I was recently contacted by a concerned Texan regarding a town hall meeting she attended with her Congressional representative. Her email to me reads as follows:
I have a constitutional question. At a town hall yesterday, we had a heated discussion with our Congressional representative Mike Conaway. Our question was why isn’t the House withholding funds for Obama’s overreaches? Conaway’s reply was the House can’t do that alone, it also takes the Senate. I have been under the impression the House alone controlled the purse strings. Am I correct?
I wanted to respond to this email publicly since it involves an important constitutional issue. I fear that many are confused on this vital check and balance; and because of our ignorance of this principle, we are losing one of the most important controls on government incorporated into the Constitution.
Article 1, section 7 of the Constitution is the governing text regarding this issue of spending. It reads:
All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills.
Since the Constitution is a contract, pursuant to contract law we must look to the drafters of the contract when we need clarity. James Madison explains exactly what we need to know in Federalist 58:
The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose, the supplies requisite for the support of the government…This power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutatory measure.
Madison also explains that one of the main reasons the House was vested with this important power was to reduce “the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of government” as the people may demand.
On May 15, 1789, Madison, then a federal representative to his District in Virginia, had a conversation with fellow Virginia Representative Alexander White during the ratification debates:
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Mr. White said: “The Constitution, having authorized the House of Representatives alone to originate money bills, places an important trust in our hands, which, as their protectors, we ought not to part with. I do not mean to imply that the Senate are less to be trusted than this house; but the Constitution, no doubt for wise purposes, has given the immediate representatives of the people a control over the whole government in this particular, which, for their interest, they ought not let out of their hands.”
It is interesting to note that Alexander White is repeating the principle of the power of the purse Madison identified in Federalist 58, that it is the duty of the House to have a “control over the whole government” to reduce “the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of government.”
Madison replies to White with confirmation:
The principle reason why the Constitution had made this distinction was, because they (the House) were chosen by the people, and supposed to be the best acquainted with their interest and ability.
It is clear, according to the drafters of the Constitution, that the House alone was vested with the power of purse. Pursuant to Article 1 section 7, the Senate may propose amendments and may concur, but their assent is not necessary. As both White and Madison stated, this power rests in the House alone because it is the House that is chosen directly by the people as their representatives, and best suited to redress their grievances and reduce and control all the other branches as the people see fit. If the House proposes a budget that the Senate refuses to vote upon, then the House budget stands. If the Senate proposes an amendment to the budget, and the House doesn’t want it, then the original House budget stands. It is also important to note that constitutionally speaking, the president has no veto power over a budget.
Some may confuse the procedure for passing a law with the procedure for passing a budget. A very important distinction must be recognized; a budget expires, but a law does not. A law must follow the procedure of both houses of Congress, with veto power by the president because in order to get rid of a law, it must be repealed. Budgets, however, expire and must be renewed by each congressional session. No future Congress is ever bound by a past congressional budget. That is why the Senate is not necessary and the President is procedurally excluded from the budget process.
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We must also remember that one of the chief purposes for vesting this power in the House was to reduce the overgrowth of the other branches of government. It is counterintuitive to ask the House to exercise that control over the Senate, the Executive, and the Judiciary and then require those branches to concur with that control. It is highly unlikely that our founders would create such an absurdity with the Constitution.
The current budget procedures, invented outside the boundaries of the Constitution by past Congresses, have achieved exactly what both Madison and White have warned about; they have let this vital power out of their hands and placed it into the hands of those not constitutionally fit to fulfil the demand. We need educated and principled leaders in Congress to stand against this usurp of the greatest check and balance on governmental overreach.