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Constitution? What Constitution? Paul Ryan Refuses to Provide for the General Welfare

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Cross-posted from The Nation


When the members of the 113th Congress of the United States took office this week, they swore an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic," and to "bear true faith and allegiance to the same."

The preamble to that Constitution establishes its purpose: "To form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..."

The Constitution rests a special responsibility in this regard on the legislative branch of the federal government, declaring that the Congress shall use its powers to tax and spend to "provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States."

A good debate can be had about the precise meaning of "the general Welfare of the United States." The founders had that debate -- with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton differing vociferously -- and it has continued in the Congress and the courts to this day.

But even in the 1790s, there was broad understanding that providing for the "general welfare" involved the taking of steps to protect the people from "misfortune, sickness, calamity or evil" -- and to help them respond to such circumstances. Then, as now, "calamity" was understood to involve epic storms, floods and natural disasters.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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