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The concern of the government for the health, peace, morality, and safety of its citizens.
Providing for the welfare of the general public is a basic goal of government. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution cites promotion of the general welfare as a primary reason for the creation of the Constitution. Promotion of the general welfare is also a stated purpose in state constitutions and statutes. The concept has sparked controversy only as a result of its inclusion in the body of the U.S. Constitution.
The first clause of Article I, Section 8, reads, "The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States." This clause, called the General Welfare Clause or the Spending Power Clause, does not grant Congress the power to legislate for the general welfare of the country; that is a power reserved to the states through the Tenth Amendment. Rather, it merely allows Congress to spend federal money for the general welfare. The principle underlying this distinction—the limitation of federal power—eventually inspired the only important disagreement over the meaning of the clause.
According to James Madison, the clause authorized Congress to spend money, but only to carry out the powers and duties specifically enumerated in the subsequent clauses of Article I, Section 8, and elsewhere in the Constitution, not to meet the seemingly infinite needs of the general welfare. Alexander Hamilton maintained that the clause granted Congress the power to spend without limitation for the general welfare of the nation. The winner of this debate was not declared for 150 years.
In United States v. Butler, 56 S. Ct. 312, 297 U.S. 1, 80 L. Ed. 477 (1936), the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a federal agricultural spending program because a specific congressional power over agricultural production appeared nowhere in the Constitution. According to the Court in Butler, the spending program invaded a right reserved to the states by the Tenth Amendment.
Though the Court decided that Butler was consistent with Madison's philosophy of limited federal government, it adopted Hamilton's interpretation of the General Welfare Clause, which gave Congress broad powers to spend federal money. It also established that determination of the general welfare would be left to the discretion of Congress. In its opinion, the Court warned that to challenge a federal expense on the ground that it did not promote the general welfare would "naturally require a showing that by no reasonable possibility can the challenged legislation fall within the wide range of discretion permitted to the Congress." The Court then obliquely confided,"[H]ow great is the extent of that range … we need hardly remark." "[D]espite the breadth of the legislative discretion," the Court continued, "our duty to hear and to render judgment remains." The Court then rendered the federal agricultural spending program at issue invalid under the Tenth Amendment.
With Butler as precedent, the Supreme Court's interest in determining whether congressional spending promotes the general welfare has withered. In South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203, 107 S. Ct. 2793, 97 L. Ed. 2d 171 (1987), the Court reviewed legislation allowing the secretary of transportation to withhold a percentage of federal highway funds from states that did not raise their legal drinking age to twenty-one. In holding that the statute was a valid use of congressional spending power, the Court in Dole questioned "whether 'general welfare' is a judicially enforceable restriction at all."
Congress appropriates money for a seemingly endless number of national interests, ranging from federal courts, policing, imprisonment, and national security to social programs, environmental protection, and education. No federal court has struck down a spending program on the ground that it failed to promote the general welfare. However, federal spending programs have been struck down on other constitutional grounds.
Rosenthal, Albert J. 1987. "Conditional Federal Spending and the Constitution." Stanford Law Review 39.