Charity shouldn't begin in Congress
by Walter Williams
Stephen Moore, director of fiscal studies at the Washington based Cato Institute, spoke at Hillsdale College in Michigan. His comments were published in Imprimus. Reading through his remarks, one can safely conclude that today's Washington politicians, compared to those of yesterday, are constitutional cowards and rogues.
In 1794, James Madison, disapproving a $15,000 appropriation for French refugees, said, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on the objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents." That Congress should heed the Constitution was forcefully restated two years later by Virginia's Rep. William Giles when he condemned a disaster relief measure, saying it was neither the purpose nor the right of Congress to "attend to what generosity and humanity require but to what the Constitution and their duty require."
This kind of constitutional respect was also found in the White House. In 1854, President Franklin Pierce vetoed a bill to help the mentally ill, saying, "I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity... (and to approve such spending) would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded." President Grover Cleveland vetoed hundreds of congressional spending bills because, as he often wrote, "I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution."
The Constitution enumerates what Congress can do: establish post offices, raise and support an army and navy, declare war and conduct a few other activities related mostly to national defense. To my knowledge, the Constitution has not been amended to authorize Congress to spend money for farm subsidies, bailouts, Social Security or welfare -- not to mention midnight basketball and tennis court and swimming pool construction.
Congress has found ingenious ways to subvert constitutional limitations; one of them is the "interstate commerce clause." In a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Scalia asked the Justice Department's solicitor general to name a single activity or program that our modern day Congress might undertake that would fall outside the bounds of the Constitution. The stunned Clinton appointee could not think of any. The framers would cringe at that response.
The bottom line conclusion is that we have a corrupt Congress and White House aided and abetted by a derelict Supreme Court. While they do their mischief, we're being led down the road to serfdom. But what can we do about it? There are drastic measures suggested by people like Thomas Jefferson, who said, "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." Jefferson added that, "The tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
However, before we even think about drastic measures, we have to own up to the fact that politicians are a relatively small part of the problem. After all, what would we do, as voters, to a congressman like William Giles of yesteryear, who respected the Constitution and condemned fire relief payments because they exceeded congressional authority? What would we do to a president who took Franklin Pierce's position that there's no constitutional authority for public charity? We'd run them out of town on a rail. Our kind of congressman or president is the person who "cares" and has the deepest contempt for constitution limitations.
None of this means that we're going down the tubes as a great nation right away. After all, when the Titanic struck that iceberg, everything was OK... for a while.