A feature of divided government, especially when the House of Representatives is not controlled by the president’s party, is “debt-ceiling chicken.” The president’s party tries to bluff, with threats of a default, the House, which is responsible for initiating money bills, into giving the president whatever he wants, usually more money for redistribution, and no cuts to entitlement spending. The House does the same thing, usually pressuring the other party to accept spending cuts.
The cliff they’re both speeding towards is an unprecedented default on the government’s debt, which currently stands at $31 trillion. Each side calculates that voters will blame the other party, which will slam the brakes first as the cliff approaches. This year Joe Biden, or whatever Edgar Bergan or Edith Wilson is actually calling the shots, until a week ago took a hard stand against any negotiations on raising the debt ceiling with a “clean bill” as the early June deadline looms.
The spectators of this show usually decry the “partisanship” and lack of “bipartisan” cooperation the two parties are exhibiting. Yet disputes over the budget illustrate what the Founders had in mind when they crafted a divided and balanced government––to exploit this factional competition, which reflects a flawed human nature and its passions and interests, in order to protect freedom by setting ambition against ambition. Also, this process can force a more careful consideration of a proposed policy, and sift out the dangerous features and a bringing to light better ones.
Money is integral to this process. The desire for gain accompanies ambition and the lust for power. The ensuing disparities in property, as Madison pointed out, are the cause of rival political factions. Control of the public fisc allows factions to pursue their ideological aims at the expense of others.
During the writing of the Constitution, Gouverneur Morris similarly identified the major factions as comprising the poor and the rich, those with “great personal property” and the “aristocratical spirit.” The “Rich will strive to establish dominion & enslave the rest. They always did. They always will.” To check the ambition of the “rich,” “the popular [non elite] interest will be combined [against] it. There will be mutual check and mutual security.”
Benjamin Franklin, in the convention’s discussion about compensation for the president, made a similar point in terms of government offices: “There are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money,” which when united in one man “have the most violent effects. . . . The struggle for them [in England] are the true sources of factions which are perpetually dividing the Nation, distracting its councils, hurrying sometimes into fruitless & mischievous wars.” A power like that of the proposed president will attract “the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits.”
These arguments based on a passionate and corruptible human nature explain why the Founders gave the “power of the purse” to the House of Representatives in Article 1.7.1.: “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.”
The fuel of ambition is money, as we have seen over the last two years as the Biden administration has borrowed trillions of dollars in order to subsidize the Dems political clients like public school teachers and corporate “green energy” grifters. Slowing down the growth in the yearly deficits that feed our monstrous debt lessens the Dems’ power to finance bad policies.
But why the House? Remember, originally the Senate was appointed by state legislatures, and so only indirectly accountable to the people. Given that money is the fuel of ambition, the Founders argued that money bills should originate in branch whose members were directly elected every two years, to counter the more powerful Senators who have six-year terms.
As future vice president Elbridge Gerry said, the House “was more immediately the representatives of the people, and it was a maxim that the people ought to hold the purse-strings.” The House of Representatives, James Madison added later, “were chosen by the people, and supposed to be best acquainted with their interests, and ability.” The “power of the purse,” in addition to acting as a check on the whole government, protected federalism by giving the sovereign states leverage over the greater powers of the Senate to check the president.
That’s why George Mason argued against giving the Senate the “power of the purse”: “Should the [Senate] have the power of giving away the people’s money, they might soon forget the Source from whence they received it. We might soon have an aristocracy.” Benjamin Franklin agreed: “It was always of importance that the people should know who had disposed of their money, and how it was disposed of.” Again highlighting the foundational belief in a flawed human nature and its lust for power, Mason continued, “An aristocratic body, like the screw in mechanics, working its way by slow degrees, and holding fast whatever it gains, should ever be suspected of an encroaching tendency. ––The purse strings should never be put into its hands.”
Finally, James Madison argued for the House controlling money bills as necessary checking the less democratic branches of the government: “The house of representatives can not only refuse, but they alone can propose the supplies requisite for the support of government. They in a word hold the purse, that powerful instrument . . . This power over the purse, may in fact be regarded 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.”
This last argument explodes the claim today, usually from the technocratic progressives, that the House carrying out its Constitutional duty to check an overweening federal government is “obstructionism.” The only thing they are obstructing is the progressive ambitions for power and dominance at the expense of the Constitution and our unalienable rights.
And make no mistake: Our government’s relentlessly growing debt fueled by deficit spending paid for by borrowing; and its swelling entitlements long headed for bankruptcy, are now approaching disaster in a decade. Medicare and Social Security––which, along with other health care programs, consume nearly half the annual budget–– especially are at risk. Medicare Part A, covering hospital care, has enough money to pay benefits until 2028. The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund that funds retirement and survivors benefits, will run out of money in 2034.
Meanwhile, the Dems keep squandering money on “green energy” subsidies and other pork while they fret over “transgender” pronouns, parents protesting over inappropriate public-school curricula, and phantom “white supremacists.” Worse, military preparedness and national security spending is stinted even in the face of China’s naked ambitions.
As Jeffrey H. Anderson writes, “While real per capita defense spending has dropped, Great Society spending has skyrocketed. To quote [The American Main Street Initiative’s] Quick Hits, ‘In real per capita spending, we spent more than five times as much on defense in 1975 as on Medicare and Medicaid combined. By 2019, we spent 56% more on Medicare and Medicaid than on defense.’ What’s more, ‘In 1975, the costs of Medicare and Medicaid consumed 7% of all federal tax revenue. In 2019, they cleared 30%.’”
Every nation, as Adam Smith famously said, has a lot of ruin in it. But our ruin will come sooner than we think if Republicans fail to do their Constitutional duty as the Founders intended, and at least slow down our feckless spending of money we don’t have. And we the people need to cheer them on and ignore the propaganda from the Dems and their media jackals. Winning the game of debt-ceiling chicken is a good place to start getting our country back on course.