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Constitutional FAQ Answer #125

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Q125. "On the Checks and Balances Page, it says that a legislative check on the legislature is that only the House can originate revenue bills. I've been told that only the House can originate spending bills, too — is this true?"

A. In my opinion, the Constitution is unambiguous on the point: "All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives" (Article 1, Section 7). Thus, I've listed the House's "original jurisdiction" over revenue bills (laws that affect taxes) as a check. The House, however, views this clause a little differently, taking it to mean not only taxation bills but also spending bills.

The plain language of the clause would seem to contradict the House's opinion, but the House relies on historical precedent and contemporaneous writings to support its position. In Federalist 66, for example, Alexander Hamilton writes, "The exclusive privilege of originating money bills will belong to the House of Representatives." This phrase could easily be construed to include taxing and spending. The Supreme Court has ruled, however, that the Senate can initiate bills that create revenue, if the revenue is incidental and not directly a tax. Most recently, in US v Munoz-Flores (495 US 385 [1990]), the Court said, "Because the bill at issue here was not one for raising revenue, it could not have been passed in violation of the Origination Clause." The case cites Twin City v Nebeker (176 US 196 [1897]), where the court said that "revenue bills are those that levy taxes, in the strict sense of the word."

However, the House, it is explained, will return a spending bill originated in the Senate with a note reminding the Senate of the House's prerogative on these matters. The color of the paper allows this to be called "blue-slipping." Because the House sees this as a matter of some pride, the Senate is almost guaranteed not to have concurrence on any spending bill which originates in the Senate. This has created a de facto standard, despite my own contention (and that of the Senate) that it is not supported by the Constitution.


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