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President James Madison and Pork-Barrel Spending

1 min readBy: Chris Atkins

Andrew’s post on pork spending reminds me of a story about the Father of the Constitution. President James Madison, in his last act before leaving office, vetoed a bill for “internal improvements,” including roads, bridges, canals, etc. These kinds of programs are ripe for the pork-barrel treatment today.

In his veto message to Congress, he said:

“Having considered the bill…I am constrained by the insuperable difficulty I feel in reconciling this bill with the Constitution of the United States…The legislative powers vested in Congress are specified…in the…Constitution, and it does not appear that the power proposed to be exercised by the bill is among the enumerated powers…”

Congress had tried to justify the bill by using the General Welfare Clause, to which President Madison responded:

“Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms ‘common defense and general welfare’ embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.”

Finally, Madison sympathized with congressional efforts to improve commerce, but reminded Congress that:

“But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the Constitution, and believing that it can not be deduced from any part of it…I have no option but to withhold my signature from it….”

This angered many in Congress, but it was a great last stand for the Father of the Constitution.

Quotes are from JAMES MADISON: WRITINGS (1999).