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.
It is difficult imagine a recent crisis that more precisely fit the definition of “calamity” than Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath, which has left hundreds of thousands of Americans with destroyed or damaged homes and made it impossible for thousands of businesses to operate along the East Coast of the United State. Whole communities are struggling simply to return to something resembling normal.
On Friday, mere hours after swearing 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 House of Representatives faced a simple vote on the most basic federal intervention on behalf of the victims of Superstorm Sandy: a measure to temporarily increase the borrowing authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assure that the National Flood Insurance Program could meet its obligations.
One hundred and ninety-one Democrats voted for the first real response by Congress to a disaster that occurred more than two months earlier. They were joined by 161 Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota.
But sixty-seven House members —led by Houe Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan—lvoted “no.” The House Budget Committee chairman termed the maintaining of the existing flood-relief program to be “irresponsible.”
Ryan, as is frequently the case when it comes to matters constitutional, was precisely wrong.
One of his few clearly defined responsibilities, one of the few clearly defined responsibilities of any House member, is “to provide for the general Welfare.” They swear an oath to do so. And, barely hours into the new Congress, Ryan and his compatriots rejected that oath and a fundamental premise of the Constitution it supports.