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General Welfare Clause


GENERAL WELFARE CLAUSE. Article I, section 8 of the U. S. Constitution grants Congress the power to "lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common defense and general Welfare of the United States." Since the late eighteenth century this language has prompted debate over the extent to which it grants powers to Congress that exceed those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution. The precise meaning of the clause has never been clear, in large part due to its peculiar wording and placement in the Constitution.

The confusion about its placement arises because it makes up a part of the clause related to Congress's spending power, but does not specify if or how it affects that power. For example, through use of conditional appropriations, Congress could in theory use its power to spend as a tool to regulate areas otherwise reserved to the states. This raises the issue of the extent to which Congress may achieve indirectly, through its power to "spend for the general welfare," that which it cannot legislate directly under the Congress's powers enumerated in Article I, section 8.

At the time the Constitution was adopted, some interpreted the clause as granting Congress a broad power to pass any legislation it pleased, so long as its asserted purpose was promotion of the general welfare. One of the Constitution's drafters, James Madison, objected to this reading of the clause, arguing that it was inconsistent with the concept of a government of limited powers and that it rendered the list of enumerated powers redundant. He argued that the General Welfare clause granted Congress no additional powers other than those enumerated. Thus, in their view the words themselves served no practical purpose.

In his famous Report on Manufactures (1791), Alexander Hamilton argued that the clause enlarged Congress's power to tax and spend by allowing it to tax and spend for the general welfare as well as for purposes falling within its enumerated powers. Thus, he argued, the General Welfare clause granted a distinct power to Congress to use its taxing and spending powers in ways not falling within its other enumerated powers.

The U. S. Supreme Court first interpreted the clause in United States v. Butler (1936). There, Justice Owen Roberts, in his majority opinion, agreed with Hamilton's view and held that the general welfare language in the taxing-and-spending clause constituted a separate grant of power to Congress to spend in areas over which it was not granted direct regulatory control. Nevertheless, the Court stated that this power to tax and spend was limited to spending for matters affecting the national, as opposed to the local, welfare. He also wrote that the Supreme Court should be the final arbiter of what was in fact in the national welfare. In the Butler decision, however, the Court shed no light on what it considered to be in the national—as opposed to local—interest, because it struck down the statute at issue on Tenth Amendment grounds.

The Court soon modified its holding in the Butler decision in Helvering v. Davis (1937). There, the Court sustained the old-age benefits provisions of the Social Security Act of 1935 and adopted an expansive view of the power of the federal government to tax and spend for the general welfare. In Helvering, the Court maintained that although Congress's power to tax and spend under the General Welfare clause was limited to general or national concerns, Congress itself could determine when spending constituted spending for the general welfare. To date, no legislation passed by Congress has ever been struck down because it did not serve the general welfare. Moreover, since congressional power to legislate under the Commerce clause has expanded the areas falling within Congress's enumerated powers, the General Welfare clause has decreased in importance.


McCoy, Thomas R., and Barry Friedman. "Conditional Spending: Federalism's Trojan Horse." 1988 Supreme Court Review 85 (1988).

Tribe, Laurence H. American Constitutional Law. Mineola, N. Y. : Foundation Press, 1978.


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