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Who May Tax and Spend?

Written By : Walter Williams
September 12, 2012

Within the past decade, I’ve written columns titled “Deception 101,” “Stubborn Ignorance” and “Exploiting Public Ignorance,” all explaining which branch of the federal government has taxing and spending authority. So here it is again: 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. The president is constitutionally permitted to propose tax and spending measures or veto them. Congress has the authority to ignore the president’s proposals and override his vetoes.

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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”? I know that the nation’s law schools teach little about Framer intent, but I wonder whether they tell students that it’s the executive branch of government that holds taxing and spending authority. Maybe it’s simply incurable ignorance, willful deception, sloppy thinking or just plain stupidity. If there’s an explanation that I’ve missed, I’d surely like to hear it.

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.

Let’s look at a minor case that demonstrates Congress’ appropriation powers. The California Navel Orange Commission is a government-sanctioned grower collusion that establishes production quotas so as to restrict supply in order to keep orange prices high. In 1980, the Federal Trade Commission was going to study such agriculture collusions, euphemistically called marketing orders, as a result of increasing criticism from economists, reformers in federal agencies, consumer groups and some orange growers. Big growers descended on Congress to protest the threat to their collusive behavior that an FTC study might create. Congress, as a part of its FTC appropriation, prohibited the agency from monitoring marketing orders. In November 1983, Congress started using a legislative rider to prohibit the Office of Management and Budget from spending any money to review marketing orders.

This example demonstrates that Congress has ultimate spending power and that when it suits favored interest groups, it will use it. 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.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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