Politicians should read Constitution before promising charity

Within hours of the levee break and flood, Sen. Harry Reid said he "would do everything possible to ensure the people of Fernley get the federal resources they need to help the community recover as quickly as possible." Gov. Jim Gibbons seconded that emotion, asking President Bush for federal aid, which the president extended. Now who could argue with that?


Heck, I'll give it a shot.


Many might not know that Davy Crockett not only died defending the Alamo, but also served three terms in Congress. And in a story about that experience titled "Not Yours to Give," Crockett tells of opposing a bill to appropriate money for the widow of a distinguished naval officer.


"We have the right as individuals to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity," the colonel explained on the House floor, "but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money." Crockett added, "I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has not the power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member on this floor knows it."


Apparently Sen. Reid missed a memo.


Crockett came to this position after being confronted by a voter named Horatio Bunce, who said he wouldn't vote for Crockett's re-election because Crockett had violated the Constitution by earlier voting for a bill to spend $20,000 for the victims of a fire. Bunce explained that for "the Constitution to be worth anything, (it) must be held sacred, and rigidly observed in all its provisions."


"If you have the right to give at all; and as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity and to any amount you may think proper," Bunce explained. "No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity."


President Thomas Jefferson was clear and unambiguous on this point, as well: "Congress has not unlimited power to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated (in the Constitution)."


Likewise, President James Madison, Father of the Constitution, stated plainly that "Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government." Madison also warned that "If Congress can do whatever in their discretion can be done by money, the government is no longer a limited one possessing enumerated powers ..."


And then there was President Franklin Pierce, who famously vetoed a bill to provide federal help for the mentally ill, explaining in his veto message that he could not "find any authority in the Constitution for public charity. (To approve the measure) would be contrary to the letter and spirit of the Constitution," he said.


Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the Fernley flood victims don't warrant help. As Col. Crockett noted, Harry Reid, Jim Gibbons and George W. Bush are free to contribute as much of their own money to the cause as they please. But it's not constitutionally permissible for them to use federal tax dollars for flood victim relief.

It's just not theirs to give.


- Chuck Muth, of Carson City, is president and CEO of Citizen Outreach and a political blogger. Read his views Fridays on the Appeal Opinion page or visit www.muthstruths.com.

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