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House Reclaims Constitutional Purse Strings

Amid the debate over ending furloughs for air traffic controllers, the House is once again proclaiming a constitutional right to move first on all spending bills.

“We will consider an HR so that we preserve our constitutional role in originating appropriations measures,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a letter. “The Senate has already locked in a [unanimous consent agreement] that if the House sends over a bill identical to the bill they passed last night, it will be cleared and sent to the President.”

The Senate took that procedural action on Thursday evening, when the chamber passed a bill to give the FAA funding flexibility. However as an institution, the Senate generally disputes the idea that the origination clause of the Constitution applies to anything other than tax and revenue bills.

The Congressional Research Service makes this point in a useful report on the constitutional prerogatives of the two chambers.

“Historically, the House has asserted from time to time that the Origination Clause applies not only to bills to raise revenues, but to bills to spend revenues as well,” CRS said. “Due to this interpretation, the House has customarily originated all money bills, including appropriations bills. The House and Senate disagree on the validity of this position, however.”

As the CRS has pointed out, a report published way back in 1881 by the House Judiciary Committee found no particular basis for all appropriations legislation to start in the House, but nothing changed in practice.

And so, the detente continues — the Senate takes procedural steps to allow the House to originate spending bills, even though it doesn’t recognize the constitutional issue.

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