Congress Uses Powers From A Phony Constitution To Get Their Way
Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – “He cited Madison and Monroe and others that had said: Look, I can find nothing in the Constitution that would cause me to sign this bill so that you can buy alfalfa seeds for farmers in Texas, for example. Explain to the audience just a little of the history behind public works and roads and canals and how the framers of the Constitution just kept saying: No, we don’t have the power, so Congress can’t do it.” Check out today’s transcript for the rest….
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: Speaking of Thomas E. Woods, I read a page or two from Who Killed the Constitution?, page 71, I believe, the other day, which had to do with roads to nowhere and how you and Dr. Woods had proven or had presented to your reading audience that in the original federal Constitution, the way the federal Constitution was written and was understood — we were speaking about church fathers a minute ago. He’s talking about Constitution fathers, the early fathers of the republic — when it was a republic — understood and applied the Constitution in a very different manner than late 20th century men have applied it, especially when it comes to things like works projects, public works projects. Every president, all the way up — well, not everyone because Lincoln didn’t go along with it — President Cleveland may have been the last great vetoer of public works projects, but he did veto a significant amount of them. He cited Madison and Monroe and others that had said: Look, I can find nothing in the Constitution that would cause me to sign this bill so that you can buy alfalfa seeds for farmers in Texas, for example. Explain to the audience just a little of the history behind public works and roads and canals and how the framers of the Constitution just kept saying: No, we don’t have the power, so Congress can’t do it.
Kevin Gutzman: Of course, the idea here as explained by the leading federalists during the ratification campaign of 1787-91 was that Congress had only the powers, as Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia put it in the Virginia Ratification Convention, that were “expressly” granted. At the beginning of the 19th century, President Jefferson twice in his annual State of the Union message, which, remember, is not a speech but was a letter to Congress. President Jefferson, in two of those eight messages, asked Congress to establish a program of building roads. He said, essentially: If you don’t have authority to do this, you need to amend the Constitution first. Then his friend and political ally, President Madison, the fourth president, again, twice in his eight State of the Union messages, said that Congress should establish a network of roads, canals, and bridges, but if it didn’t have constitutional authority, it should amend the Constitution first.
Madison, on his last day as president, was presented with what was called the Bonus Bill, which was Henry Clay and John Calhoun sat as the Speaker of the House and Chairman of Foreign Relations Committee in the House. Their bill to take the federal government’s profit from the Second Bank of the United States, of which it was a 20 percent shareholder, and from which therefore it was going to reap substantial profit, Calhoun and Clay said this money should be used for roads, canals, and bridges, as Madison had called on Congress to provide. Madison’s very last act as president was to veto this bill, which he had called for. In his Bonus Bill veto message — which anyone listening can find online by Googling “James Madison Bonus Bill veto message” — Madison explains that he had to veto this bill even though he thought the policy was a good idea because Congress didn’t have constitutional authority to provide for roads, canals, and bridges, and it hadn’t amended the Constitution to make up the steps of its authority. As you mentioned, President Monroe had similar occasion. He actually, while president, wrote a little pamphlet explaining why he had to oppose this kind of law even though he thought it was a good policy. This remained the position of the Democratic Party through the 19th century, of course.
I said before that leading federalists made the claim during the ratification campaign that Congress would only have the powers “expressly granted.” What I’m saying is contrary to the standard account of the ratification campaign. The standard account of the ratification campaign kind of has two parties. One are the “federalists,” who take a Hamiltonian position and Congress and the federal government can basically do anything. Then the other party supposedly were the anti-federalists who argued that there should be limited powers. Eventually they were going to insist on amendments like the Tenth Amendment. That is actually entirely incorrect.
What really happened was, in several states, leading federalists like James Wilson and Governor Randolph and James Madison and Hamilton himself, Cushing in Massachusetts, Iredell in North Carolina, Pinckney in South Carolina, these people are all prominent federalists, the leading federalists in their states who said during the ratification campaign that Congress will only have the enumerated powers. In fact, people are used to the idea that if you want to know what the Constitution was said to mean during the ratification campaign, what you do is go to the bookstore or library and buy a copy of the Federalist Papers. The Federalist Papers actually weren’t very widely read during the ratification campaign. We don’t have any evidence that they actually persuaded anybody. There were some states in which they didn’t even appear in the papers. Nobody saw them really.
The most widely disseminated argument for ratification was what’s called James Wilson’s State House Speech. Wilson was a prominent member of the Philadelphia Convention. He later would be a Supreme Court justice. In the interim, he was a very prominent proponent of ratification in Pennsylvania. He, a couple of weeks after the end of the Philadelphia Convention, went to the Philadelphia State House and gave this speech where he publically explained what the Constitution meant. He said the key difference between the federal constitution and the state constitutions is that under the state constitutions, the state governments have whatever powers the Constitution doesn’t deny them. The federal government is only going to have the powers that the federal constitution expressly gives them. They’re enumerated. This idea that Madison expressed in the Bonus Bill veto message, that Congress didn’t have the power to provide for roads, canals, and bridges because that power did not appear in the enumeration of powers of Congress in the Constitution, this was not some peculiar anti-federalist kind of attitude of James Madison. Rather, this was exactly the way the Constitution had been sold to people 30 year earlier.
You’re right that Cleveland insisted on this, too. People may be thinking: Okay, if it’s true that Congress didn’t have the power to provide for roads, canals, and bridges, why is it that we have federal spending on roads, canals, and bridges?
Mike: Good question.
Gutzman: The answer is, the way Tom Woods and I approached that question in our book is by saying, essentially, what’s happened since the father of the Constitution vetoed this bill is essentially the death of the idea of a written constitution. Nowadays people in Washington just don’t care whether the Constitution gave them power to do something. In the middle of the 20th century, Vice President Nixon, apparently on behalf of an unwell President Eisenhower, asked Congress to start spending money on roads and railroads, airports, bridges, and so on. They did it and now we have it. There’s never been a constitutional amendment to authorize it. I argue that it’s entirely illegitimate. The other thing about that is, of course, it’s entirely wasteful.
I think I’ve told you this story before. Four or five years ago I got an email out of the blue from a Connecticut state senator. He said he wanted to get together with me and talk about the Tenth Amendment. I said: Okay, my favorite restaurant is, and I told him where he could take me to lunch. We went to this nice little Mexican place in Danbury, Connecticut. We’re sitting there eating and after a few pleasantries, he says to me: See that project out there? He points out the window to where one of the two main streets in Danbury was being repaved.
I’ve lived here for 16 years. That road has been repaved I think three times, maybe four times. He said to me: See that project out there? Because it’s being done by the federal government, it costs 45 percent more. I kind of groaned. I thought about it for a minute and I said: No, I think you’re wrong about that. He says: Wrong about that? I said: Yeah, it’s actually infinitely more expensive, because if the federal government weren’t paying for it, it wouldn’t be done at all. You wouldn’t be paying to do this for the third time in ten years. He smiled and says: You’re right, that’s true. As I was thinking about it, several wasteful road programs that I’m familiar with occurred to me. The federal government’s road-building program is one of the most wasteful things the federal government does.
Mike: It has to be.
Gutzman: I’ll give you another example. I went to high school in a little town called Belton, Texas, which is a little more than an hour north of Austin. Belton, Texas is right on I-35. I-35 is the one that famously collapsed in Minneapolis and the bridge fell into the river and so on. If you go a couple thousand miles south, that’s the same road that runs through Austin. A little north of Austin is Belton, Texas. It used to be, when I was in high school, if you wanted to get onto I-35 from Belton and go north, you’d drive under an overpass and then stop at a stop sign. You’d take a left and merge into I-35. When I was in college, there came to be a
gigantic intersection where the stop sign used to be and now there’s a fancy stoplight system there at that intersection. If you go there, you’ll still always find it. There is no traffic. There are no other cars. You don’t need a stoplight. Why do they have this fancy, expensive stoplight and gigantic intersection?
Mike: I know why.
Gutzman: Why do you think?
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Mike: Because somebody wanted to appropriate some federal money to build it.
Gutzman: Yes. What happened was, when I was in my first year of grad school at the LBJ school, Jim Wright of Fort Worth became speaker of the house. Our congressman in Belton, a Democrat named Marvin Leath — in the old days they had conservative Democrats and he was one — was an ally in the house of Jim Wright, for various purposes. Jim Wright provided money to build this intersection in Belton. I’m going to throw a gift to Marvin Leath and we’ll build this fancy intersection. The thing is, it’s totally unneeded. It’s actually a pain in the neck because you find yourself waiting through the light when you would never have had to wait at the stop sign. It’s just a gigantic waste of money. You multiply that by bridges to nowhere, railroads to nowhere, regarding White Street in Danbury, putting this stoplight there at Belton, the whole federal road-building program not only is a total offense to the constitutional idea, but, as you said, it’s one, big, rolling boondoggle after another.
End Mike Church Show Transcript