President Trump, for obvious reasons – at least from his point of view – wants to cut funding to states that will not or cannot exert control over the unrest, which has, for several Democrat-controlled cities, become a severe problem. In a recent memo to the White House budget director and the attorney general, Mr. Trump requested a review of funding to “jurisdictions that permit anarchy, violence, and destruction in America’s cities.” Would this be an illegal or unconstitutional move – or would it be a return to the federalist principles adopted when the Constitution itself was crafted?
More to the point, why does any state think it has a right to receive money from the federal government, particularly when the state in question is failing in its most fundamental duty to its residents?
A Right to Federal Funding?
Why does the U.S. government give money to the states? That may seem like an odd question today since Washington has been doling out cash to states for decades, and most people, no doubt, consider it a normal and, perhaps, essential part of how government in the U.S. functions. It was not always so, however. The Constitution does not demand that the federal government provide funding to states unless one claims that the oft-cited and seemingly all-encompassing “general welfare clause” imposes this fiduciary duty upon Washington.
Financial aid to states began at the start of the 20th century. Before 1905 it was virtually unheard of. According to research from the Cato Institute, there were, by 1925, just 13 programs that provided federal funds to various states. That number grew to almost 1,400 by 2018. Today it appears that states think they have a right to federal money – revenue from the taxpayers of all states. Over the years, these expectations have been bolstered by hundreds of congressional bills and thousands of regulations.
It is a symbiotic relationship, of course: The open spigot gives Washington some influence over states, and the states themselves have learned to count on a reliable flow of dollars into their respective coffers. Another reason to question this cozy relationship is that these dollars pass through so many different programs that nobody can say for sure whether they are all going to their intended destinations. Sure, these funding programs all come with layers of bureaucratic checks and balances, in theory, but who knows, really, where the cash is ending up?
Let’s get back to the question of Constitutional duties, though. Where is this damnable general welfare clause that politicians – particularly those on the political left – so love to invoke as an excuse to expand the power and influence of government endlessly? It is right there in Article 1; Section 8: Clause 1 of the Constitution:
“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; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”
Thomas Jefferson had to say about the clause,“[T]he laying of taxes is the power, and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised.” So is this why Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York plans to take the Trump administration to court, should the president make good on his implied threat to withhold money from states that refuse to restore law, order, and civility? Does this general welfare clause magically bestow upon the states the right to a cut of the American taxpayer’s hard-earned dough? If it does, then perhaps Cuomo and other ineffectual or simply negligent governors should read the rest of the Constitution, which also mentions establishing justice and ensuring “domestic Tranquility.”
It seems the president has adopted the attitude that if states and cities refuse to protect their residents, the executive branch should deem them unworthy of benefitting from the largesse of the American people. Even though the courts will, no doubt, not see it his way, perhaps the president is right.
Read more from Graham J. Noble.