With the nation in the midst of an economic crisis, many groups and individuals are questioning the massive spending and so-called economic stimulus bills recently passed by Congress. This includes bailouts and appropriations known as earmarks and pork-barrel spending. Since the constitutionality of federal spending is never part of the debate, we need to re-visit Congress’ power to tax and spend.

The Taxing and Spending Clause

Congress’ power to tax and spend is found in Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the Constitution for the United States of America. This Clause grants Congress the power:

“To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.”

Constitutional Purposes of Taxation

Pursuant to this Clause, Congress can only impose taxes for three purposes. First, to “pay the debts…of the United States.” This provision was inserted, primarily, to give the federal government the ability to extinguish the existing debts of the United States and was not intended to grant Congress the discretionary power to dream-up ways to incur new debts. Second, to “provide for the common Defense…of the United States.” This provision enumerates the primary purpose of the federal government and grants Congress the power to raise the needed revenue. Third, to “provide” for the general Welfare of the United States.”  Since most federal spending falls under the third clause, which is commonly known as the General Welfare Clause, it will be the focus of this article.

Definitions of “General” and “Welfare”

In order to accurately examine the general welfare provision, it is necessary to establish the meaning of the words general and welfare.

“General. 1: involving or applicable to the whole. 2: involving, relating to, or applicable to every member of a class, kind or group.”

“Welfare. 1: the state of doing well, esp. in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being or prosperity.”

The word welfare is derived from the words “well” and “fare” and means a “state of faring well”or “well being.”  When the Framers used the word welfare in the Constitution they were using it in this context. They were not referring to government give-a-way programs for the poor, disabled, disadvantaged, etc. These programs were virtually unknown to the Framers and would have been classified, in the language of the day, as a form of poor relief.

From the above, the common definition of the general welfare phrase, as used by the Framers in the taxing clause is: “the whole group’s well being.”

Since the general welfare phrase is annexed to the words “United States,”  the whole group being referenced is a group of States called the “United States of America.” Thus, this Clause grants Congress the power: “[t]o lay and collect taxes to provide for the well being of the States in their united or collectively capacity.”

Alexander Hamilton confirmed this in Federalist Essay No. 83:

“The United States, in their united or collective capacity, are the OBJECT to which all general provisions in the Constitution must necessarily be construed to refer.”  [Emphasis not added]

The Original Controversy

Following the close of the Federal (Constitutional) Convention of 1787, a controversy arose over the meaning and scope of the general welfare phrase. The Anti-Federalists, who opposed ratification of the proposed constitution, were vehemently opposed to this provision because