Twisted General Welfare Clause and where it has taken us

The federal government has only the powers given to it by “We the People” in the Constitution. These powers are limited, specific and actually enumerated in Article 1, Section 8. There is no such thing as non-enumerated powers for the federal government. All powers not included under Article 1, Section 8 are left to the states by the 10th Amendment.

All matters that concern only the states were to be determined by the state legislatures and yet the federal government today has reached into nearly every aspect of our lives and our businesses. The words and the idea of “general welfare” appear in the Preamble of the Constitution and also appeared in the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution. In both cases, general welfare meant “a binding of themselves to assist each other, against … attacks made upon them” i.e., in the mutual welfare of the entire country.


It is interesting to note that as far back as 1938 the Fordham Law Review mentions the “enactment of statutes by the Congress, an ever-expanding field of federal appropriations and the limits of that field are not yet known with any degree of definiteness.” This is never more true than today.

The federal government was not given power over education, health care, charitable giving, employment practices, alcohol, tobacco or firearms, yet these are areas which the federal government has become entrenched over the years by a bastardization of the general welfare clause. The states go along because they get federal funds for these unconstitutional programs. We citizens go along because we receive numerous benefits, subsidies and free stuff. Today’s conventional wisdom for too many is that the general welfare clause means Congress can spend money for anything it wants so long as it can be construed as benefiting people and, not even all of the people or even Americans. This has led to onerous taxation and massive spending on unconstitutional programs which are bankrupting our country.

The Founders differed somewhat on the limitations of the spending authority of the national government. According to The Heritage Foundation, Hamilton supported expansive spending power but James Madison and Thomas Jefferson repeatedly argued that the power to tax and spend did not confer upon Congress the right to do whatever it thought to be in the best interest of the nation, but only to further the ends specifically enumerated in the Constitution. James Monroe opined that, “the power to spend was restricted to purposes of common defence, and of general, national, not local or state, benefit.” The more restrictive interpretation of spending power was adopted by every president until the Civil War after which Congress reformed its funding process to handle the demands and debt created by the war.

But all congressional spending restraint went out the window in the 1930s New Deal era. The Supreme Court case of United States v. Butler gave Congress the discretion to determine what was “general welfare” and from that sprang Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits and disability payment, etc., now comprising some 60 percent of the federal budget. In The American Ideology, author Brian Vanyo explains that federal government has become a wealth redistribution center, collecting through taxation huge amounts of money and distributing these monies to select individuals and favored groups. This is no longer limited government and it is not sustainable.


As citizens of a free republic it is our duty to preserve it. If you would like to take a free online course on the U.S. Constitution go to:

Mikie Kerr is a constitutional enthusiast who lives in Waikoloa and writes a monthly column for West Hawaii Today.