President Trump wants to cut funding to states that will not or cannot control violent protests. In a recent memo, Trump asked for a review of funding to “jurisdictions that permit anarchy, violence, and destruction in America’s cities.” Would this be an illegal move – or would it be a return to the principles adopted when the Constitution itself was crafted?
More to the point, why does any state think it has a right to receive money from the federal government?
A Right to Federal Funding?
Why does the U.S. government give money to the states? That may seem like an odd question today since Washington has been doling out cash to states for decades. Most people consider it a normal and even essential part of how government in the U.S. functions. It was not always so, however. The Constitution does not demand that the federal government give funding to states unless one claims that the “general welfare clause” imposes this duty upon Washington.
Financial aid to states began at the start of the 20th century. Before 1905, it was virtually unheard of. According to research from the Cato Institute, there were, by 1925, just 13 programs that provided federal funds to states. That number grew to almost 1,400 by 2018. Today it appears that states think they have a right to federal money – revenue from the taxpayers of all states. Over the years, these expectations have been bolstered by hundreds of congressional bills and thousands of regulations.
It is a symbiotic relationship, of course: Washington gets some influence over states, and the states have learned to count on a reliable flow of dollars.
Another reason to question this relationship is that these dollars pass through so many different programs that nobody can say for sure whether they are all going to their intended destinations. Sure, these funding programs all come with layers of bureaucratic checks and balances, in theory, but who knows, really, where the cash is ending up?
Let’s get back to the question of Constitutional duties, though. What is this general welfare clause that politicians invoke? It is right there in Article 1; Section 8: Clause 1 of the Constitution:
“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”
Thomas Jefferson had to say about the clause: “[T]he laying of taxes is the power, and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised.”
Does this general welfare clause give states the right to a cut of the American taxpayer’s hard-earned dough? Some politicians think so – for example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he would use the clause to challenge Trump in court if the president tries to stop funding for states which won’t crack down on violent riots.
It seems the president has adopted the attitude that if states and cities can’t protect their residents, the executive branch should deem them unworthy of taxes from the American people. Is he right? In the end, the courts may decide.