Last Tuesday, despite warnings of regulatory overreach, the Senate voted 73-25 in favor of S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, which would greatly expand the powers of the federal Food and Drug Administration and impose extensive new testing and paperwork requirements on farmers and food producers. Almost at once, however, the bill was derailed – whether temporarily or otherwise remains to be seen – by what the New York Times called an “arcane parliamentary mistake” and the L.A. Times considered a purely “technical flaw”. Roll Call put it more bluntly: “[Senate] Democrats violated a constitutional provision requiring that tax provisions originate in the House.” While the New York Times weirdly cast Senate Republicans as the villains in the affair, other news sources more accurately reported that it was the (Democratic) House leadership that was standing up for its prerogatives:
“Unfortunately, [the Senate] passed a bill which is not consistent with the Constitution of the United States, so we are going to have to figure out how to do that consistent with the constitutional requirement that revenue bills start in the House,” [House Majority Leader Steny] Hoyer said.
According to Hoyer, this has happened multiple times this Congress, causing severe legislative angina.
“The Senate knows the rule and should follow the rule and they should be cognizant of the rule,” Hoyer scolded. “Nobody ought to be surprised by the rule. It is in the Constitution, and you have all been lectured and we have as well about reading the Constitution.”
To those familiar with the history of the U.S. Constitution, the Origination Clause should hardly count as arcane or technical. It stands as the very first sentence of Article I, Section 7: “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.” Behind that simple statement were centuries of history in which one of the most dearly fought battles for partisans of liberty was to secure for the more popular of the parliamentary branches, in Britain’s case the House of Commons, the “power of the purse,” that is, the power to raise public revenue through taxation. While tinkering with the exact details a bit, the framers of the U.S. Constitution would never for a moment have thought of dropping the general principle, in those days familiar as it was to every schoolchild. Thus it is that the House Ways and Means Committee, with its jurisdiction over revenue measures, descends to this day as a much more important entity on Capitol Hill than its counterpart Senate Finance Committee.
With its two-year terms of office and less populous constituencies, the House of Representatives was of course designed to be the legislative branch closest to the people, most readily thrown out of office when it strays from the public mood. Those considerations aside, the Constitution is rightly celebrated for the way its framers made the House and Senate different from each other precisely in order to ensure jealousies and dissensions between the two, those jealousies and dissensions serving as a safeguard against hasty or ill-considered legislation. In this case it worked exactly as planned, and the self-regard of the House leadership will serve as the reason for another round of scrutiny for a bill that could badly use some. Somewhere up above the spirit of James Madison may have heard the scolding words of Rep. Hoyer, and smiled.