In Federalist No. 43, James Madison plainly and succinctly stated the obvious meaning of this clause and why it was granted to the federal Congress rather than left to the states. "The utility of this power will scarcely be questioned," Madison wrote. "The copyright of authors has been solemnly adjudged, in Great Britain, to be a right of common law. The right to useful inventions seems with equal reason to belong to the inventors. The public good fully coincides in both cases with the claims of individuals. The States cannot separately make effectual provision for either of the cases, and most of them have anticipated the decision of this point, by laws passed at the instance of Congress."
The exhibit case suggesting that Congress has a generalized power to "provide for the ... general Welfare" is even more insidious.
As University of Montana law professor Robert G. Natelson wrote in the Kansas Law Review, this clause "did not add to federal powers; it subtracted from them. The General Welfare Clause was designed as a trust-style rule denying Congress authority to levy taxes for any but general, national purposes."
One of the reasons the 10th Amendment was written and ratified was to ensure no one could claim Congress had an independent power to provide for the general welfare that overrode the powers enumerated in the rest of Article 1, Section 8.
"I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground: That 'all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States or to the people,'" Thomas Jefferson wrote. "To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no long susceptible of any definition."
To interpret the general welfare clause "as giving a distinct and independent power (to Congress) to do any act they please, which might be for the good of the Union, would render all the preceding and subsequent enumerations of power completely useless," Jefferson said.
The exhibit case bearing the edited version of the general welfare clause currently includes a display on the Public Health Service. One information card in the display case says: "Throughout the years, Congress has expanded its responsibilities to include safeguarding the health of all U.S. citizens."
Perhaps it soon will feature a display case on the wonders of Obamacare and how it is advancing the "general welfare."
Matthew Spalding, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation, was the first to blow the whistle on the Capitol Visitor Center's bogus presentation of the Constitution.
"The Capitol Visitor Center must be changed," Spalding told me. "Any new majority in Congress that claims fidelity to the Constitution should begin by restoring the document in its own basement."
He is exactly right. Americans should demand not only that members of Congress know what the Constitution says and means but also that they quote it accurately when they carve it into marble in the Capitol itself.