The Constitution Institute
Thursday, January 17, 2019
Federalism * Enumerated Powers * Separation of Powers

Who Leads on Spending?

            There is a refrain that is being repeated often these days in the halls of Congress. The sentiment expressed by members of both the House of Representatives and Senate – Democrat and Republican alike – is that the President must exhibit “leadership” on the issue of the debt in general and entitlement reform in particular. While it has been all too common over the last several decades for the Executive Branch to assert itself on issues of national policy, is this a scenario that was intended by the framers of the Constitution? In other words, are members of the Legislative Branch demanding the President do something that is outside his Constitutional obligations? The answer is undeniably, “Yes.”

            Article 1 Section 1 of the United States Constitution states that “all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” It logically follows that if “all” legislative powers are vested in Congress, no such power resides in the office of the President. Granted, Article 2 Section 3 of the Constitution empowers the President to “from time to time...recommend to [Congress’] consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” However, this authorization of measured power for the purpose of infrequently making recommendations does not apply to the issue of the national debt and the entitlement programs which promise to drive that debt to an insurmountable level.


            Proposing laws relating to the future of entitlements and all other federal programs and policies contributing to the crushing weight of debt is the province of legislators. In fact the origin of the word “legislator” is the combination of two Latin terms meaning “law proposers.” The framers of the Constitution never intended to allow the Executive to control both the sword and what James Madison referred to as the “power over the purse.” It is the role of Congress alone – specified in Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution – to legislate the appropriate use of money drawn from the treasury. It is particularly important that we understand the framers’ decision to use the word “appropriation” and not the generic term “spending.” The framers intended that Congress exercise its power over the purse by expending money only on those things which were appropriate objects of federal attention. What are appropriate objects of federal attention? In describing the federal character of the government proposed at the constitutional convention of 1787, Madison explained that “its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only.” In describing the relative magnitude of authority of the federal government, Madison clarified later in the Federalist Papers that “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”


            No objective observer would suggest that Madison’s description of the extent of the powers delegated to the federal government by the framers at Philadelphia is consistent with the Congress’ exercise of authority today. We can take comfort in knowing that should We the People ever demand that the Congress remember the separation of powers and return to its limited delegation of power under the Constitution, our children may have the opportunities – without the burden of overwhelming debt – that free people desire for their posterity.

© 2011 by Constitution Institute, Inc.

To comment, you must be logged in.  To log in, click here.

Post Index:

Spot on!!!!!!!!!! (2011-03-29 15:33:35)
"Power of the purse" (2014-03-13 15:20:14)