President Donald Trump has promised to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, but he wants to leverage this money to provide the extra from the states and cities to make their projects possible and not have the federal government pay the whole thing. This way he gets the most bang for the federal buck. Whether Trump understands the Constitution or not, this move leaves infrastructure to the states and cities. He seems to be working toward that end or at least having them pay much more for such, but he is likely to get resistance because they are used to handouts.
Three reasons justify his position. Residents are the primary users of what is built, thus they should sustain its cost. Infrastructure, or anything like it, is not listed in Article I, Section 8 as a function of the federal government nor has it been added by way of amendment to the Constitution, and thus, it is entirely a state, county and city function. Finally, the federal government is over $20 trillion in debt, a debt that cannot be paid in a lifetime and even then not without quantitative easement of the currency, the process of inflating existing money.
Of course, the argument that the nation has been funding infrastructure for well over a century beginning with the transcontinental railroads after the Civil War, the numerous construction projects of the President Franklin Roosevelt era and the interstate freeways under President Dwight D. Eisenhower is a powerful argument. Still, since the president went against the Constitution just once in 1869 to help the Union and Central Pacific railroads complete the first transcontinental railroad, and subsequent presidents have justified going against it two more times in 20 years for other transcontinental railroads who expected the same benefits. Every special interest group makes its case based upon what was given previously to others. For this reason, it is almost impossible to cease giving once they began and to get back to the Constitution.
When railroad tycoons realized that they could get the federal government to help pay for their developements, ensuring greater profits for them, other tycoons sought and expected the same benefits. James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railroad crossed the continent without federal help, because he did not want federal control, and he proved that, sooner or later, it could be done without federal help and without damage to the Constitution.
All of the vast federal infrastructure projects of the 1930s were also not constitutionally based. The federal government had no authority to finance infrastructure projects or job creation. Many also question whether these were absolutely necessary for economic survival. Others, including myself, believe that they prolonged the Great Depression to 12 years, instead of the usual two to three years, and that it was World War II that ended the Depression, not anything that Roosevelt did.
Federal job creation, formerly left entirely to the private sector, is now expected by voters as is the forced retirement plan, Social Security. Two new amendments to the Constitution would have authorized these drastic changes in the distribution of power and the ability to authorize them, but no amendments were even sought. We have had extensive national debt since.
Eisenhower, presumably troubled by the stark constitutional departures of his two predecessors, based his extensive interstate freeway infrastructure project on national security. Why not make landing strips for military planes everywhere, available by merely closing down a section of the freeway to public travel as needed? It has never been used for such.
It was a brilliant stretch of the Constitution, but national defense is at least a federal government responsibility, since it is empowered “to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.” Still, given the cost and that its primary function was to promote interstate travel, in practice it had very little to do with national security. Constitutionalists would have sought other ways of landing of jets, for example, at military air bases or even at commercial airports.
Some have defended these huge constitutional departures by referring to interstate commerce. “The Congress shall have power … to regulate commerce … among the several states,” according to the Constitution. Under the original interpretation, commerce among the states did not begin until goods commenced their final movement from their state of origin to their destination. It was to ensure that states did not impede commerce, the movement of things, by regulation. This interference had been a problem necessitating the Constitutional Convention. Who had authority at the border, more especially when the border was a river and a place for moving commerce, such as the Potomac between Maryland and Virginia? But there was never authority given to create the river or the road? Like postal delivery, which is another itemized federal power, commerce would use existing roads.
Now, the states are addicted to federal handouts. Rather than raise state taxes, they instead have become accustomed to seeking a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant and becoming a federal slave, as long as the federal government does not dry up their federal teat, they do not complain. Fifty years ago they would have resisted losing their independence from the federal government. Now dependent, the states are likely to resist Trump’s measure to be otherwise. Trump wants to stretch federal dollars to provide the extra percent to put the project over the top.
Dr. Harold Pease is a syndicated columnist and an expert on the United States Constitution. He has dedicated his career to studying the writings of the Founding Fathers and to applying that knowledge to current events. He has taught history and political science from this perspective for over 30 years at Taft College. To read more of his weekly articles, visit www.LibertyUnderFire.org.