Special Interests Politics – Part II

“Well, Colonel, where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity?”    –  Farmer Horace Bunce to Congressman David Crockett


The major problem of democratic republics such as the United States is that is possible for the people (through their legislatures) to vote themselves “free stuff.”  If a group with common interests bands together and convinces a majority of the legislature that the stuff they desire is worthwhile, then they can succeed in achieving their goal of obtaining more and more free stuff.   Political thinkers from Aristotle to the founders have recognized this problem.  Benjamin Franklin famously said “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

James Madison was particularly aware of this problem.  In the Federalist Papers No. 10 he defined this group with a common interests in free stuff as a faction.  Madison defined a factions as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community. “  He noted that all too often that with government “the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

Madison’s belief (and hope) was that the representatives (congressmen and senators) that make up the legislative body of the republic would be citizens of “character” whose “wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice to temporary or partial considerations.”

Madison can perhaps be forgiven his misplaced optimism if we consider that the early legislature was indeed populated with an exceptional quality of individual – true patriots and statesmen.   These men were not “professional politicians.”  Each had his own business or farm to run and served (sometimes at great personal sacrifice) not for their own aggrandizement but for the greater good of the new nation.

There have been arguments about the proper role of the government since the founding of this country.  Madison and his contemporary Hamilton provide an illustration of an argument that continues to this day.  Madison argued that the role and spending of government should be limited to specifically enumerated powers.  These included defense of the country, relations with foreign powers, maintenance of relations between the states (Madison termed this “harmony and proper intercourse among the States,”  and ensuring that the states protected the rights of the people.  (See Federalists Papers No. 41 − 43 for a complete discussion.)

Hamilton argued for a broad interpretation of the constitution that would allow the government to tax and spend for a broad variety of purposes.  He held that it was proper for the government to spend for national needs such as agriculture or education even though these are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution.  To Hamilton’s credit, he at least argued that spending should be limited to items that were for the benefit of the whole country and not just one region, state or individual.

The election of 1800 is regarded as having repudiated the view of Hamilton and his fellow Federalists.  Indeed, the Madisonian view  held for the next 24 years or so.  Davy Crockett, the famous frontiersman, tells a story that illustrates the changing view of the role of Congress and unfettered government spending – spending for special interests.  Davy Crockett served four terms in Congress from 1827 − 1835.  The following story (possibly apocryphal) is from The Life of David Crockett by Edward S. Ellis and originally published in 1884.  (A newer version published by the University of the Pacific is available)

“Several years ago I was one evening standing on the steps of the Capitol with some other members of Congress, when our attention was attracted by a great light over in Georgetown. It was evidently a large fire. We jumped into the hack and drove over as fast as we could. When we got there, I went to work, and I never worked as hard in my life as I did there for several hours. But, in spite of all that could be done, many houses were burned and many families made houseless, and, besides, some of them had lost all but the clothes they had on. The weather was very cold, and when I saw so many women and children suffering, I felt that something ought to be done for them, and everybody else seemed to feel the same way.”

“The next morning a bill was introduced appropriating $20,000 for their relief. We put aside all other business and rushed it through as soon as it could be done. I said everybody felt as I did. That was not quite so; for, though they perhaps sympathized as deeply with the sufferers as I did, there were a few of the members who did not think we had the right to indulge our sympathy or excite our charity at the expense of anybody but ourselves. They opposed the bill, and upon its passage demanded the yeas and nays. The yeas and nays were recorded, and my name appeared on the journals in favor of the bill.”

“The next summer, when it began to be time to think about election, I concluded I would take a scout around among the boys of my district. I had no opposition there, but, as the election was some time off, I did not know what might turn up, and I thought it was best to let the boys know that I had not forgot them, and that going to Congress had not made me too proud to go to see them. ”

“So I put a couple of shirts and a few twists of tobacco into my saddlebags, and put out. I had been out about a week and had found things going very smoothly, when, riding one day in a part of my district in which I was more of a stranger than any other, I saw a man in a field plowing and coming toward the road. I gauged my gait so that we should meet as he came to the fence. As he came up I spoke to the man. He replied politely, but, as I thought, rather coldly, and was about turning his horse for another furrow when I said to him: ‘Don’t be in such a hurry my friend; I want to have a little talk with you, and get better acquainted.'”

“He replied: ‘I am very busy, and have but little time to talk, but if it does not take too long, I will listen to what you have to say.’ I began: ‘Well, friend, I am one of those fortunate beings called candidates, and . . . .’ ”

“‘ Yes, I know you; you are Colonel Crockett. I have seen you once before, and voted for you the last time you were elected. I suppose you are out electioneering now, but you had better not waste your time or mine. I shall not vote for you again.’ ”

”’This was a sockdolager …. I begged him to tell me what was the matter. ‘Well, Colonel, it is hardly worthwhile to waste time or words upon it. I do not see how it can be mended, but you gave a vote last winter which shows that either you have not capacity to understand the Constitution, or that you are wanting the honesty and firmness to be guided by it. In either case you are not the man to represent me. But I beg your pardon for expressing it that way. I did not intend to avail myself of the privilege of the constituent to speak plainly to a candidate for the purpose of insulting or wounding you. I intend by it only to say that your understanding of the Constitution is very different from mine; and I will say to you what, but for my rudeness, I should not have said, that I believe you to be honest. … But an understanding of the Constitution different from mine I cannot overlook, because the Constitution, to be worth anything, must be held sacred, and rigidly observed in all its provisions. The man who wields power and misinterprets it is the more dangerous the more honest he is.'”

“‘I admit the truth of all you say, but there must be some mistake about it, for I do not remember that I gave any vote last winter upon any constitutional question.’ ”

”’No, Colonel, there’s no mistake. Though I live here in the backwoods and seldom go from home, I take the papers from Washington and read very carefully all the proceedings of Congress. My papers say that last winter you voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by a fire in Georgetown. Is that true?’ ”

”’Certainly it is, and I thought that was the last vote which anybody in the world would have found fault with.’ ”

“‘Well, Colonel, where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity?'”

“‘Here was another sockdolager; for, when I began to think about it, I could not remember a thing in the Constitution that authorized it. I found I must take another tack, so I said: ‘Well, my friend; I may as well own up. You have got me there. But certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give the insignificant sum of $20,000 to relieve women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing Treasury; and, I am sure, if you had been there, you would have done just as I did.’ ”

“‘It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. In the first place, the government ought to have in the Treasury no more than enough for its legitimate purposes. But that has nothing to do with the question. The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be intrusted to man, particularly under our system of collecting revenue by a tariff, which reaches every man in the country, no matter how poor he may be, and the poorer he is the more he pays in proportion to his means. What is worse, it presses upon him without his knowledge where the weight centers, for there is not a man in the United States who can ever guess how much he pays to the government.'”

“‘So you see, that while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he. If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20,000,000 as $20,000. If you have the right to give to one, you have the right to give to all; and as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper. You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other.  ‘”

“‘No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity. Individual members may give as much of their own money as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose. There are about two hundred and forty members of Congress. If they had shown their sympathy for the sufferers by contributing each one week’s pay, it would have made over $13,000. There are plenty of wealthy men in Washington, who could have given $20,000 without depriving themselves of even a luxury of life. The congressmen chose to keep their own money, which, if reports be true, some of them spend not very creditably; and the people about Washington, no doubt, applauded you for relieving them from the necessity of giving what was not yours to give. The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution.'”

“‘I have given you,’ continued Crockett, ‘an imperfect account of what he said. Long before he was through, I was convinced that I had done wrong. He wound up by saying: ‘So you see, Colonel, you have violated the Constitution in what I consider a vital point. It is precedent fraught with danger to the country, for when Congress once begins to stretch its power beyond the limits of the Constitution, there is no limit to it, and no security for the people.’”

Crockett realized the errors of his ways and when he returned to Congress refused to vote for these kinds of special interest spending.  However, Crockett also recognized the unbridled power provided to the Congress he went on to say “Money with them (congressional representatives)  is nothing but trash when it is to come out of the people. But it is the one great thing for which most of them are striving, and many of them sacrifice honor, integrity, and justice to obtain it.”

Madison, his contemporaries and the following generation were able to harness the power of factions because they held that the government’s power to spend was limited to only the few things necessary for conduct of business of a very limited government.  To them the requirement for the government to tax and spend to provide for the “general welfare” of the United States meant only those things required for the business of the departments of war, treasury, state and attorney general.  Taxing and spending for other purposes was in the main not anticipated.  It has taken 200 years of Supreme Court decisions to overturn this view.  The Constitution was clear enough to Farmer Bunce but seems to be too difficult for our politicians and judges to understand.  Perhaps it is time to think again about the proper role of government in spending your money.

Jay Madison Hamilton

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