The general welfare clause is not a blank check.

A lot of people think it is. They believe the federal government can spend on anything and everything as long as it benefits a lot of people.

But James Madison argued that people who take this view “stoop to a misconstruction.”

As Madison pointed out in Federalist #41, the general welfare clause is followed by a list of specifically delegated powers. He said, “Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution” the blank check argument would hold some weight.

But as Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist #83, “the specification of particulars [the 18 enumerated powers of Article I, Section 8] evidently excludes all pretension to a general legislative authority.

Giving the government general legislative power and then making a list doesn’t make any sense. As Madison put it, it would be “difficult to find a reason for so awkward a form of describing an authority to legislate in all possible cases.

Madison goes on to explain this in detail.

“For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity, which, as we are reduced to the dilemma of charging either on the authors of the objection or on the authors of the Constitution, we must take the liberty of supposing, had not its origin with the latter.”

Madison described a legal maxim – Designato unius est exclusio alterius – meaning, “the designation of one is the exclusion of the other.” It follows from this construction that Congress has the authority to tax and spend for the general welfare, but the enumerated powers limit the federal government’s spending power to specific objects – not anything they please.

You can’t have a “limited” government if it has unrestricted power to spend. As Madison said, this “would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”

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