Unctuous Biden-Dem Infrastructure Bill: The James Madison Lesson

P. Gardner Goldsmith | August 8, 2021
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After weeks of wrangling, puffery, and metastatic promises of pork handouts, the U.S. Senate passed its version of the Biden-pushed “Infrastructure Bill”, a $1 TRILLION monstrosity that has seen 19 GOP Senators -- led by Mr. Milquetoast himself, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) – join the Dems to move it for a final vote.

The Orwellian-titled “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act” is ready to curry favor by paying for roads, bridges, and even broadband internet. It’s the first of two giant federal porkulus bills, and it’s the smaller of the two, with the second expected to spend $3.5 TRILLION in tax cash and bonded money on special interests like the elderly, kids’ care, and other “social infrastructure,” as the politicians sometimes call it - which is enough to upset many who don’t approve of the how these kinds of bills redistribute wealth, pander, smother of private initiative, and saddle future generations with tax slavery. 

But, while the central government pits people from one state against another, as their “Representatives” and Senators jockey to “bring back the bacon,” the emotions many Americans feel, on any side of the issue, actually let us take a different, deeper tack.

This time, we can use this hot-topic wrangling as an opportunity to learn a longer-lasting lesson about American history, and what should be the fundamental principle that the current debate overlooks.

We get to turn to President James Madison, who, on his final day in office, showed us the key underlying point this so-called “infrastructure” issue.

On March 3, 1817, Madison vetoed an early-America pork-type spending bill, even though he actually liked the idea of using the central government to engage in projects like road, bridge, and canal construction.

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Noting the context of Madison’s move and his letter of explanation to Congress, author Dave Benner wrote in March for the Tenth Amendment Center that he believes the action and the message to be some of the most important in U.S. history.

Madison’s reasoning was simple – although he personally favored the idea of infrastructure construction, writing that he was ‘not unaware of the great importance’ of such things, he denied the policy’s constitutionality on a federal level. Instead of upholding his own personal proclivities and allowing the Constitution to be undermined, he maintained that the Constitution was one of specific enumerated powers, and the document contained no expressed power for the federal government to do such a thing.

Precisely. At the moment, we’re looking at this only from a constitutional level, not from a moral/economic point of view, which would require us to recognize that valuation is subjective and only can be reflected by real individual choice on how one spends his or her money, not by government forcing people to pay. On that deepest moral level Madison was wrong to support taking other people’s money to fund projects he thought might be beneficial. He was wrong to insert his preferences into the lives of others.

But he was correct to acknowledge that there was no so-called “constitutional power” for D.C. to do it.

’The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified and enumerated in the eighth section of the first article of the Constitution,’ he (Madison) said, ‘and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers.’

And Brenner adds:

According to Madison, using the Commerce Clause, General Welfare Clause, and Necessary and Proper Clause as justification for the law ‘would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper,’ adding that an alternative view ‘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.’

Many contemporary Americans know that this improper approach to the U.S. Constitution is precisely that which most politicians take today. But many of those same Americans might not be aware that it’s the never-ending battle that encompasses all of United States national history, and it began with Alexander Hamilton, who promised Americans of his era that if they just turned away from the much less centralized Articles of Confederation, they could be assured the feds wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

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Shortly after the Constitution was ratified, he began lobbying for precisely the opposite, calling for what at that time were termed “internal improvements” – or pork projects for his friends – to be funded by the new US government.

As economist and historian Thomas E. Woods Jr. writes in his book, “33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask”:

As he himself admitted, Hamilton was very far from the mainstream of the Constitutional Convention. In an unpublished paper (written) two weeks after the close of the convention, he spoke of his desire to see the central government ‘triumph altogether over the state governments and reduce them into an entire subordination.’ This put him completely at odds with practically everyone, not to mention the positions he advanced in The Federalist. (p. 205)

And, notes Woods, echoing Brenner:

Towards the end of his presidency Madison vetoed a bill that would have appropriated federal funds for the construction of roads, canals, and other ‘internal improvements.’ Although he favored such expenditures, he could not find them authorized in the Constitution. More to the point, he rejected the idea that the general welfare clause was all the authorization they needed. So expansive an interpretation of that clause would render ‘the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper.’ (p. 207)

Nugatory and improper.

Perfectly expressed.

Madison is called the “Father of the Constitution” because he is the best known note-taker of the Constitutional Convention.

Some say that he revised his notes after the fact. 

Others, like 19th Century abolitionist and American philosopher Lysander Spooner correctly point out that the Constitution is not a contract any of us signed. 

It’s the politicians in D.C., and the states and cities, who take oaths to abide by it.

So, while they angle and wrangle and pose trying to send money to their constituents and political pals, this is our time to remember Madison’s action over 200 years ago, and to recall his words.

It doesn’t matter what terrible pork project they fund; it matters not whose bread is buttered by D.C., or whether they mandate in the bill that new cars have breathalyzers in them (which, by the way, they WILL mandate under the current version of the bill).  Today’s Washington politicians render the Constitution, and their oaths to operate by it, nugatory. Their actions are utterly improper.

And we should remember the lesson from James Madison from this day on.