In President Trump’s not-State of the State address, he made a lot of promises. Some of them I agreed with and hope he accomplishes, but his “trillion dollar infrastructure bill” is a bad idea. Did we learn nothing from Obama’s multiple trillion-dollar stimuli bills that kept the economy dragging along at a blistering 1% growth every year of his eight years of ruin?
Nowadays, when a Congressional bill hits the modern president’s desk for an up-or-down vote, he typically asks, “How will this help my party gain votes?” and “What interest groups will this bring to my side?” There have been a couple of modern presidents who maybe paused to ask themselves, “Will this spending help the economy, or advance the nation’s interests?”
It probably surprises some, if not most people, to know that our first presidents approached spending bills very differently. The first question they usually asked was, “Is this spending constitutional?” If the answer was “yes,” they would then ask “Is it wise, will it benefit the nation, or will it gain votes?”
The early presidents viewed the Constitution as a binding document that separated the powers of government for a purpose. They argued (rightly) that tyranny, high taxes and government oppression can only be avoided if governmental power is decentralized. Thus Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution restricted the power of Congress to spend taxpayer dollars to a limited number of items, mainly national defense.
Not surprisingly, then, early presidents adhered to the Constitution, even when it would have been politically expedient to do otherwise, James Madison was President in 1817 when Congress decided it was a good idea to spend fedral funds for internal improvements, such as the building and improving roads, canals, and waterways in the new nation. You can read the Constitution to discover that it does not grant Congress the authority to appropriate funds for roads and canals. If you read their extra-Constitutional writings, you will learn that the Founders recognized that improving highways was essential for economic development, but they believed that states or private companies should do the work. They didn’t think it was good government or just results when the people in Georgia could be taxed to build a canal in New York.
New York’s congressmen argued that federal funds could be used profitably in the national interest to build the Erie Canal. Since votes in the large state of New York were pivotal in many presidential elections, our early presidents had to decide whether to chase votes or follow the Constitution. Sometimes our presidents failed the test. I’m a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, but as President he supported the construction of the National Road from Maryland to Illinois.
James Madison, who followed Jefferson as president, seemed to have supported the National Road, but he learned from the experience. He directly confronted the issue of federal aid for internal improvements in his next-to-last day as president. Congress passed what was labeled the Bonus Bill of 1817, which would have used federal funds to build roads and canals across the nation. Madison responded with a thundering veto:
“I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling the bill with the Constitution.”
Madison admitted the bill would probably help the country, but then he observed that “such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution . . . and can not be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction and a reliance on insufficient precedents.”
The bill’s Congressional promoters argued that building roads and improving rivers at federal expense would “render more easy and less expensive the means and provisions for the common defense” to which Madison replied: “To refer the power in question to the clause ‘to provide for the common defense and general welfare would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation.” He added:
Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms ‘common defense and general welfare’ embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.
Madison concluded that twisting the General Welfare clause in this way “would have the effect of subjecting both the Constitution and the laws of the several States in all cases not specifically exempted to be superseded by laws of Congress.”
Remember, Madison was a chief architect of the U.S. Constitution. At the convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Madison sat in front of the presiding officer. He never missed an important speech, and he took copious notes on the proceedings. When he said that the General Welfare clause cannot be used to give Congress “a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one,” he was echoing the original intent of the Founders.
Congress might still have been surprised by Madison’s veto because earlier he had conceded that “establishing throughout our country the roads and canals . . . can best be executed under the national authority. No objects within the circle of political economy so richly repay the expense bestowed upon them.” Despite saying that, Madison’s veto response here shows he believed that the country was better off following the Constitution rather than twisting its meaning to secure more rapid economic growth. If we want federal road-building, the Constitution provides a means to amend it so as to permit such activities.
Madison’s principled veto of the Bonus Bill of 1817 set a precedent that lasted for generations. The Erie Canal never received federal funds, though it was still built by commercial interests and the State of New York. Despite this precedent, Congress tested the resolve of President Andrew Jackson with the Maysville Road Bill in 1830, which would have used federal funds to build a turnpike in Kentucky.
Jackson scrupulously followed Madison’s lead and vetoed the bill, arguing that the proposed turnpike might be economically sound, but if the country used federal funds to build a turnpike in Kentucky, “there can be no local interest that may not with equal propriety be denominated national.” He echoed Madison by adding, “A disregard of this distinction would of necessity lead to the subversion of the federal system.”
Madison and Jackson were also following George Washington’s advice in his Farewell Address. “[Avoid] the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear.”
It took the United States government until Jackson’s presidency to fulfill Washington’s request and retire all its national debt. Jackson argued the new annual surpluses reflected the frugality exemplified by refusing to use federal funds for internal improvements. The government raised a small amount of revenue each year through tariffs, the sale of land, and excise taxes, especially on whiskey, but following the Constitution, the nation had limited spending, mainly for national defense—two wars with Britain and occasional frontier skirmish with Indians.
Explaining his veto of the Maysville Road, Jackson observed that on “the national debt we may look with confidence to its entire extinguishment in the short period of four years.” We were a nation “free from debt and with all her immense resources unfettered! What a salutary influence would not such an exhibition [of restraint] exercise upon the cause of liberal principles and free government throughout the world!”
James Madison, who lived to see the national debt retired, could point to his veto of the Bonus Bill as crucial in this achievement.
So here we are with $21 trillion in debt (each citizen owes more than $60,000) and our President wants to add another ONE TRILLION in debt. And it will be debt, because the economy is not producing enough to generate that sort of funding. It President Trump truly wants to different from other modern presidents, he should look back at the Founding generation presidents and commit to reducing the debt and freeing the market economy so that it can improve infrastructure. Government is the problem, not the solution. Get out of the economy’s way and the economy will handle it … just as it did back when the need was the Erie Canal.