| September 6, 2011

Power of the Purse Can ‘Redress Every Grievance’

Scarcely a day goes by that we aren’t treated to reports of some new folly or outrage from the federal government. One thinks, for example, of the Environmental Protection Agency’s willingness to kill jobs and raise electricity prices through regulation, all the while giving hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to China in the form of federal grants.

Other examples could be cited [see, for example, page 11]. And though the founders of our country could not have foreseen each one, they did provide a solution: Cut off the money.

To the founders of our country, the most important influence on the Constitution was the tradition of English liberty. After all, the founders believed that England had the best form of government—until allowing it to be corrupted by a tyrannical king and a Parliament intent upon raising taxes and creating a large, centralized government. So they rose up.

But what makes the founders of our country unique is that our revolution ended not in a Napoleon but in a constitution. And fundamental to that constitution was the belief that the power of the purse was crucial to maintaining freedom, and that that power should remain as close to the people as possible.

Hence the very important section establishing that all bills of revenue must originate in the House of Representatives. And in The Federalist, that great work of political thought that grew out of the ratification debates, when Madison was explaining the role of the House of Representatives, he put particular focus on the power of the purse as a means of restraining the other branches of government.

He wrote in Federalist 58, “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.”

This traces to Magna Carta. The king is forbidden to raise any revenue without the consent of Parliament. Time and again, when kings (such as Charles II) threatened to abuse their power, Parliament had withstood the king because Parliament could control the money. The founders of our country took that vital lesson and wrote it in our Constitution.

The founders believed in a balance of powers, of course, but it’s no accident that straightaway in Article I they established the legislative branch. And the first body discussed is not the Senate but rather the House of Representatives. Giving the House the power to control the purse was a means of making sure the Senate did not abuse its power, the President did not abuse his power, or the Supreme Court did not abuse its power (though of course they never would have foreseen that).

In addition to the English tradition of liberty, another important influence was classical antiquity. When the Constitution was put forth in 1787, there weren’t really any functioning democracies or republics in the world. Holland had a republic but it was stagnant. Venice had a very corrupt, oligarchical republic. So the founders looked to Greece and Rome.

In the Roman republic, one of the foundations of freedom was the fact that the senate controlled the purse strings. The people could run amok and pass all sorts of extravagant laws, such as welfare benefits for themselves, but if the senate didn’t fund them no consul could put them into effect and the people couldn’t receive their benefits.

According to Polybius, the historian of the Roman republic writing in the 2nd century B.C., this power of the purse was one of the reasons the senate had provided such good government to Rome over the years, preventing it from following the Athenian democracy with its excess of welfare benefits.

In 133 B.C. the radical Roman tribune Tiberius Gracchus got the Roman people to put through a measure to redistribute the wealth—essentially taxing the wealthy Romans until they were bankrupt by taking away their land and redistributing it. He got it through the Roman assembly made up of all the people, but the senate simply refused to fund it. Finally he demanded living expenses and they gave him 75 cents a day so he couldn’t complain.

The American founders also looked with particular attention to Plutarch’s Lives. Plutarch tells us that Pericles, the Athenian statesmen of the fifth century B.C., had learned the true road to power: Get the people to bribe themselves with their own money.

Indeed, democracies historically have been fiscally irresponsible, especially as the franchise expands. The founders had great trust in the ordinary American citizen (and the Revolution had proved that trust to be well deserved), but they believed that education should work to inculcate principles of good moral values—including frugality. In many of the state constitutions frugality was written in as one of the most important virtues. Today, we’ve dropped the idea of training in moral values—certainly frugality—so it is not unreasonable to expect our democracy to go the way of, say, ancient Athens.

One of history’s enduring lessons is that a person, or a country, cannot live with a tremendous debt for a long period of time. We seem unwilling to accept that economic law. However, there is still time. We still have the opportunity to put our financial house in order and to pay off our debt. But we must cut government spending, cut it again, and then cut it some more. The road to fiscal responsibility runs directly through the House of Representatives.

Dr. Fears, a classics professor at the University of Oklahoma, is the Dr. David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow for Freedom Enhancement at OCPA. This article appeared August 23 in The Washington Times.

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