NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 30, 2005

The practice of spending federal money to bail out victims of disaster or misfortune was seen by earlier presidents as beyond the scope of Constitutional powers, says Walter Williams.

Although President Bush has promised federal aid to rebuild New Orleans, the Constitution should not become part of the disaster, says Williams. In earlier years, the free-flow of federal money to individuals was hard to come by. For example:

  • In 1796, Rep. William Giles of Virginia argued against a federal relief measure for fire victims, saying that it was not the right of Congress to "attend to what generosity and humanity require, but to what Constitution and duty require."
  • In 1854, Franklin Pierce vetoed a bill that would have provided funds to assist the mentally ill, arguing that it would be "contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution..."
  • In 1887, Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill that would have appropriated money to drought-stricken farmers in Texas, noting that it was not the duty of the government to extend relief to individual suffering without public benefit.

While the Constitution contains a "general welfare" clause, says Williams, it was interpreted by the founding fathers as applying only to specifically enumerated powers. According to Thomas Jefferson, "Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated."

Source: Walter E. Williams, 'Is it Permissible?", September 21, 2005.


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