Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Great Debate, Part 1: The General Welfare Clause

There’s been a debate raging in this country ever since the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788. The debate is over how much or how little the federal government should be allowed to do. This long-simmering discussion appears to be bubbling once again to the forefront with passionate arguments for and against national healthcare, tea party protests, and state sovereignty resolutions.

As I see it, the question boils down to this: Is the federal government to be a small government with a few enumerated powers or an expansive government with a few enumerated restrictions? Both sides of the argument say they support the Constitution, but they interpret it in very different ways.

The first camp (in which the author includes himself) interprets the Constitution as giving the federal government only a handful of duties and specifically denying it the ability to do any other. We see the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments added after ratification) as mere dummy-proofing: backup insurance in case the government should happen to “get too big for its britches” (to use my grandmother‘s phrase).

We like to point out the 10th Amendment, the “exclamation point on the Constitution” as 10th Amendment activist Michael Boldin calls it, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The second camp, let‘s call them “Expansionists,” interpret the Constitution as giving the federal government carte blanche to conduct whatever measures it deems necessary at the time. They often see the Constitution as a “living document” which can bend with the times. To their credit, many in this camp zealously defend the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights (except the Second and Tenth Amendments), which they view as the only few restrictions upon government power.

The big government interpretation of the Constitution relies heavily on two clauses therein.

The first is the “general welfare clause” of the Constitution’s Article 1, Section 8. The Expansionists read the clause thusly, “The Congress shall have power to […] provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States[.]” But if we read it in it’s entirety, it’s a little different.

The full clause reads: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States[.]” The clause is clearly about taxes. It mentions “duties, imposts and excises” both before and after it’s reference to the “general welfare.” Taxes are the "what" of the clause, to provide for the general welfare is merely the "why." The clause gives Congress power to levy various taxes, nothing more.

As Roger Pilon, founder and director of Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies, put it during testimony before Congress, “The general welfare clause […] was also intended […] to ensure that Congress, in the exercise of any of its enumerated powers, would act for the general rather than for any particular welfare.” [Emphasis added.]

If the general welfare clause meant that Congress was granted the power to enact any law it deemed to be for the good of the country, it would be wholly unnecessary for the Constitution to then list other powers granted to Congress. Yet this is exactly what the Constitution proceeds to do.

Next time we’ll look at one of these enumerated powers that Article 1, Section 8 goes on to list (the “commerce clause”), and see how it’s meaning has been stretched as well.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Iowans Walking To Beat Alzheimer's Disease

September will once again be the time for the Alzheimer's Association annual Memory Walk to cure Alzheimer's Disease.

Alzheimer's Disease is a degenerative disease that attacks the brain. It is always fatal and there is no cure. According to the Alzheimer's Association, the nation's leading group battling the disease, at least 5.3 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer's. These 5.3 million people all have families dealing with the disease too, including mine.

That's why I'm participating in the 2009 Alzheimer's Association Cedar Rapids Iowa Memory Walk (September 26th). I hope that you can sponsor me with a tax-deductible donation to the Association. I know that times are hard, but every dollar you can contribute helps. To donate online, please CLICK HERE. (Or below the graphic to the far right.)

If you would like to participate in or volunteer to help at a Memory Walk in your area, click here for a list of events in Iowa.

Together we can beat Alzheimer's.

The opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any group or organization.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Iowa Getting Railroaded?

My three-year-old boy loves his Thomas the Tank Engine train set. I think that all kids (or at least all the boys) go through "the train stage," but they grow out of it. Those who don't outgrow it go into politics.

Iowa Governor Chet Culver, for instance, has been riding around in his own special choo-choo to promote expanded passenger rail service in Iowa. (Republican blogger Krusy Konservative points out that Iowa Interstate Railroad [IAIS] is letting Culver use their train and Culver's I-Jobs program is funding two railroad bridges for IAIS. Quid pro quo?)

Perhaps Culver foresees a future for himself as Iowa's own Sir Topham Hatt [pictured], Thomas' railroad controller. (The resemblance is uncanny.) But unlike the railways on the fictional Isle of Sodor, Culver's railroad plans will cost Iowa taxpayers some very real cash.

Spurring the current interest in rail travel is some $8 billion in federal "stimulus" funds slated to go toward high-speed and intercity passenger rail projects. Governors, at one time proud leaders of sovereign states, are fighting each other to snap up these scraps of borrowed money from beneath the federal table.

The purpose of these funds, according to Obama's Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, is "to coerce people out of their cars," presumably lowering demand for those cars. This at a time when American automakers are being propped up with taxpayer money because their failure would have supposedly catastrophic effects on the U.S. economy. Does Obama's left hand know what the right one is doing?

Another reason is the supposed environmental benefits of rail travel. For the money, however, other means of public transportation are better. Buses average 206.6 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel, while intercity rail (Amtrak) gets 67 passenger-miles per gallon. Buses put out 50 grams of CO2 per passenger-mile while intercity rail puts out 186 grams per passenger-mile. Buses also would not require costly upgrades to the road system.

But back to Culver. He recently signed an agreement with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to coordinate efforts to create passenger rail service from Chicago to Iowa City and Chicago to Dubuque. The necessary track improvements for the Iowa City route alone (not counting station construction) are estimated to cost Iowa about $32.5 million.

But this is an official estimate, which history shows is usually artificially low in order to garner public support for a project (and ridership estimates are usually inflated). Research by Public Interest Institute shows that urban passenger rail projects have averaged about 40% higher than the projected cost. That would put the price about $45.5 million.

It's unclear if the feds will give Iowa that much. Whatever wasn't paid with federal funds would probably be financed with state bonds (debt). There would be even more ongoing costs to Iowa taxpayers. The rail service would be run by that model of efficiency, Amtrak. On the East Coast (where Amtrak "works"), for instance, Amtrack's Boston to DC line LOSES $2.30 per passenger. Its Chicago to Detroit line loses $72 per passenger. States are expected to cover these loses in regional corridors.

The Iowa taxpayer would be adopting Amtrak and subsidizing its riders. According to Public Interest Institute, "the main patrons of high-speed trains will be the wealthy and downtown workers, such as bankers, lawyers, and government officials[...]." The working class will be paying for some affluent suburbanites to feel trendy and eco-friendly while spending their weekend in Chicago.

I have nothing against rail travel per se. If some smart entrepreneurs can figure out a way to provide affordable passenger rail service in Iowa, without hooking the taxpayer up to the milking-machine or putting my unborn grandchildren further in debt to the Chinese, I'd be all for it.

But in the mean time, if Governor Culver feels like joyriding on a train I suggest he head up to Boone Iowa, where he can ride on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. A non-profit, this railroad is supported by voluntary contributions from Iowans, not taxation and public debt. And if he feels he absolutely must have his own railroad, for just a fraction of that $45.5 million I bet my son would sell him a Thomas & Friends Trackmaster set, slightly used.

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