What does the Preamble to the Constitution have to do with Build Back Better?
As Congress debates whether and how much of President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion Build Back Better (BBB) legislation to approve, it is important to keep at least two factors in mind:
First, the proposed BBB is consistent with the Preamble to our Constitution. There are four tenets in the Preamble: establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare. These four tenets are the responsibility of the government, not individuals.
According to the White House, the BBB act will promote the general welfare by setting the country on a course to meet its climate goals, create millions of good-paying jobs, enable more Americans to join and remain in the labor force, and grow our economy from the bottom up and the middle out. This supports general welfare, not personal welfare.
Second, BBB is not a new concept. It builds upon the movement initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the height of the Depression and embraced and expanded 12 times by five of his successors, two of whom were Republicans.
In 1935, under President Roosevelt, Congress in 1935 passed the Social Security Act, America’s most popular program, currently providing benefits to about 70 million Americans, and the Unemployment Insurance Act, currently provides benefits to more than 200,000 of our fellow citizens.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson, with Congress, passed four major programs. Head Start, provides benefits to over 1 million children, pregnant women and children to the age of five; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (SNAP), approximately 43 million Americans benefited this year; Medicare and Medicaid legislation, used by 63 million people last year; and the Higher Education Assistance Act (HEA) which morphed into the Pell grants in 1980 and currently benefits about 7 million students.
In 1972, President Nixon and Congress passed the Supplemental Security Income Act (SSI), providing income support to persons age 65 or older, blind or disabled adults; currently benefiting 8 million Americans.
In 1972, Congress and Nixon created a special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC), currently providing nutrition funds to low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, infants and children up to age 5; currently benefiting more than 6 million people.
In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), currently benefiting about 25 million people.
In 1996, President Clinton enacted the Temporary Assistant block grants, providing assistance to about 2.6 million needy families.
In1997, the Clinton administration passed the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which currently enrolls nearly 10 million children.
In 2010, President Obama passed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which currently has more than 80 million people enrolled.
In terms of “promoting the general welfare,” the scorecard reads:
Democrats: 9 to Republicans: 3.
While the Republicans in Congress currently consider voting against the current BBB Act, they should consider how many of their fellow Republicans benefit from similar legislation over the past 85 years, and how Republican presidents like Nixon and Ford not only embraced but expanded these benefits. How many Republicans will return their Social Security and Medicare benefits to the U.S. Treasury, if they disdain these programs? The resistance to fulfilling the Fourth Tenet of the Preamble, to promote the general welfare, falls largely on Republicans who, nonetheless, benefit.
Democrats seriously embrace the concept to promote the general welfare. How would Republicans demonstrate they are fulfilling the spirit and letter of this foundational political document, which envisioned a distinctive and unique social order that aims to be inclusive of all citizens?
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.
Emmett Coyne is a Catholic priest. He has an M.A. in African American Studies and teaches adults American history, including the course “The Struggle for Equality in the American Experience.”
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