‘Controlling’ mandates unconstitutional

Walter Williams

We all can agree that having money to pay our mortgage or rent on time is very important. Since some people are spendthrifts and don’t manage their money well, what about a congressional mandate whereby mortgage or rent money is deducted from our paychecks each month and sent directly to our mortgage holder or landlord?
The medical profession advises that a vigorous 30-minute physical workout three or four times a week is important to the maintenance of good cardiovascular health. Not all of us heed that good advice. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for Congress to enact a law mandating that each able-bodied person perform some type of fitness exercise — such as running, a brisk walk, swimming or biking — at least three times a week? In addition to making Americans healthier, it would put a big dent in the nation’s health-care costs.
Were a congressman to introduce bills calling for payroll deductions for housing expenses or mandated exercise, what would you hope would be the focus of the legislative debate? Would you be satisfied if the congressional debate centered around whether housing expense deductions and mandated exercise were, in fact, good ideas?
Then if congressmen agreed that mandated exercise and payroll deductions for housing expenses were good ideas, and enacted legislation to that effect, would you be happy? If not, why not? After all, it would be the result of a democratic process by our elected representatives.
Were such a bill introduced, whether it’s a good idea shouldn’t enter the debate at all. Whether it’s a good idea or not is irrelevant. The relevant issue is: Is it permissible, under the U.S. Constitution, for Congress to enact legislation mandating exercise and payroll deductions for housing costs? The unambiguous answer to that question is a big fat no. I challenge any congressman to point us to even a hint of constitutional authority for such a mandate.
The fact of business is that Congress is authorized to do only those things enumerated by the Constitution. The uninformed might say: “Williams, you’re right. But here’s where you’re wrong. Article I, Section 8 of our Constitution says, ‘The Congress shall have the power to … provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.’ ” The general welfare clause has become the standard excuse for controlling our lives, and as such, it shows how ignorance and deception have become an important part of today’s America.
James Madison is the Constitution’s acknowledged “father,” and here’s what he had to say: “With respect to the two words ‘general welfare,’ I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.”
Thomas Jefferson echoed similar sentiments: “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.”
Mandated housing expense payroll deductions and exercise were simply hypothetical examples. A congressman, who took his oath of office seriously, would argue a congressional mandate for exercise and payroll deductions for housing expenses are not among those powers “specifically enumerated.”
What about mandated payroll deductions for retirement expenses?
What about mandated gallons per flush for our toilets? What about prescription drugs for seniors? In short, what about the thousands of congressional mandates and the three-quarters of the federal budget for which there’s no constitutional authority?
You might say, “If our Constitution provides no authority for programs near and dear to the hearts of so many Americans, the heck with the Constitution.”
If that’s your perspective, you’re in good company. The Courts, Congress and the White House beat you to it. Long ago they said, “The heck with the Constitution.”

Walter Williams writes for Creators Syndicate.