In a Bench Memos post, my friend Matt Franck objects to the contention in my column for last weekend that the Constitution’s Origination Clause (Art. I, Sec. 7) gives the House of Representatives primacy over spending as well as taxing. Matt claims that my interpretation is bereft of historical support, a defect I’m said to camouflage by an extravagant reading of an “at best . . . ambiguous” passage in Madison’s Federalist No. 58.
It is Matt’s history, though, that is incomplete. As Mark Steyn observes, there is a rich Anglo-American tradition of vesting authority over not merely taxing but also spending in the legislative body closest to the people. This tradition, stretching back nearly to the Magna Carta, inspired the Origination Clause. It also informed Madison, whose ruminations, besides being far from ambiguous on the House’s power of the purse, are entitled to great weight — not only because he was among the Constitution’s chief architects but also because his explication of the Framers’ design helped induce skeptics of centralized government and its tyrannical proclivities to adopt the Constitution.
Plainly, Matt is correct that the Origination Clause refers to “bills for raising revenue.” From the time it was debated at the Philadelphia convention, however, the concept at issue clearly referred to more than tax bills. It was about reposing in the people, through their most immediately accountable representatives, the power of the purse. Indeed, the term persistently used throughout the Framers’ debates was “money bills” — the phrase used by Elbridge Gerry, perhaps the principal advocate of the Origination Clause, when (as the debate records recount) he “moved to restrain the Senatorial branch from originating money bills. The other branch [i.e., the House] was more immediately the representatives of the people, and it was a maxim that the people ought to hold the purse-strings.”
Matt portrays my position as eccentric. Nevertheless, the belief that the Origination Clause conveys the House’s holding of the purse strings — i.e., that it refers to the output as well as the intake of government revenue — is hardly unique to me. The Heritage Foundation’s Guide to the Constitution, for example, notes that the clause was meant to be “consistent with the English requirement that money bills must commence in the House of Commons.” Traditionally, that requirement aggregated taxing with spending — the “power over the purse” — which the Framers sought to repose “with the legislative body closer to the people.”
Similarly, the Annenberg Institute for Civics, in its series on the Constitution, instructs students that the Clause means “the House of Representatives must begin the process when it comes to raising and spending money. It is the chamber where all taxing and spending bills start” (emphasis added). To be sure, the lesson goes on to state that “only the House may introduce a bill that involves taxes.” Yet this obviously would not suffice to explain the conclusion that the House must “begin the process” when “spending money” — as well as raising money — is involved. That conclusion, like Madison’s, draws on the fact that the Framers intended to mirror the venerable English tradition of vesting the all-important power of the purse in the people’s direct representatives.
Mark Steyn recounts the Westminster practice, since the mid-17th-century reign of Charles II, that the Commons would not permit the Lords to alter “money bills.” In tracing the practice back much further, I am indebted to Nicholas Schmitz, a Rhodes scholar and Marine veteran who has studied the ancient Anglo roots of the Origination Clause. From his work I’ve learned that it was already solidified custom by the reign of Richard II (1377–99) that “grants” were the province of Commons, albeit, back then, “with the assent of the Lords.”
“Grants” did not refer merely to the extraction of assets by taxation; the term is also concerned with the purpose to which these funds were to be put. England’s 1689 Bill of Rights thus specified that a “grant of Parliament” was a necessary precondition to “levying money for or to the use of the crown.” Such grants were, in essence, appropriations. As the process evolved, the House of Commons structured taxes strictly in accordance with the specific purposes cited by the crown. It was very much a two-sided ledger, with Commons jealously guarding its oversight of both money in and money out.
As a number of the Framers were admirers of Locke, it is also worth remembering Locke’s teaching that governments are formed to protect private property. The concept stems, in part, from the (by then) established understanding that the state could legitimately extract the citizen’s property only by the consent of the people’s representatives for a proper public purpose. That is the foundation of the Origination Clause.
Given these roots, it should come as no surprise that, at the time of the Founding, several of the state constitutions vested in their lower legislative houses the prerogative of, in the words of Georgia’s constitution, initiating “bills for raising revenue or appropriating moneys.” Indeed, in famously supporting colonial opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765, William Pitt observed, “The Commons of America, represented in their several assemblies, have ever been in possession of the exercise of this their constitutional right of giving and granting their own money. They would have been slaves if they had not enjoyed it” (emphasis added).