Who Really Controls the Purse Strings re: Deficits and Debt?

10 Sep

Walter Williams, professor of economics at George Mason University, reminds us in this essay, entitled “Who May Tax and Spend”, that the Constitution gives appropriation authority not to the President, but to the House.  So he asks the question – Are the Presidents’ deficits really the Presidents’ deficits, or is Congress ultimately responsible for the deficits and the debt?

 I have excerpted from the essay below, but you can find the full essay at


 Excerpts:   [Emphasis is mine]

 .  .  .  .  The first clause of Article 1, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution, generally known as the “origination clause,” 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.Constitutionally and by precedent, the House of Representatives has the exclusive prerogative to originate bills to appropriate money, as well as to raise revenues.   .  .  .

There is little intellectually challenging about the fact that the Constitution gave Congress ultimate taxing and spending authority. My question is this: How can academics, politicians, news media people and ordinary citizens continually make and get away with statements such as “Reagan’s budget deficits,” “Clinton’s budget surplus,” “Bush’s tax cuts” and “Obama’s spending binge”?  .  .  .  .

Seeing as a president cannot spend one dime that Congress does not first appropriate, what meaning can we attach to statements such as “under Barack Obama, government spending has increased 21 percent” and “under Barack Obama, welfare spending has increased 54 percent”? You ask, “Williams, are you saying Obama is without fault?” Let’s look at it.

Knowing which branch of government has the ultimate taxing and spending authority is vital.  

No matter how Obama’s presidency is viewed, if we buy into the notion that it’s he whose spending binge is crippling our nation through massive debt and deficits, we will naturally focus our attention on the White House. The fact of the matter is that Washington has been on a spending binge no matter who has occupied the White House. In 1970, federal spending was $926 billion. Today it’s $3.8 trillion. In inflation-adjusted dollars that’s about a 300 percent increase. Believing that presidents have taxing and spending powers leaves Congress less politically accountable for our deepening economic quagmire. Of course, if you’re a congressman, not being held accountable is what you want.  .  .  .

Most members of our Republican-controlled House of Representatives say they’re against Obamacare. If they really were, they surely would attach a legislative rider or some other legislative device to the Department of Health and Human Services’ appropriation bill to ban spending any money on Obamacare; they have the power to. But they don’t have the political courage to do so, and their lives are made easier by the pretense that it’s the president controlling the spending. And we fall for it.

 [End of excerpts]

How does one respond to this?


10 Responses to “Who Really Controls the Purse Strings re: Deficits and Debt?”

  1. Wayne Abernathy September 30, 2014 at 9:36 am #

    I get his point, but I think that he presses it too far, not including the full picture. The Constitution says that spending originates in the House, but the House cannot spend a penny. The Senate has to get involved, and the President has to sign the bills–all three are involved. Moreover, laws have since been passed that require the President to submit a budget proposal to Congress each year, which gets the President involved early on in the whole development of spending. In the end, and U.S. practice for 200 years, federal government spending–by design–is the result of bargaining and compromise among all three participants: House, Senate, and President. Neither can dictate to the other, and that was how the Founders designed it.

    • illero October 1, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

      . . . and I get your point — I think. Involvement is good, as are bargaining and compromise (although compromise is a lost art among the far left and far right). And multiple approvals are necessary. However, isn’t it still possible for the House to apply the brakes to unauthorized or over-reaching spending? Especially where there is a constitutional argument re: the authority behind the spending?

      • Wayne Abernathy October 1, 2014 at 10:08 pm #

        No, not really. That is the beauty of the Constitution. The Founders went to great pains to prevent any one person or group from being able to dictate to the others. The only way that laws can be made, and appropriations approved, is by all three parties coming together, House, Senate, and President. Try as one or the other may, you have to bring the other two along. Unquestionably, at times in history one or the other has tried to impose its will and others have been cowed into submission, but that does not last long. The genius of the Founders was to require cooperation eventually, which is essential to preserving the Union.

  2. illero October 2, 2014 at 7:08 am #

    I wonder if we are arguing the same point in a general sort of way. I interpret the sequestration action as being a very-poorly executed, but somewhat “successful” effort to slow the pace of growth of spending. This was largely “forced” by the House in the absence of cooperation on the part of all three bodies, was it not? Maybe you see the sequester as, in reality, a form of compromise in itself?

    • Wayne Abernathy October 2, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

      That is probably so. Part of the duty of each branch in the appropriations process is to insist that it be involved and not ignored. Recently, that is what the House did, resulting in the sequestration and in even the partial shutdown. The House did not dictate to the Senate or the President, but rather insisted that it not be dictated to. The Senate and President, in those recent cases, sought to ignore the House. Again, the Constitution requires all three to come together, or nothing happens. At last, each part realized that it needed the other two. The House had to remind the President and the Senate.

  3. illero October 2, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    Well said. Thanks for the perspective.

  4. Charlene Burton November 8, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

    My understanding is that the House of Representatives has sole authority to withhold the funding of a bill (sole power of the purse, in other words), without the approval of the Senate. In fact, I saw that in writing somewhere, maybe even in the Constitution, but I can find nothing online now that even addresses that issue. What about that?

    • illero November 9, 2014 at 7:34 am #

      Thanks for visiting, Charlene. As far as the power to defund certain bills or programs is concerned, you see two intelligent, well-stated positions in the main item and comments above — those of Walter Williams and Wayne Abernathy. Further searches reveal many and varied opinions exist on whether the House alone can defund anything on its own, or whether it can only pass bills that WOULD effect a defunding if they are also passed by the Senate. Some say the House has single-handedly defunded some programs in the past, while others say that ultimately compromises were reached that were acceptable to the Senate. I wish I could be confident of what the real situation is here, but some really smart people argue both sides of the question — makes it hard to know for sure.

    • Wayne Abernathy November 11, 2014 at 9:32 am #


      When it comes to appropriations in the U.S., it takes at least three institutions to agree, the House, the Senate, and the President. Of course, that also means that it takes just any one of them to prevent something from being appropriated, by withholding agreement. Either the House, Senate, or President can prevent enactment of an appropriation.

      The only appropriation power uniquely belonging to the House is that by long practice appropriations bills have to start in the House, but the Senate may make amendments to appropriations that come from the House. For, example, the House may pass a bill appropriating money for a new road. The Senate could add to that an amendment making appropriations for the space program. Then the House and the Senate have to meet work with each other to reach agreement on the now changed bill before it goes to the President. The President can only sign or veto the bill; he cannot change it. In practice, if the President wants changes he lets his allies in Congress know what changes he wants before the bill is passed, and they try to make those changes in the House or Senate.

      That is the basic process, although it has a lot of ways in which those different elements play out, but those elements are all present.

      • illero November 11, 2014 at 7:47 pm #

        Thanks for responding again. Much appreciated.

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