The Origins of the Origination Clause
The House’s power of the purse includes spending bills.

Statue of James Madison at his Monteplier home.


Andrew C. McCarthy

Maryland’s lower house, to take one example, was responsible for initiating “money bills,” which were defined as “every bill, assessing, levying, or applying taxes or supplies, for the support of government, or the current expenses of the State, or appropriating money in the treasury” (emphasis added). In Massachusetts, the home of Elbridge Gerry, colonial practice was that taxes and “money bills” were the privilege of the House of Representatives, with the upper house empowered only to concur or not concur. The Commonwealth’s 1780 constitution, adumbrating the federal Constitution’s Origination Clause, mandated that “money bills shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments, as on other bills.”


Let’s move directly to the 1787 convention in Philadelphia.

One of the major challenges confronting the delegates was to broker the competing claims of small and large states. As Franklin summarized, “If a proportional representation takes place, the small States contend that their liberties will be in danger. If an equality of votes is to be put in its place, the large States say their money will be in danger.” This resulted, of course, in the great compromise: equality among states in the Senate and proportional representation (by population) in the House. But this arrangement was inadequate to quell the large states’ fears; it was also necessary to tinker with the powers assigned to the two chambers. As Franklin put it, the Senate would be restricted

generally in all appropriations & dispositions of money to be drawn out of the General Treasury; and in all laws for supplying that Treasury, the Delegates of the several States shall have suffrage in proportion to the Sums which their respective States do actually contribute to the Treasury [emphasis added].

When the Origination Clause was specifically taken up, a spirited debate ensued, with some delegates protesting against restrictions on the Senate. According to Madison’s records, however, what “generally prevailed” was the argument of George Mason:

The consideration which weighed with the Committee was that the 1st branch [i.e., the House of Representatives] would be the immediate representatives of the people, the 2nd [the Senate] would not. Should the latter have the power of giving away the people’s money, they might soon forget the source from whence they received it [emphasis added]. We might soon have an Aristocracy.

Mason’s concerns seem prescient in our era of mammoth national government presided over by an entrenched ruling class of professional politicians. He worried that

the Senate is not like the H. of Representatives chosen frequently and obliged to return frequently among the people. They are chosen by the Sts for 6 years, will probably settle themselves at the seat of Government, will pursue schemes for their aggrandizement. . . . If the Senate can originate, they will in the recess of the Legislative Sessions, hatch their mischievous projects, for their own purposes, and have their money bills ready cut & dried, (to use a common phrase) for the meeting of the H. of Representatives. . . . The purse strings should be in the hands of the Representatives of the people.

Yes, the purse strings, not just the power to tax. Concededly, the Origination Clause speaks of bills “for raising revenue.” In selling the Constitution to the nation, though, it was portrayed as securing in the hands of the people’s representatives the power of the purse. It is an empty power if spending is not included.

The relevant paragraph in Madison’s Federalist No. 58 is worth quoting in full (all italics mine):

A constitutional and infallible resource still remains with the larger states by which they will be able at all times to accomplish their just purposes. The House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose the supplies requisite for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse — that powerful instrument by which we behold, in the history of the British constitution, an infant and humble representation of the people gradually enlarging the sphere of its activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all overgrown prerogatives of the other branches 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 salutary measure.

To my mind, what Madison describes unquestionably transcends taxing authority. I believe a “complete and effectual weapon . . . for obtaining a redress of every grievance” must give “the immediate representatives of the people” the power to block funding for a government takeover of health care that was enacted by fraud and strong-arming; that was adamantly represented not to be the tax that the Supreme Court later found it to be; and that is substantially opposed by the people, and has been since its enactment.

Matt begs to differ, relying on the text of the Origination Clause, the reductive construction of “revenue” as mere “taxation,” and Joseph Story’s Commentaries. This is reasonable, and — as Matt has emphasized — it certainly reflects conventional Washington wisdom. But I do not think it gets to the power of the purse that the Framers — and Madison, quite explicitly — were driving at.

In fact, Story’s conclusion that the origination power “has been confined to bills to levy taxes in the strict sense of the word,” and not to ordinary legislation “which may incidentally create revenue,” is an overly narrow interpretation of the clause’s meaning, arrived at by taking out of context a portion of the delegates’ debate that related to two tangential concerns about potential abuse of the origination power. Specifically, Madison worried that the Origination Clause could be read too broadly, thus hampering the Senate’s ability to originate any legislation — since most federal legislation would surely have some conceivable economic consequence. Relatedly, other delegates worried that the House could abuse its origination power by tacking non-revenue legislation onto money bills in order to frustrate the Senate’s ability to make amendments.


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