Click here to register for our FREE U.S. Constitution Course

History of Government Overreach

History of Government Overreach

by Paul Engel

 

Summary

  • Are federal infrastructure bills constitutional?
  • How did President James Madison react to an infrastructure bill sent to him by Congress in 1817?
  • What should the American people do about this proposed legislation?

If there are two actions that can best describe the first months of the Biden administration, they would be executive orders and spending. I’ve talked about executive orders in the past, so today I want to delve into spending. Specifically the idea that Washington, D.C. can spend money on anything Congress can appropriate. Federal spending on anything they find popular is not a 21st century phenomenon. It’s not even a 20th century one. James Madison dealt with Congress’ spending habits all the way back in 1817. How he dealt with them is something the American people need to learn today if we are to ever rein in an out-of-control federal government.

Spending bills are nothing new. Neither are infrastructure bills. The questions that faced America early in her existence should be the same questions we ask today. What are the limitations on the federal government?

To the House of Representatives of the United States: 

Having considered the bill this day presented to me entitled An act to set apart and pledge certain funds for internal improvements,” and which sets apart and pledges funds for constructing roads and canals, and improving the navigation of water courses, in order to facilitate, promote, and give security to internal commerce among the several States, and to render more easy and less expensive the means and provisions for the common defense,” I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution of the United States to return it with that objection to the House of Representatives, in which it originated.

Veto Message on the Internal Improvements Bill

On March 3rd, 1817, President James Madison vetoed a spending bill that Congress had sent him. As per Article I, Section 7, Clause 2 of the Constitution requires, he returned the bill to the house that originated it with his objections.

Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.

U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 7, Clause 2

While the reason President Madison vetoed the legislation is simple, it’s also quite important. Not only does it show the proper role of a Presidential veto, it’s an example to all of those who would ever hold that office of the checks and balances created by the U.S. Constituiton.

President Madison makes the point in the very first paragraph of his veto message that he cannot reconcile the Internal Improvements Bill with the powers delegated in the Constituiton of the United States. The remainder of the letter is his explanation of the difficulties he sees.

Enumerated Powers

The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers, or that it falls by any just interpretation within the power to make laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution those or other powers vested by the Constitution in the Government of the United States.

Veto Message on the Internal Improvements Bill

When the Affordable Care Act was being debated in the House of Representatives, a reported asked then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi where the Constitution gave Congress the authority to pass an individual health insurance mandate. Her response? “Are you serious? Are you serious?” While those in politics and the media today are not serious about Constitutional limitation, the American people should be. President Madison recognized that spending money on infrastructure was not among the enumerated powers delegated to Congress in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. And since infrastructure was not among the powers the Constitution vested in the United States, Congress did not have the power to make laws necessary and proper for executing that power.

President Madison goes on:

The power to regulate commerce among the several States” can not include a power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses in order to facilitate, promote, and secure such a commerce without a latitude of construction departing from the ordinary import of the terms strengthened by the known inconveniences which doubtless led to the grant of this remedial power to Congress.

Veto Message on the Internal Improvements Bill

The only way to consider building infrastructure part of the power to regulate interstate commerce is to ignore the language of the Constitution. This also explains why some have gone so far as to include childcare, pre-school education, and even paid leave as infrastructure. Allowing those in offices created by the Constitution to reinterpret it in any fashion they want is not liberty and it’s not even tyranny. It is despotism.

Absolute power; authority unlimited and uncontrolled by men, constitution or laws,

Despotism – Websters 1828 Dictionary

One of the justifications Congress provided for the 1817 “Infrastructure” bill was to make it easier and less expensive to provide for the common defense. Wouldn’t that justify an infrastructure bill?

To refer the power in question to the clause to provide for the common defense and general welfare” would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper. Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms common defense and general welfare” embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust. It would have the effect of subjecting both the Constitution and laws of the several States in all cases not specifically exempted to be superseded by laws of Congress, it being expressly declared that the Constitution of the United States and laws made in pursuance thereof shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges of every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” Such a view of the Constitution, finally, would have the effect of excluding the judicial authority of the United States from its participation in guarding the boundary between the legislative powers of the General and the State Governments, inasmuch as questions relating to the general welfare, being questions of policy and expediency, are unsusceptible of judicial cognizance and decision.

Veto Message on the Internal Improvements Bill

If the common defense and general welfare clause of the Constitution allowed Congress to make any law they thought would fit those purposes, then the entire structure of the union would be turned upside down. No longer would the states be sovereign over their internal matters, since Congress could nullify any state law with a federal one. Furthermore, the people would no longer have control over their state governments, since the Constitutions that formed them would be subject to the whim and will of Congress. No longer would the federal government be exercising just powers by the consent of the governed. Rather they would become the despotic tyrants we see today.

However, what if the states approve of Congress spending money this way?

If a general power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water courses, with the train of powers incident thereto, be not possessed by Congress, the assent of the States in the mode provided in the bill can not confer the power. The only cases in which the consent and cession of particular States can extend the power of Congress are those specified and provided for in the Constitution.

Veto Message on the Internal Improvements Bill

Since state governments are just as bound to the Constitution of the United States as the federal government is, they cannot authorize it to do something outside of the powers delegated to it in the Constitution. Just because the states have abdicated their responsibility to act as a check on the abuses of federal government, it does not make them right or legal.

So what are we to do? How could important essential infrastructure work be completed if the federal government cannot do it? Aren’t these projects too important to ignore because of a little issue of constitutionality?

I am not unaware of the great importance of roads and canals and the improved navigation of water courses, and that a power in the National Legislature to provide for them might be exercised with signal advantage to the general prosperity. But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution, and believing that it can not be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and a reliance on insufficient precedents; believing also that the permanent success of the Constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the General and the State Governments, and that no adequate landmarks would be left by the constructive extension of the powers of Congress as proposed in the bill, I have no option but to withhold my signature from it, and to cherishing the hope that its beneficial objects may be attained by a resort for the necessary powers to the same wisdom and virtue in the nation which established the Constitution in its actual form and providently marked out in the instrument itself a safe and practicable mode of improving it as experience might suggest.

Veto Message on the Internal Improvements Bill

Part of the failure in government today comes from the tearing down of the partition between the state and federal governments. If these projects are so important, and if they are authorized by the Constitutions of the states and of the United States, then the states can fund them. Why should New Yorkers pay for improvements in Florida or Tennesseans pay for fixing roads in California that have been neglected? If these projects are so beneficial, let those who would directly benefit from them pay for them.

Conclusion

Why do the American people act like only Washington, D.C. can get these projects done? For the same reason Willie Horton said he robbed banks: “That’s where the money is.” For the last century the American people have allowed their state governments to become dependent on federal money. With the authorization of the federal income tax and the removal of state representation in the U.S. Senate, the states have made themselves subjects of Washington, D.C. Not only have the states succumbed to bribes coming out of our nation’s capital, but the people have as well. Why else are so many clamoring for federal programs that are not authorized by the Constitution? While there is plenty of blame for those who work in our state houses, the real blame is with the people who hired them.

The spending spree that has marked the beginning of the Biden administration is not a compassionate act, it’s bribery. The American people are selling their birthright to freedom and liberty for a few coins borrowed in our own name. As Alexis DeTocqueville said:

The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the publics money”

Alexis De Tocqueville

It appears not only has Congress discovered that they can bribe the public with their own money, but that the public likes it that way. So much for the future of the American Republic.