting power in Congress cannot use that power to disadvantage other states economically.  This provision ties in with the prohibition on taxing exports (Art. 1, Sect. 9, cl. 5) and the power over commerce among the states and with foreign nations (Art. 1, Sect. 8, cl. 3). It represents one example of how the Constitution, as finally drafted, coordinates its different parts into a comprehensive and consistent plan of government.

Professor John S. Baker is the Dale E. Bennett Professor of Law at Louisiana State University.