The amount of power that Congress has been able to exercise through it’s ability to tax is stunning.
Think about it. It has used the power to tax to force you to contribute to your own retirement through Social Security and it uses federal tax dollars to dictate what our schools will teach. Now, the taxing power is even being used to force you to buy health insurance.
All of this is possible because the conventional wisdom in this country is that Congress has a very broad taxing power.
But as I explained this weekend on TheBlaze Radio’s Chris Salcedo Show, Congress’s power to tax is actually very limited:
Here is the part of the Constitution that we’re looking at:
“Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes… to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.”
The language here is pretty straightforward and makes it pretty obvious that the intent in this clause was to give Congress the power to lay taxes for the purpose of raising money that will be used to pay this country’s debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare. And I could quote several Founders here who explained that that is exactly what this clause means.
However, there’s an easier way to help you see what the limits on the taxing power are. When you look at this power in the context of the Constitution as a whole, you can see beyond any reasonable doubt what those limits are.
Our federal government was designed to handle issues that affect the entire country as a whole. James Madison assured us in the Federalist #45 that the federal government would be limited to dealing with general concerns like national defense and foreign diplomacy. Meanwhile, the states were expected to be in charge of the day-to-day issues of internal government.
Both the states and the federal government had a very distinct role to play in this country and they weren’t supposed to interfere with each other’s jobs. Edmund Pendleton explained this very well in the Virginia Ratifying Convention:
“The true distinction is, that the two governments are established for different purposes, and act on different objects; so that, notwithstanding what the worthy gentleman said, I believe I am still correct, and insist that, if each power is confined within its proper bounds, and to its proper objects, an interference can never happen. Being for two different purposes, as long as they are limited to the different objects, they can no more clash than two parallel lines can meet.”
Keep in mind that the distinct role of the federal government is to handle general issues that affect the entire country as a whole. Given that, why would the Founders give Congress the power to affect local issues (the distinct role of the States) through the power of taxation?
That doesn’t make any sense. It would destroy the federal/state separation that is built throughout the rest of the Constitution.
If the Founders had intended the taxing power to deviate that dramatically from the structure that is created in the rest of the Constitution, they would have stated it very specifically. Giving Congress the power to manipulate local issues through the taxing power would have been a huge deal at the time the Constitution was written. That type of enormous power isn’t something they would have just tucked away as something to be implied from the broader authority to tax.
When you take the text of Article 1, Section 8 and put it in context with the rest of the Constitution, the limits on the taxing power are very clear. Congress has the power to tax. But only for the purpose of raising money that the the federal government will use to exercise the powers that are given to it in other areas of the Constitution.
If we could just get Congress to impose taxes according to the rules laid out in the Constitution, we’d already be a long way toward reigning in our out of control federal government.
Chad Kent is an author and speaker with a unique style that makes the Constitution simple and fun. Listen to Chad every Saturday during The Chris Salcedo Show on TheBlaze Radio and visit his web site at www.ChadKentSpeaks.com.
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