General Welfare

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps
 
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The concern of the government for the health, peace, morality, and safety of its citizens.

Providing for the welfare of the general public is a basic goal of government. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution cites promotion of the general welfare as a primary reason for the creation of the Constitution. Promotion of the general welfare is also a stated purpose in state constitutions and statutes. The concept has

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sparked controversy only as a result of its inclusion in the body of the U.S. Constitution.

The first clause of Article I, Section 8, reads, "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 clause, called the General Welfare Clause or the Spending Power Clause, does not grant Congress the power to legislate for the general welfare of the country; that is a power reserved to the states through the TENTH AMENDMENT. Rather, it merely allows Congress to spend federal money for the general welfare. The principle underlying this distinction?the limitation of federal power?eventually inspired the only important disagreement over the meaning of the clause.

According to JAMES MADISON, the clause authorized Congress to spend money, but only to carry out the powers and duties specifically enumerated in the subsequent clauses of Article I, Section 8, and elsewhere in the Constitution, not to meet the seemingly infinite needs of the general welfare. ALEXANDER HAMILTON maintained that the clause granted Congress the power to spend without limitation for the general welfare of the nation. The winner of this debate was not declared for 150 years.

In United States v. Butler, 56 S. Ct. 312, 297 U.S. 1, 80 L. Ed. 477 (1936), the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a federal agricultural spending program because a specific congressional power over agricultural production appeared nowhere in the Constitution. According to the Court in Butler, the spending program invaded a right reserved to the states by the Tenth Amendment.

Though the Court decided that Butler was consistent with Madison's philosophy of limited federal government, it adopted Hamilton's interpretation of the General Welfare Clause, which gave Congress broad powers to spend federal money. It also established that determination of the general welfare would be left to the discretion of Congress...

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