LOS ANGELES -- The phrase "the general welfare" of the people is part of the U.S. Constitution that so many political folk wave around these days -- arguing basically that the problems and assumptions of 1789 remain inviolate in the 21st century.
Of course no one knows exactly what is to be defined as the general welfare. Thomas Jefferson said it this way: "The laying of taxes is the power, and the general welfare the purpose for which the power is to be exercised."
Parts of the Republican Party and parts of the Democratic Party will debate forever the meaning of the phrase.
Last week, in a truly extraordinary performance, Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the House, argued, in effect, that the federal government does not have an obligation to make good those parts of the general population whose lives have been nearly demolished by flood, fire and earthquake. He was joined by other Republicans, notably the charming and Neanderthal gentleman from Texas, Rep. Ron Paul, who essentially believes government should have no role in anything.
So, what business it is of ours, or our government, "We the people," if folks in Joplin, Mo., and the flood plains and valleys of New England and the coast of North Carolina have had their lives destroyed by an unpredictable and unforgiving nature? Tough, huh? You're on your own, buddy.
That is a harsh, perhaps exaggerated, description of what Republicans think in this year of plagues. Republicans are not that mean, of course. Their core idea is to begin a debate over whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be refinanced in a month or so, or be held hostage by Republicans demanding cuts to other parts of the federal budget.
The problem is not that the Republicans are not inclined to help the victims of natural disasters. What they want to do is exploit the overloaded FEMA budget to once more tie up the government in debate over the national debt. This time, however, the debate is not an abstract budgetary argument over accounting procedures. This time real people, real Americans, will have their lives destroyed while the Republican House leaders prolong the crisis for their own ideological convictions. Actually, the thing is pretty simple: Are we a nation of brothers who come to the aid of each other -- like the Amish raising barns for the neighbors? Or are we just a crowd of folks out for ourselves? Why have a country if we don't use it to help each other?
There are sane Republicans out there, whether you agree or not with their ideas. When the rain and surf fell on his state, Chris Christie of New Jersey, the tightwad, reacted to the serial disaster of the day by saying: "Immediate federal assistance is needed now to give New Jersey's residents a helping hand at an emotionally and financially devastating time."
Timing is all. If Republicans in Congress hold up emergency aid as part of their campaign to denigrate government, a significant number of people, constituents of Christie's, will be left in ruins, surrounded by the sticks that were once their homes. "Emergency" means emergency.
To take the Republican argument a step further, and without attacking China but using them only as an example: If the Red Army invades Alaska, why should the people of New Hampshire be inconvenienced -- much less pay more taxes?
There was a man, a Republican named Abraham Lincoln, who famously said that government ought to do for people only that which they cannot do for themselves. People, we have learned, cannot hold back the tide or the rain -- or faults in the structure of planets. That in the end is part of why we banded and bonded as a nation. Not a perfect arrangement, but better than most others.
If the Republicans don't understand that, they may get swept away in the next flood.