Tag: u.s. constitution

Wait, Didn’t the Fiscal Cliff Deal Originate in the Senate?

If you thought the policy side of the “American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012” is bad, did you notice that there’s a constitutional problem too? I’m sure there’s more than one, actually, but this one was easy to spot without even digging into the gory details.

Recall that the fiscal cliff bill was first passed by the Senate in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, and then seconded by a vote of the House some 20 hours later. And yet, Article I, Section 7, Clause 1—known as the Origination Clause—states: “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.” 

Far from being “archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil”—as Georgetown law professor Mike Seidman claimed as part of his argument for throwing out the Constitution altogether—this provision serves, or at least is supposed to serve, the very real and timeless purpose of keeping the taxing power as close to the voters as possible. Mindful of the potential for abuses of this awesome power (see, e.g., John Roberts on Obamacare) the Constitution’s authors chose to give it to the congressional body that is elected every two years directly by people in local districts (the House), instead of the one whose members serve alternating six-year terms and weren’t initially directly elected (the Senate). As Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur explains in a forthcoming law review article (footnotes/citations omitted):

When the Anti-Federalist “Brutus” warned that the taxing power, “exercised without limitation,” will “introduce itself into every corner of the city, and country” and “light upon the head of every person in the United States” crying “GIVE! GIVE!” the Constitution’s supporters answered that this risk was minimized by the political checks over the taxing power. “The exclusive privilege of originating money bills [belongs] to the house of representatives,” wrote Alexander Hamilton.  This would ensure that the power to tax belonged to “the most popular branch” of the government, “the favorite of the people.” James Madison reiterated this point: the “principal reason” why the House was given the power “of originating money bills” was that the Representatives “were chosen by the people, and supposed to be the best acquainted with their interest and ability.” Perhaps the point was put best by George Mason, who considered the Senate “[a]n aristocratic body” which “should ever be suspected of an encroaching tendency,” and believed that “[t]he purse strings should never be put into its hands.”

So what happened last week? Did Harry Reid, John Boehner, and Barack Obama simply agree to ignore the Constitution? (Specifically here, I mean—we know they do generally where federal power is concerned.) Were the House and Senate parliamentarians overruled by a naked political deal?