Since the debate over the budget began, a common argument from conservatives — renewed today by Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska — suggests that only the House has the right to decide what the budget should look like. This is obviously incorrect and easily corrected.
Palin jumps into the fray in her most recent Facebook exposition. "Gee Whiz," she writes, "If Even Little Ol' Me Understands U.S. Government 101 but MSM Doesn't…" Then she links to an essay by Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Foundation. It is titled, "Democrats Chose the Shutdown," and outlines a little of the ol' U.S. Government 101.
You can check the Constitution of the United States. All spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives, which means that congressmen there have a right to decide whether or not they want to spend money on a particular government activity. ...
[T]he whole point of having a division of powers within the federal government is that each branch can decide independently what it wants to do or not do, regardless of what the other branches do, when exercising the powers specifically granted to that branch by the Constitution.
A related Examiner.com post, titled "Obamacare can be defunded without Senate approval," has gone viral among some conservatives. It doesn't take a lot to understand why this argument is compelling to Republicans. The House is the one part of the legislative branch that the party controls, so an argument that the Senate only has veto power over what the House wants to do with money is compelling. Ergo, "Democrats chose the shutdown," because the branch of Congress that's allowed to decide how to spend had that decision rejected.
It also doesn't take a lot to see why this is wrong. Sowell's essay appeared at the National Review's website. As did two essays from Matthew Franck, pointing out that Sowell's thesis (as conveyed by another conservative writer) is entirely wrong, in letter and spirit. Here's the most recent, bearing the evocative title, "Yet Again on the Origination Clause." Franck's argument, in its shortest form: The House isn't given the power to originate spending bills and, even if it were, it's only in consensus with the Senate.
Don't believe us? Well, here is the actual handwritten language from the Constitution. (It's one line line on the parchment, so we pieced it together, below.) Article I, Section 7.
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.
As Franck notes, the resolutions under contention by Congress are not bills to raise revenue, they are measures to spend it. This isn't a tax bill, it's a how-do-we-spend-the-money-we've-got-bill. In another essay on the same subject, Franck's exasperation shows through: "I don’t see how [the writer] can quote the clause, which refers to 'All bills for raising Revenue,' and immediately thereafter say that it 'applies to all spending legislation.'" Which is what Sowell does, less egregiously. "You can check the Constitution of the United States," he writes. "All spending bills must originate in the House of Representatives …" We checked. That's not what it says.
Then there's the second part. Franck:
As for claim B, the clause continues after a semicolon: “but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.” So even if [the writer] were right and I wrong about claim A … it would nevertheless be constitutionally permissible for the Senate, when it “goes second” on consideration of a bill, to add new spending by way of amendment.
The Senate may propose or concur with amendments! That is literally exactly what the Constitution says. And it's reinforced in practice; the House and Senate are constantly amending and changing and eliminating parts of all sorts of legislation, including legislation on taxes. On January 1 of this year, the debate over extending the tax cuts initiated by President Bush passed the House after being amended by the Senate. That is how it works.
Point being: Sarah Palin is wrong. Whoever was screening students to see if they were ready for Constitution 101 fell down on the job.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.