United States v. Butler Affirms Constitutional Values

United States v. Butler (1936) is a case of New Deal legislation challenged for its Constitutionality on Appeal to the Supreme Court.  The statute under review is the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (“AAA”). The portion of the Constitution upon which the government attempts to uphold AAA’s legality is Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 known as “the Spending Cause”.  “The government asserts that warrant is found in this clause for the adoption of the AAA.  The argument is that Congress may appropriate and authorize the spending of moneys for the “general welfare;” that phrase should be liberally construed to cover anything conducive to national welfare. That decision, to promote such welfare rests with Congress alone, and the courts may not review its determination. And finally that the appropriation under attack was in fact for the general welfare of the United States.”  (Butler p. 64). The preceding is what the government pleaded in support of the AAA. See what the Court reasoned about the case below.

The plan Congress put into effect in the AAA is to tax agricultural processors and then use the revenues to offer payment to farmers who agree to reduce their planting or production of farm commodities.  The farmers receive [what is claimed to be welfare] what the processors paid.

“The Supreme Court opinion begins with the proposition that the words, “general welfare” cannot be meaningless, else they would not have been used.  The Conclusion must be that they were intended to limit and define the granted power to raise and to expend money.  How should they be construed to effectuate the intent of the instrument?”  (Butler p.65)  “The clause has been construed by Justice Story in his Commentaries, and the in the opinion of this Court Justice Story explicates correctly.“ “It results that the power of Congress to authorize expenditure of public moneys for public purposes is not limited by the direct grants of legislative power found [elsewhere than clause 1] of the Constitution.” (Butler p. 66).  Story says:  “A power to lay taxes and for the…general welfare of the United States is not in common sense a general power:  It is limited to those objects.  It cannot constitutionally transcend them.”  (Butler 66).  How to give effect was stated by Hamilton as ”the purpose must be general and not local.” Monroe agreed with Hamilton and wrote, “Have Congress a right to raise and appropriate the money to any and to every purpose according to their will and pleasure? They certainly have not.”  Story says, “If the tax be not proposed for the common defence or general welfare, but for other objects wholly extraneous, it would be wholly indefensible upon constitutional principle, “ And he makes clear that the powers of taxation and appropriation extend only to matters of national as distinguished from local welfare.”  (Butler p.67)  “How great is the notion of general welfare within the great extent of the general welfare of the United States, we hardly need remark.  But despite the breadth, the duty of the Court is to hear and to render judgment.”  (Butler p.67)

The Court next turned attention to the statutory means to accomplish is presumed “general welfare” goal. “We are now required to ascertain the scope of the phrase: general welfare of the United States” or to determine whether an appropriation in the aid of agriculture falls within it.   Wholly apart from that question, another principle embedded in our constitution prohibits the enforcement of the AAA. The act invades the reserved rights of the states.  It is a statutory plan to regulate and control agricultural production, a matter beyond the powers delegated to the federal government.  The tax, the appropriation of the funds raised, and the direction for their disbursement, are but parts of the plan.  They are but means to an unconstitutional end”. (Butler p. 68)  It is an established principle that the attainment of a prohibited end many not be accomplished under the pretext of the exertion of powers which are granted.  It is the painful duty of this tribunal, should a case requiring such a decision come before it, to say that such an act was not the law of the land.” McCulloch v Maryland, 4 Wheat. “Congress is not empowered to tax for those purposes which are within the exclusive province of the States,” Gibbons v Ogden, 9 Wheat, 1, 199.  The decision of the Butler Court was to affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals that the AAA was unconstitutional.  

Publiustoo.com                                                                                             October 11, 2020