General Welfare Clause

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The general welfare clause allows Congress to "lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the taxes debts and provided for the common defense and general welfare of the United States." Congress is permitted to promote the general welfare in its use of spending power consistent with the Enumerated Powers.[1]

James Madison explained during the debates for the Cod Fishery bill in 1792:

It is to be recollected that the terms "common defence and general welfare," as here used, are not novel terms, first introduced into this Constitution. They are terms familiar in their construction, and well known to the people of America. They are repeatedly found in the old Articles of Confederation, where, although they are susceptible of as great a latitude as can be given them by the context here, it was never supposed or pretended that they conveyed any such power as is now assigned to them. On the contrary, it was always considered clear and certain that the old Congress was limited to the enumerated powers, and that the enumeration limited and explained the general terms. I ask the gentlemen themselves, whether it was ever supposed or suspected that the old Congress could give away the money of the states to bounties to encourage agriculture, or for any other purpose they pleased. If such a power had been possessed by that body, it would have been much less impotent, or have borne a very different character from that universally ascribed to it.[2]

He went on to warn:

I venture to declare it as my opinion, that, were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America; and what inferences might be drawn, or what consequences ensue, from such a step, it is incumbent on us all to consider.[2]

Constitutional Convention[edit]

During the 5 month Constitutional Convention, delegate Oliver Ellsworth noted that the only item considered under the "general welfare" was national security. Items of a non-general nature should be handled by the states. He said:

The Natl. Govt. could not descend to the local objects on which this depended. It could only embrace objects of a general nature.[3]

See also[edit]