Why Do Spending Bills Start in the House?

Taxes are on everyone's mind. But spending bills are right around the corner. Therefore, I thought it would be fun for a brief note on the history and culture of starting appropriations bills in the House of Representatives. 

The House is (usually) the first to act on the annual appropriations bills. This has its roots in a British tradition that all bills dealing with money, spending or taxes, had to originate in the House of Commons. As James Madison wrote, the ability to start processing the financial bills was responsible for “the continual triumph of the British House of Commons over the other branches of the government, whenever the engine of a money bill has been employed.”

However, the U.S. Constitution does not call for spending bills to start in the House. Rather, the Origination Clause requires that “All Bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.” The Senate’s deferral to the House is a matter of custom rather than requirement. 

It does seem that the Framers of the Constitution had all money bills in mind. Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58 that, “the House of Representatives cannot only refuse, but they alone can propose, the supplies requisite for the support of government. They, in a word, hold the purse that the powerful instrument by which we behold, in the history of the British Constitution, an infant and humble representation of the people gradually enlarging the sphere of activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the government.” 

The reference to “supplies” may include only revenues, though “overgrown prerogatives” could also be a reference to spending programs. Perhaps this clause also suggests Madison’s observance of the “starving of the beast” strategy. 

This custom is also supported by the early organizational history of Congress. Before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees were created in 1865, the House Committee on Ways and Means wrote both the tax and the spending bills. The Senate only amended the House bills. 

However, the custom of starting bills in the House isn't always followed. For instance, in 1998, the Senate passed seven appropriations bills before the House acted. When the Senate does wait, the custom has the effect of strengthening the House’s position through Rule 16 of the Senate, which protects appropriations bills against non-germane amendments that start in the House.