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ArtI.S8.C1.2.1 Overview of Spending Clause

Article I, Section 8, Clause 1:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; . . .

In its modern understanding, the Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution ranks among Congress’s most important powers. The Clause appears first in Article I, Section 8’s list of enumerated legislative powers. It states in relevant part that “Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” 1 The Court has construed the Spending Clause as legislative authority for federal programs as varied and consequential as Social Security,2 Medicaid,3 and federal education programs.4 The spending power also underlies laws regulating local land-use decisions and the treatment of persons institutionalized by states,5 as well as statutes prohibiting discrimination on certain protected grounds.6

The Spending Clause has not always been understood to confer such broad authority. The scope of Congress’s spending power divided key members of the founding generation, and these disputes persisted throughout the nineteenth century.7 The Supreme Court did not squarely address the substantive power of Congress’s spending power until the 1930s, when it embraced a relatively broad view of Congress’s discretion to identify the expenditures that further the general welfare.8 Congress has used that power to pursue broad policy objectives, including objectives that it could not achieve legislating under its other enumerated powers. Under the usual framework, Congress offers federal funds in exchange for a recipient agreeing to honor conditions that accompany the funds. This offer and acceptance, the Court has said, is what lends Spending Clause legislation its legitimacy.

In its modern case law, the Court has reaffirmed the central holdings of its 1930s cases. However, the Court has also articulated and developed restrictions or limitations on the spending power. Chief among these are factors that ensure the knowing9 and voluntary10 acceptance of funding conditions. Other factors affect the Court’s review of Spending Clause legislation as well.11

U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 1. back
Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619, 641 (1937). back
Armstrong v. Exceptional Child Ctr., Inc., 575 U.S. 320, 332 (2015). back
Arlington Cent. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Murphy, 548 U.S. 291, 296 (2006) (observing that “Congress enacted the” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “pursuant to the Spending Clause” ); Bennett v. Ky. Dep’t of Educ., 470 U.S. 656, 665 (1985) (examining funds received by states under Title I of the of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). back
Sossamon v. Texas, 563 U.S. 277, 281 (2011) (explaining that Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act under its Spending and Commerce Clause powers). back
Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, P.L.L.C., 142 S. Ct. 1562, 1569 (2022). back
See ArtI.S8.C1.2.2 Historical Background on Spending Clause. back
See ArtI.S8.C1.2.3 Early Spending Clause Jurisprudence. back
See ArtI.S8.C1.2.5 Clear Notice Requirement and Spending Clause. back
See ArtI.S8.C1.2.6 Anti-Coercion Requirement and Spending Clause. back
See ArtI.S8.C1.2.7 General Welfare, Relatedness, and Independent Constitutional Bars. back