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Walter E. Williams
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Who May Tax and Spend?


Within the past decade, I've written columns titled "Deception 101," "Stubborn Ignorance" and "Exploiting Public Ignorance," all explaining which branch of the federal government has taxing and spending authority. So here it is again: The first clause of Article 1, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution, generally known as the "origination clause," reads: "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." Constitutionally and by precedent, the House of Representatives has the exclusive prerogative to originate bills to appropriate money, as well as to raise revenues. The president is constitutionally permitted to propose tax and spending measures or veto them. Congress has the authority to ignore the president's proposals and override his vetoes.

There is little intellectually challenging about the fact that the Constitution gave Congress ultimate taxing and spending authority. My question is this: How can academics, politicians, news media people and ordinary citizens continually make and get away with statements such as "Reagan's budget deficits," "Clinton's budget surplus," "Bush's tax cuts" and "Obama's spending binge"? I know that the nation's law schools teach little about Framer intent, but I wonder whether they tell students that it's the executive branch of government that holds taxing and spending authority. Maybe it's simply incurable ignorance, willful deception, sloppy thinking or just plain stupidity. If there's an explanation that I've missed, I'd surely like to hear it.

Seeing as a president cannot spend one dime that Congress does not first appropriate, what meaning can we attach to statements such as "under Barack Obama, government spending has increased 21 percent" and "under Barack Obama, welfare spending has increased 54 percent"? You ask, "Williams, are you saying Obama is without fault?" Let's look at it.

Knowing which branch of government has the ultimate taxing and spending authority is vital.

No matter how Obama's presidency is viewed, if we buy into the notion that it's he whose spending binge is crippling our nation through massive debt and deficits, we will naturally focus our attention on the White House. The fact of the matter is that Washington has been on a spending binge no matter who has occupied the White House. In 1970, federal spending was $926 billion. Today it's $3.8 trillion. In inflation-adjusted dollars that's about a 300 percent increase. Believing that presidents have taxing and spending powers leaves Congress less politically accountable for our deepening economic quagmire. Of course, if you're a congressman, not being held accountable is what you want.

Let's look at a minor case that demonstrates Congress' appropriation powers. The California Navel Orange Commission is a government-sanctioned grower collusion that establishes production quotas so as to restrict supply in order to keep orange prices high. In 1980, the Federal Trade Commission was going to study such agriculture collusions, euphemistically called marketing orders, as a result of increasing criticism from economists, reformers in federal agencies, consumer groups and some orange growers. Big growers descended on Congress to protest the threat to their collusive behavior that an FTC study might create. Congress, as a part of its FTC appropriation, prohibited the agency from monitoring marketing orders. In November 1983, Congress started using a legislative rider to prohibit the Office of Management and Budget from spending any money to review marketing orders.

This example demonstrates that Congress has ultimate spending power and that when it suits favored interest groups, it will use it. Most members of our Republican-controlled House of Representatives say they're against Obamacare. If they really were, they surely would attach a legislative rider or some other legislative device to the Department of Health and Human Services' appropriation bill to ban spending any money on Obamacare; they have the power to. But they don't have the political courage to do so, and their lives are made easier by the pretense that it's the president controlling the spending. And we fall for it.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



10 Comments | Post Comment
Walter, you just blew my mind and left me wondering what its finally going to take for this country to get on a real recovery. Will we have to hit rock bottom? Will it take a group of politicians with some courage to stand up and fix things? Sometimes I don't feel that this country will last another 4 years no matter who is in change.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Mon Sep 10, 2012 9:34 AM
Who's "in charge" won't change no matter who is elected.

Comment: #2
Posted by: morgan
Mon Sep 10, 2012 9:52 AM
A welcome change from your partisan chicanery, Walt.
Comment: #3
Posted by: morgan
Mon Sep 10, 2012 10:05 AM
Hehe, Morgan, you got me there. Let me repharase "who appears to be in charge". Morgan it sounds to me like your understand that politics is all rigged. But if thats true, then why the fervent support of Obama? The same people are pulling the strings of all these guys.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Mon Sep 10, 2012 11:13 AM
Sir;...If the taxing authority is ultimately in the hands of the house it is not absolutely so; but the absolute power to influence the house rests with rich who are free to spew any nonsense, or tell any lie in the effort to assure victory to the side of its choice... The thing is, that the house is free to make rules to govern itself, and this the Supreme Court has found it cannot legally deny, and that freedom has resulted in a fixed number of representatives, divided districts, and unresponsive government from that part of government that should be most responsive...You cannot call them corrupt... They will plead they are voting on well founded principals... It never occurs to them that even if principals inspire them that reason should guide them...
There is no where in this world were such piddling funds invested can reap such benefits as in the house, but if they were smart, they would give up their individual power, multiply their numbers to the point where every individual's virtue was worth more than he could possibly get for it, and find they have a powerful institution again... Look at how they Wax Norquist's Cadillac , out of fear... This is a branch of our government peeing their pants in fear of a single unelected individual offering them threats... How dare he...He may be right in thinking the house belongs to him... It does not act like it belongs to us...
Comment: #5
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Tue Sep 11, 2012 6:24 PM
Sweeny, your incoherence is matched only by your poor proofreading. Sober up before you write.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Derel Schrock
Wed Sep 12, 2012 6:18 PM
Re: Derel Schrock Good call. Sweeney rambles so much that I doubt even he knows what he is saying.
Comment: #7
Posted by: David Henricks
Thu Sep 13, 2012 9:43 AM
Walter, is this really you? I too have folowed your ultra conservative views ( I'm an independent conservative myself who has been demeaned and ignored by both sides, except at election time). It's refreshing to hear someone who espouses the constitution in it's true meaning and not distorting it or using it as a club to bash someone they disagree with over the head for their beliefs. Congress is to blame for all these years of fiscal irresponsibility, but they would rather the blame fall on someone else. You don't really beleive if they overhaul the tax code the rich will suffer, do you? Too many special interests with large check books will dictate what "Broadening the base" will put the burden on the poor and middle class who have no lobbyist on their payroll. We have no advocate butTHE LORD.
Comment: #8
Posted by: bill mccalister
Thu Sep 13, 2012 11:23 AM
Why do you have a facebook share button at the top of the page if it doesn't work. I bet it's a comeon to get new subscribers, right? I wanted to introduce you to my less than informed kinfolks on your views who cannot comprehend life beyond facebook. Alas, another lost opportunity!
Comment: #9
Posted by: bill mccalister
Thu Sep 13, 2012 11:37 AM
I've been telling anyone who will listen for years, the President doesn't make the laws he's merely supposed to enforce the laws, although he can suggest laws, or veto them, as Mr. Williams pointed out. But then I went to school back when they actually taught the Constitution. As for the orange growers example, that's an example of restraint of trade, basically, an illegal price-fixing scheme. But then the wealthy have always ruled. Why should it be any different here in America. Money corrupts. Power corrupts. Greed corrupts. There is only one solution to such misuse of power, corruption, and greed. But it's only a temporary solution as once the dust settles greed, power, and corruption will raise their evil heads again.
Comment: #10
Posted by: D.M. Mitchell
Fri Sep 14, 2012 11:02 AM
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