At least, that’s why Sam Clovis, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, told a conservative radio host yesterday. In an interview with host Jan Mickelson, Clovis asserted that “there’s nothing in Article I, Section 8 [of the Constitution] that authorizes subsidies of any kind,” adding that he will push to ensure that all legislation that passes Congress “must be authorized by Article I, Section 8.” Clovis also gave three examples of spending he views as unconstitutional: “crop insurance” subsidies, “foreign aid,” and “funding education.” Listen:
In fairness to Clovis, Article I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution concerns federal legislation, not state-level action, so it is likely that Clovis’ statement is limited exclusively to federal programs. Nevertheless, asserting that federal “subsidies of any kind” are unconstitutional is quite a claim. Social Security is a subsidy for seniors. Medicare and Medicaid is subsidized health insurance. Federal student loans are subsidized. Indeed, even the U.S. military could arguably be characterized as a subsidy for national defense.
He’s also dead wrong about what the Constitution provides. For one thing, it is not true that Congress’ authority is limited to the powers laid out in Article I of the Constitution — subsequent amendments have added to Congress’ power. Additionally, Article I explicitly authorizes federal subsidies — it provides that “Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” This is the basis for programs such as Medicare and Social Security that Clovis apparently believes to be unconstitutional.
It is true that, at some points in American history, prominent figures have suggested non-literal readings of the Constitution which would drastically limit the federal government’s ability to spend money, but these extra-textual limits were rejected by a unanimous Supreme Court, and even they do not require the kind of all encompassing limits that Clovis suggests. Even the narrowest possible interpretation of the Constitution offered by one of its framers, for example, would have permitted federal subsidies to establish a postal service or to build a robust shipbuilding industry to ensure that America could have a functioning Navy. Clovis’ interpretation of the Constitution not only has no basis in the Constitution’s text, it also is unusually narrow even by the standards of people who believe that the Constitution’s text is far too broad.
In the wake of the last two elections, Clovis’ idiosyncratic reading of the Constitution should give a serious case of heartburn to Republicans hoping to regain the Senate. In the 2010 cycle, an election cycle that was otherwise very good to Republicans, four “tenther” candidates who took a stance on the Constitution similar to Clovis’ lost races against vulnerable Democratic candidates — in no small part due to their very conservative views. Similarly, while 2012 Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock are best known for their insensitive comments about rape, both also shared Clovis’ apparent belief that Medicare is unconstitutional. If Republicans had run stronger candidate with more mainstream views in these races, it is likely they would now control the Senate.