The Corner

A Privilege of the Commons

I wouldn’t attempt to pass myself off as a U.S. Constitutional scholar, but, in the dispute between Andy McCarthy and Matthew Franck (and Ramesh Ponnuru) on the Senate and the power of the purse, I’m inclined to come down on Andy’s side. In the Westminster system, it has been the practice since Charles II that when it comes to money bills the Lower House ”shall not suffer the Lords to make any amendments on it” (in the words of the historian Henry Hallam). Centuries later, whatever local variations have developed over the years, that key distinction between the upper and lower legislative chambers endures across the planet – in London, Dublin, Delhi, Canberra, and beyond.

Were the American colonists aware of this? Absolutely. I vaguely recall (because the name amused us schoolboys) something called the American Intercourse Act provoking a Lords/Commons dispute because of the Lords’ attempted amendments thereto. Before that, in July 1705, Viscount Cornbury, the cross-dressing governor of New York, complained to London about uppity members of the local assembly:

That because the Commons of England will not suffer the Lords to make any amendments to a money bill there, that therefore they, as Representatives of the people here, have the same Right, and that they ought not to suffer the Councill to make any amendments to a money bill.

It would seem likely, given the elected composition of the House versus the appointed membership of the Senate, that the Founders would wish to preserve one of “the privileges of the Commons” that the Upper House (in Charles Duke Yonge’s words) “could never originate a money bill, nor insert any clause in one increasing or even altering the burden laid by one on the people.”

Andy concludes his column:

The American people do not want Obamacare, and the representatives closest to them have voted not to spend the people’s money on it. According to the Constitution, that should be the end of the matter.

As I say, I am no U.S. Constitutional scholar. But, had the British or Canadian House of Commons, the Australian or Fijian House of Representatives, the Indian Lok Sabha, the Dáil Éireann, the Bahamian or Bermudan House of Assembly, etc, etc, etc, voted as the U.S. House of Representatives did, that would indeed be the end of the matter. The blurring of responsibilities between the Upper and Lower Houses is a not insignificant reason for the fiscal debauchery in Washington.

Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist.


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