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Article 1, Section 7, Clause 1

Document 13

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 2:§§ 871--77


§ 871. . . . This provision, so far as it regards the right to originate what are technically called "money bills," is, beyond all question, borrowed from the British house of commons, of which it is the ancient and indisputable privilege and right, that all grants of subsidies and parliamentary aids shall begin in their house, and are first bestowed by them, although their grants are not effectual to all intents and purposes, until they have the assent of the other two branches of the legislature. The general reason given for this privilege of the house of commons is, that the supplies are raised upon the body of the people; and therefore it is proper, that they alone should have the right of taxing themselves. And Mr. Justice Blackstone has very correctly remarked, that this reason would be unanswerable, if the commons taxed none but themselves. But it is notorious, that a very large share of property is in possession of the lords; that this property is equally taxed, as the property of the commons; and therefore the commons, not being the sole persons taxed, this cannot be the reason of their having the sole right of raising and modelling the supply. The true reason seems to be this. The lords being a permanent hereditary body, created at pleasure by the king, are supposed more liable to be influenced by the crown, and when once influenced, more likely to continue so, than the commons, who are a temporary elective body, freely nominated by the people. It would, therefore, be extremely dangerous to give the lords any power of framing new taxes for the subject. It is sufficient, that they have a power of rejecting, if they think the commons too lavish or improvident in their grants.

§ 872. This seems a very just account of the matter, with reference to the spirit of the British constitution; though a different explanation has been deduced from a historical review of the power. It has been asserted to have arisen from the instructions from time to time given by the constituents of the commons, (whether county, city, or borough,) as to the rates and assessments, which they were respectively willing to bear and assent to; and from the aggregate it was easy for the commons to ascertain the whole amount, which the commonalty of the whole kingdom were willing to grant to the king. Be this as it may, so jealous are the commons of this valuable privilege, that herein they will not suffer the other house to exert any power, but that of rejecting. They will not permit the least alteration or amendment to be made by the lords to the mode of taxing the people by a money bill; and under this appellation are included all bills, by which money is directed to be raised upon the subject for any purpose, or in any shape whatsoever, either for the exigencies of the government, and collected from the kingdom in general, as the land tax, or for private benefit, and collected in any particular district, as turnpikes, parish rates, and the like. It is obvious, that this power might be capable of great abuse, if other bills were tacked to such money bills; and accordingly it was found, that money bills were sometimes tacked to favourite measures of the commons, with a view to ensure their passage by the lords. This extraordinary use, or rather perversion of the power, would, if suffered to grow into a common practice, have completely destroyed the equilibrium of the British constitution, and subjected both the lords and the king to the power of the commons. Resistance was made from time to time to this unconstitutional encroachment; and at length the lords, with a view to give permanent effect to their own rights, have made it a standing order to reject upon sight all bills, that are tacked to money bills. Thus, the privilege is maintained on one side, and guarded against undue abuse on the other.

§ 873. It will be at once perceived, that the same reasons do not exist in the same extent, for the same exclusive right in our house of representatives in regard to money bills, as exist for such right in the British house of commons. It may be fit, that it should possess the exclusive right to originate money bills; since it may be presumed to possess more ample means of local information, and it more directly represents the opinions, feelings, and wishes of the people; and, being directly dependent upon them for support, it will be more watchful and cautious in the imposition of taxes, than a body, which emanates exclusively from the states in their sovereign political capacity. But, as the senators are in a just sense equally representatives of the people, and do not hold their offices by a permanent or hereditary title, but periodically return to the common mass of citizens; and above all, as direct taxes are, and must be, apportioned among the states according to their federal population; and as all the states have a distinct local interest, both as to the amount and nature of all taxes of every sort, which are to be levied, there seems a peculiar fitness in giving to the senate a power to alter and amend, as well as to concur with, or reject all money bills. The due influence of all the states is thus preserved; for otherwise it might happen, from the overwhelming representation of some of the large states, that taxes might be levied, which would bear with peculiar severity upon the interests, either agricultural, commercial, or manufacturing, of others being the minor states; and thus the equilibrium intended by the constitution, as well of power, as of interest, and influence, might be practically subverted.

§ 874. There would also be no small inconvenience in excluding the senate from the exercise of this power of amendment and alteration; since if any, the slightest modification were required in such a bill to make it either palatable or just, the senate would be compelled to reject it, although an amendment of a single line might make it entirely acceptable to both houses. Such a practical obstruction to the legislation of a free government would far outweigh any supposed theoretical advantages from the possession or exercise of an exclusive power by the house of representatives. Infinite perplexities, and misunderstandings, and delays would clog the most wholesome legislation. Even the annual appropriation bills might be in danger of a miscarriage on these accounts; and the most painful dissensions might be introduced.

§ 875. Indeed, of so little importance has the exclusive possession of such a power been thought in the state governments, that some of the state constitutions make no difference, as to the power of each branch of the legislature to originate money bills. Most of them contain a provision similar to that in the constitution of the United States; and in those states, where the exclusive power formerly existed, as, for instance, in Virginia and South-Carolina, it was a constant source of difficulties and contentions. In the revised constitution of South-Carolina, (in 1790), the provision was altered, so as to conform to the clause in the constitution of the United States.

§ 876. The clause seems to have met with no serious opposition in any of the state conventions; and indeed could scarcely be expected to meet with any opposition, except in Virginia; since the other states were well satisfied with the principle adopted in their own state constitutions; and in Virginia the clause created but little debate.

§ 877. What bills are properly "bills for raising revenue," in the sense of the constitution, has been matter of some discussion. A learned commentator supposes, that every bill, which indirectly or consequentially may raise revenue, is, within the sense of the constitution, a revenue bill. He therefore thinks, that the bills for establishing the postoffice, and the mint, and regulating the value of foreign coin, belong to this class, and ought not to have originated (as in fact they did) in the senate. But the practical construction of the constitution has been against his opinion. And, indeed, the history of the origin of the power, already suggested, abundantly proves, that it has been confined to bills to levy taxes in the strict sense of the words, and has not been understood to extend to bills for other purposes, which may incidentally create revenue. No one supposes, that a bill to sell any of the public lands, or to sell public stock, is a bill to raise revenue, in the sense of the constitution. Much less would a bill be so deemed, which merely regulated the value of foreign or domestic coins, or authorized a discharge of insolvent debtors upon assignments of their estates to the United States, giving a priority of payment to the United States in cases of insolvency, although all of them might incidentally bring revenue into the treasury.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 7, Clause 1, Document 13
The University of Chicago Press

Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1833.

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