Skip to content

Restoring the Power of the Purse to Congress | Commentary

The U.S. Constitution invests the power to spend money in the legislative branch. Per the Constitution: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law . . . ” Endowing Congress with the “power of the purse” has a two-fold purpose. It allows members of Congress to respond to the needs of their constituents; to direct spending to relieve the concerns of the people. In Federalist Paper No. 58, James Madison described the power of the purse as “the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people, for obtaining a redress of every grievance, and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.” The power to spend money provides Congress a check the power of the executive. Combining the power of the purse with the power to make war, the founders reasoned, was dangerous, creating the conditions for executive tyranny.

Initially Congress provided strict direction to the executive branch about how appropriated funds should be spent. The ninth bill passed by the first Congress directed funds be spent building a new lighthouse at Cape Henry on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. There can be little doubt that the founders intended Congress to direct how public money is spent. In United States v. Nixon (1974) the Supreme Court upheld the basic principle that Congress is vested with the power to direct federal spending.

“Reformers” convinced Congress to enact a moratorium on congressionally-directed spending. Members of Congress subsequently lost the ability to target funds from federal programs to address local problems. The moratorium affected a fundamental shift in power toward the executive branch. It leaves unelected people in Washington to decide how local problems should be addressed. Reformers have flipped the logic of the Constitution on its head.

Following reforms adopted in both chambers, the power to direct federal spending should be returned to Congress.

•Each appropriations subcommittee bill should limit project funding to 3/4 of 1 percent of discretionary spending per chamber, limiting total project funding to 1.5 percent of discretionary spending, leaving 98.5 percent for program-directed spending.

•Require that all project requests be submitted and posted by each subcommittee at least 30 days prior to subcommittee markup, allowing member and public review of all requests.

•Require each subcommittee to post project funding requests on their website in a searchable database prior to floor consideration. Centralizing the posting requirement in the subcommittee makes information easily available, and ensures timely disclosure.

•Require Members of Congress to certify that neither they, nor their immediate family, have a financial interest in the organization that receives the project grant.

•Require the professional staff of each subcommittee to vet project requests, including soliciting comments from executive branch employees who implement the programs. Project funds must be consistent with the goals of the program within which the money is being spent.

•Specifically exempt the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other federally funded scientific research programs from having their funds allocated through project grants. These institutions should make funding decisions based on expert peer-reviews.

•Make individual project grants subject to a point of order for violation of these guidelines.

Including project grants in appropriations bills has the additional benefit of helping Congress to pass difficult bills. Inclusion of project grants guarantees that each legislator has some “skin in the game.” Members of Congress would have something to lose from simply opposing every piece of legislation that comes to the floor.

Restoring the power of the purse to the Congress will allow members of Congress to fully represent the interests of the constituents, and restore the balance between Congress and the executive branch envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. Restoring the power to direct spending also provides an opportunity to reach out to legislators on votes for their support, investing them in passing difficult legislation. There were some serious abuses in the past, but these reforms form the basis for restoring the power of the purse to Congress, and improving public trust in Congress.John Porter is a former Member of Congress and Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. Sean Kelly and Scott Frisch are professors of political science at California State University and authors of “Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks are Good for American Democracy.”