Constitutional Checks on Spending and Debt

George Mason


In the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, George Mason of Virginia, suggested:

the necessity of preventing the danger of perpetual revenue which must of necessity subvert the liberty of any Country. If it be objected to on the principle of Mr. Rutledge’s motion that public credit may require perpetual provisions, that case might be excepted: it being declared that in other cases, no taxes should be laid for a longer term than _____ years. He considered the caution observed in Great Britain on this point as the palladium of the public liberty. (1)

Mr. Mason was reflecting a common fear among America’s Founders that giving government the right to go in to debt to fund any of its projects could destroy any free state. A permission was eventually granted in the Constitution for fear of its need in war time, as was the case in the War for Independence. That we use it today to fund big-government socialism, rather than for emergency funding in time of war, seems to validate the Founders fears. However, the question is, is it really a flaw in the Constitution or are we flawed? both our corrupt representative on the one hand and our ignorant and less than vigilant defense of limited government under the Constitution on the other?

Here’s the catch: It was discussed in the previous day’s debate (August 17, 1787) that the Constitution had several powerful checks against an abuse of this borrowing power. 1. The federal budget had to be re-approved annually. 2. In the case of the military, every two years. 3. The House, that is the representatives of a hoped-for vigilant citizenry, served only two year terms and could be voted out if ever they abused that power. 4. Since the powers delegated to the federal government were few and defined, the Constitution itself acted as a check on spending and debt, and could be appealed to to stop any funding inconsistent for purposes in excess of, or outside, the powers so delegated.

These checks served well for 126 years. Then during the days of President Woodrow Wilson’s Administration the United States created the unconstitutional, pro-Marxian Federal Reserve Bank (an exclusive banking monopoly held in private hands), adopted the equally pro-Marixan graduated income tax, and repealed the vital check on socialism that the election of U.S. Senators by their state legislatures (rather than by the people) was–in part–designed to perform. Next, in 1933, Democrat President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in violation of the Constitution (and without the required amendment for such a change), removed the United States from the gold standard. While in 1971 Republican President Richard Nixon finished the job ending the direct convertibility of the American dollar to gold. Finally, came the era of entitlement programs, which remarkably, even tyrannically are not permitted to come up for an annual vote–in violation of the Constitution–but are now perpetual ‘rights’, like: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a host of other welfare programs and thus a perpetual budgetary expense which cannot be voted upon.

Two of these changes, the income tax  and the election of U.S. Senators by popular vote, came by Amendment to the Constitution and thus required the support of the people after a considerable debate; nevertheless, the people were duped. The rest certainly could have been avoided or reversed by a vigilant citizenry; unfortunately, millions of our citizens clamored for the free handouts an increasingly socialistic state complete with campaigned for and voted in politicians who promise to rob rich Peter to pay poor Paul — as serious a moral flaw in the public virtue as ever there was — and still so clamor today.

But again, was and is the Constitution flawed, as some suggest, or is it more to the point that the governments abuse of its power to borrow coincided with a decline in the morality, education, and political vigilance of America’s citizens and those leaders a less than moral, less than well-informed citizenry elect? And this too, was and is it because the Constitution is flawed, as some suggest, or is it more to the point that we have rejected the Founders constitutional, economic, and moral model for that of Marx, Lenin, and Keynes, a choice which has encouraged debt, even perpetual debt, and thus perpetual increases in government spending and government growth, which in turn moves toward slavish levels of taxation and government intrusion in our lives?

In answer to both questions, I believe the latter. For no constitution no matter how good (and ours is the best) will long survive an ill-educated and morally corrupt people. If we hope to turn things around it will take a moral, educated, and politically active people to do it, not a new or heavily amended Constitution.

Source of Quote:  George Mason, as quoted in Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, August 18, 1787 (spelling modernized). George Mason (1725–1792) was an American patriot, statesman, and delegate from Virginia to the Constitutional Convention. Along with James Madison, he is called the “Father of the Bill of Rights.” He insisted on clear protections for state and individual rights in the Constitution. His efforts led to the insertion of a Bill of Rights as one of the first items of business in the new government. Back in 1776, he authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Steve Farrell is the Founder and Editor In Chief of Self-Educated American, one of the original pundits at (1999-2008), and the author of the inspirational novel, Dark Rose.