The farm bailout wasn’t ours to give

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How would you feel if I came to your door, brandishing a gun, and demanded that you hand over $100 to me to use to feed starving children in Africa? “How dare you!” you might say. “Who do you think you are, Robin Hood?! Stealing from the rich to give to the poor?” Perhaps you would remind me that the end does not, after all, justify the means.

There is nothing honorable about being generous with other people’s money, but this is exactly what the House and Senate did for farmers devastated by last year’s flooding. Is it a worthy cause? Absolutely, perhaps, even one of the worthiest. Did we have a right to take money acquired by force of government and give these farmers a handout? No.

This situation reminded me of a true story told about Congressman Davy Crockett, which was first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1867. In this story, titled Not Yours to Give, Congress had taken up a bill awarding money from the federal budget to the widow of a distinguished naval officer. Just before the vote, Congressman Crockett arose and recounted another worthy cause that he’d voted for, and how he was taken to task, ironically enough, by an old farmer back in his district. The farmer told Crockett:

"It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. In the first place, the government ought to have in the Treasury no more than enough for its legitimate purposes….The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be intrusted to man...which reaches every man in the country, no matter how poor he may be....So you see, that while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he. If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give twenty million as twenty thousand....You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other. No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity. Individual members may give as much of their own money as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose….The congressmen chose to keep their own money, which, if reports be true, some of them spend not very creditably; and the people about Washington, no doubt, applauded you for relieving them from the necessity of giving by giving what was not yours to give. The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution.
"So you see, Colonel, you have violated the Constitution in what I consider a vital point. It is a precedent fraught with danger to the country, for when Congress once begins to stretch its power beyond the limits of the Constitution, there is no limit to it, and no security for the people. I have no doubt you acted honestly, but that does not make it any better, except as far as you are personally concerned, and you see that I cannot vote for you.”

These arguments certainly apply to the farm aid bill, H.4717, which was passed by the House (95-6) and the Senate (33-3). In addition to the arguments recounted by Crockett, this bill also sets a bad precedent: the entire state general fund can be viewed as a catastrophic insurance account. What industry will we choose to bail out next, when jobs are on the line? Excuse me, did I say jobs? I meant the jobs of the politicians.

My job of protecting your life, liberty, and property means that I vote “nay” quite often. Where I can, I bring an alternative course of action to the table. To this end, I offered an amendment to make this farm aid program a five-year interest-free loan program, instead of a grant. In other words, a hand-up, rather than a hand-out. Sadly, this amendment was voted down (85-9).

There was no choice but to oppose the bill. Like Congressman Crockett so many years before I went to the podium to explain my opposition. I reminded everyone that wielding the force of government is a terrible responsibility which we must use justly, and that despite the worthiness of the cause, we had no authority under our state Constitution to give forty million dollars to needy farmers from state tax revenue.

Who could explain this better than Crockett? I began reading the story, pausing along the way to draw parallels. House rules state that I had one hour that I could use to make my speech, but this was the last bill of the day and it was already past lunchtime. So about two-thirds into the reading, Rep. Mike Pitts (R-Laurens) stood and interrupted my speech with a motion to shut me up and sit me down. I’ve never seen this used against another member of one’s own party, but the motion passed (79-17). It seems, the SC House of Representatives didn’t want to hear a history lesson, one which might prick their conscience, or at least not when lunch was waiting.

So you see, this is what I’m up against in the State House. I will continue to fight for your lives, liberties, and property every day that I represent you. Please keep me in your prayers.