When challenged on the federal government’s constitutional authority to create welfare programs, meddle in education or run a national healthcare system, progressives will almost always appeal to the “general welfare clause.”

Huffington Post columnist Paul Abrams demonstrated this line of thinking in a March 9, 2011, piece.

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1 grants the United States government the unqualified and unlimited power to raise and spend money, for example, to: provide healthcare for the elderly (or for everyone); provide old-age pension; build roads, bridges, train tracks, airports, electric grids, libraries, swimming pools, housing; educate our children, re-train the unemployed, provide pre-school and day care; fund public health projects; invest in and conduct basic research; provide subsidies for agriculture; save the auto industry; create internets (sic); and, yes, Tea Party Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), even provide emergency aid from natural disasters, and so forth. All subsumed under the authority to spend for the general welfare.

The term “general welfare” actually appears twice in the Constitution. We find it first in the preamble and then in the opening line of Article I Sec. 8.

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States;

These words create something of a dilemma. Either the founders didn’t really intend to create a general government of limited powers, or the general welfare clause doesn’t really mean unlimited federal authority to do things beneficial to the nation as a whole.

The fact that the framers followed up the general welfare clause in Article I Sec. 8 with specific enumerated powers indicates the latter – a qualification on federal authority. If they had intended Congress should have the power to do virtually anything and everything to promote the general welfare, they wouldn’t have bothered to include specific powers.

James Madison made this very point in a letter to James Robertson dated April, 20, 1831.

With respect to the two words general welfare, I have always regarded them as qualified by the detail of powers connected with them. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators.

Yes, promoting the general welfare falls among the responsibilities of the federal government, but it must do so within the scope of the specific powers delegated.

During the ratification debates, anti-federalists who opposed the Constitution, voiced fears that people like Abrams would come along and assert that the term “general welfare” granted unlimited power to the federal government. Supporters of the Constitution swore it would not. Even Alexander Hamilton, the framer most in favor of expansive federal power, conceded as much in Federalist 83.

This specification of particulars [the 18 enumerated powers of Article I, Section 8] evidently excludes all pretension to a general