Congressional Government/Chapter 3

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Congressional Government by Woodrow Wilson
III. The House of Representatives. Revenue and Supply.


revenue and supply.

The highest works of statesmanship require these three things: Great power in the minister, genius to counsel and support him, enlightenment in parliament to weigh and decide upon his plans.—Professor Seeley.

When men are not acquainted with each other’s principles, nor experienced in each other’s talents, nor at all practiced in their mutual habitudes and dispositions by joint efforts of business; no personal confidence, no friendship, no common interest subsisting among them; it is evidently impossible that they can act a public part with uniformity, perseverance, or efficacy.—Burke.

It requires,” says Mr. Bagehot, “a great deal of time to have opinions,” and if one is to judge from the legislative experience of some very enlightened nations, it requires more time to have opinions about finance than about any other subject. At any rate, very few nations have found time to have correct opinions about it. Governments which never consult the governed are usually content with very shabby, short-sighted methods of taxation,—with any methods, indeed, which can be made to yield the desired revenues without much trouble; and the agents of a self-governing people are quite sure to be too busy with elections and party management to have leisure to improve much upon the practices of autocrats in regard to this important care of administration. And yet this subject of finance seems to be interesting enough in a way. It is one of the commonplaces of our history that, ever since long before we came westward across the ocean, we have been readier to fight about taxation than about any other one thing,—than about a good many other things put together, indeed. There are several sadly bloody spots in the financial history of our race. It could probably be shown, however, if one cared to take time to show it, that it is easy to get vexed about mismanagement of the finances without knowing how they might be better managed. What we do not like is that we are taxed,—not that we are stupidly taxed. We do not need to be political economists to get angry about it; and when we have gotten angry about it in the past our rulers have not troubled themselves to study political economy in order to find out the best means of appeasing us. Generally they have simply shifted the burden from the shoulders of those who complained, and were able to make things unpleasant, to the shoulders of those who might complain, but could not give much trouble.

Of course there are some taxes which are much more hateful than others, and have on that account to be laid more circumspectly. All direct taxes are heartily disliked by every one who has to pay them, and as heartily abused, except by those who have never owned an ounce or an inch of property, and have never seen a tax-bill. The heart of the ordinary citizen regards them with an inborn aversion. They are so straight-forward and peremptory in their demands. They soften their exactions with not a grain of consideration. The tax-collector, consequently, is never esteemed a lovable man. His methods are too blunt, and his powers too obnoxious. He comes to us, not with a “please,” but with a “must.” His requisitions always leave our pockets lighter and our hearts heavier. We cannot, for the life of us, help thinking, as we fold up his receipt and put it away, that government is much too expensive a luxury as nowadays conducted, and that that receipt is incontestable documentary proof of unendurable extortion. What we do not realize is, that life would be robbed of one of its chief satisfactions if this occasion of grumbling were to be taken away.

Indirect taxes, on the other hand, offend scarcely anybody. It is one of the open secrets of finance that in almost every system of taxation the indirect overcrow the direct taxes by many millions, and have a knack for levying on the small resources of insignificant persons which direct taxes have never learned. They know how to coax pennies out of poor people whose names have never been on the tax-collector’s books. But they are very sly, and have at command a thousand successful disguises. High or complicated tariffs afford them their most frequent and abundant opportunities. Most people have very short thoughts, which do not extend beyond the immediate phenomena of direct vision, and so do not recognize the hand of the government in the high prices charged them in the shops. Very few of us taste the tariff in our sugar; and I suppose that even very thoughtful topers do not perceive the license-tax in their whiskey. There is little wonder that financiers have always been nervous in dealing with direct, but confident and free of hand in laying indirect, taxes.

It may, therefore, be accounted one of the customary advantages which our federal government possesses over the governments of the States, that it has almost always, in ordinary times, derived its entire revenue from prompt and facile indirect taxes, whilst the States have had to live upon the tardy and begrudged income derivable from a direct levy. Since we have had to support two governments it has been wisely resolved to let us, as long as possible, feel the weight of only one of them,—and that the one which can get at us most readily, and, at the same time, be most easily and promptly controlled by our votes. It is a plain, convenient, and, on the whole, satisfactory division of domain, though the responsibility which it throws on state legislatures is more apt to pinch and prove vexatious than is that which it lays upon Congress. Mr. Gladstone, the greatest of English financiers, once playfully described direct and indirect taxes as two sisters,—daughters of Necessity and Invention,—“differing only as sisters may differ, . . . the one being more free and open, the other somewhat more shy, retiring, and insinuating;” and frankly owned that, whether from “a lax sense of moral obligation or not,” he, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, “thought it not only allowable, but even an act of duty, to pay his addresses to them both.” But our chancellors of the exchequer, the chairmen of the Committee of Ways and Means, are bound by other traditions of courtship, and have, besides, usually shown no susceptibility to the charms of the blunt and forward elder of these two sisters. They have been constant, even if now and again a little wayward, in their devotion to the younger.

I suppose that no one ever found the paths of finance less thorny and arduous than have our national publicists. If their tasks be compared with those of European and English financiers, it is plain to see that their lines have fallen in pleasant places. From almost the very first they have had boundless resources to draw upon, and they have certainly of late days had free leave to spend limitless revenues in what extravagances they pleased. It has come to be infinitely more trouble to spend our enormous national income than to collect it. The chief embarrassments have arisen, not from deficits, but from surpluses. It is very fortunate that such has been the case, because for the best management of the finances of a nation, when revenue is scant and economy imperative, it is absolutely necessary to have financial administration in the hands of a few highly-trained and skillful men acting subject to a very strict responsibility, and this is just what our committee system does not allow. As in other matters of legislation, so in finance, we have many masters acting under a very dim and inoperative accountability. Of course under such ministration our financial policy has always been unstable, and has often strayed very far from the paths of wisdom and providence; for even when revenue is superabundant and extravagance easy, irresponsible, fast and loose methods of taxation and expenditure must work infinite harm. The only difference is that during such times the nation is not so sensitive to the ill effects wrought by careless policy. Mismanagement is not generally blamed until a great many people have discovered it by being hurt by it. Meantime, however, it is none the less interesting and important to study our government, with a view to gauging its qualities and measuring accurately its capabilities for good or bad service; and the study can doubtless be much more dispassionately conducted before we have been seriously hurt by foolish, unsteady administration than afterwards. The forces of the wind can be reckoned with much more readily while they are blowing only a gale than after they have thrown a hurricane upon us. The national income is controlled by one Committee of the House and one of the Senate; the expenditures of the government are regulated by fifteen Committees of the House and five of the Senate; and the currency is cared for by two Committees of the House and one of the Senate; by all of which it appears that the financial administration of the country is in the hands of twenty-four Committees of Congress,—a mechanism of numerous small and great functions, quite complex enough to be worth careful study, perhaps too complex to be studied directly without an aiding knowledge of some simpler system with which it may be compared. Our own budget may be more readily followed through all the vicissitudes of committee scrutiny, and all the varied fortunes of committee action, after one has traced some other budget through the simpler processes of some other system of government.

The British system is, perhaps, in its main features, the simplest in existence. It is, besides, the pattern after which the financial systems of the chief governments of Europe have been modeled, and which we have ourselves in a measure copied; so that by prefacing the study of other systems by a careful examination of the British, in its present form, one may start with the great advantage of knowing the characteristics of what may fairly be called the parent stock. Parliament, then, in the first place, simply controls, it does not originate, measures of financial administration. It acts through the agency and under the guidance of the ministers of the Crown. Early in each annual session “the estimates” are submitted to the Commons, which, when hearing such statements, sits in Committee of the Whole House, known as Committee of Supply. The estimates come before the House in truly formidable shape. Each department presents its estimates in a huge quarto volume, “crammed with figures and minute entries of moneys wanted for the forthcoming year.”[1] But the House itself does not have to digest this various and overwhelming mass of figures. The digesting is done in the first stance by the official leaders of the House. “The ministers in charge ot the naval and military services lay before the Committee [of Supply] their respective statements of the sums which will be required for the maintenance of those services; and somewhat later in the session a common estimate for the various civil services is submitted also.” Those statements are, as it were, condensed synopses of the details of the quartos, and are made with the object of rendering quite clear to the House, sitting under the informal rules of Committee, the policy of the expenditures proposed and the correctness of the calculations upon which they are based. Any member may ask what pertinent questions he pleases of the minister who is making the statement, so that nothing needing elucidation may be passed by without full explanation. After the statement has been completed to the satisfaction of the Committee, a vote is taken, at the motion of the minister, upon each item of expenditure, and the duties of the Committee of Supply have been performed.

The estimates are always submitted “on the collective responsibility of the whole cabinet.” “The army and navy estimates have, as a rule, been considered and settled in cabinet council before being submitted to the House; and the collective responsibility of the Ministry is in this case, therefore, not technical merely, but substantial.” If the estimates are resisted and rejected by the Committee, the ministers, of course, resign. They “cannot acquiesce in a refusal on the part of parliament to sanction the expenditure which” they “have assumed the responsibility of declaring necessary for the support of the civil government, and the maintenance of the public credit at home and abroad.” The votes in Committee of Supply are, therefore, vital in the history of every administration, being taken as sure indexes of the amount of confidence placed by the House in the government.

But the votes in Committee of Supply are only the first steps in parliament’s annual supervision of the public finances. They are simply the spending votes. In order to consider the means by which money is to be raised to meet the outlays sanctioned by the Committee of Supply, the House resolves itself into Committee of the Whole, under the name of the Committee of Ways and Means. It is to this Committee that the Chancellor of the Exchequer submits his budget every year, on or soon before the fifth of April, the date at which the national accounts are made up, the financial year closing on the thirty-first of March. In order to prepare his budget, the Chancellor must of course have early knowledge of the estimates made for the various services. Several months, therefore, before the estimates are laid before the House in Committee of Supply, the various departments are called upon by the Treasury to send in statements of the sums required to defray the expenses of the current year, and these estimates are carefully examined by the Chancellor, with a view not only to exercising his duty of keeping the expenditures within the limits of economy, but also to ascertaining how much revenue he will have to secure in order to meet the proper expenditure contemplated. He must balance estimated needs over against estimated resources, and advise the House in Committee of Ways and Means as to the measures by which taxation is to be made to afford sufficient revenue. Accordingly he calls in the aid of the permanent heads of the revenue departments who furnish him with “their estimates of the public revenue for the ensuing year, upon the hypothesis that taxation will remain unchanged.”

Having with such aids made up his budget, the Chancellor goes before the Committee of Ways and Means prepared to give a clear history of the financial administration of the year just closed, and to submit definite plans for adjusting the taxation and providing for the expected outlays of the year just opening. The precedents of a wise policy of long standing forbid his proposing to raise any greater revenue than is absolutely necessary for the support of the government and the maintenance of the public credit. He therefore never asks the Committee to lay taxes which promise a considerable surplus. He seeks to obtain only such an overplus of income as will secure the government against those slight errors of underestimation of probable expenses or of overestimation of probable revenue as the most prudent of administrations is liable to make. If the estimated revenue considerably exceed the estimated expenses, he proposes such remissions of taxation as will bring the balance as near equality as prudence will permit; if the anticipated expenses run beyond the figure of the hoped-for revenue, he asks that certain new taxes be laid, or that certain existing taxes be increased; if the balance between the two sides of the forecast account shows a pretty near approach to equilibrium, so the scale of revenue be but a little the heavier of the two, he contents himself with suggesting such a readjustment of existing taxes as will be likely to distribute the burden of taxation more equitably amongst the tax-paying classes, or facilitate hampered collections by simplifying the complex methods of assessment and imposition.

Such is the budget statement to which the House of Commons listens in Committee of Ways and Means. This Committee may deal with the proposals of the Chancellor of the Exchequer with somewhat freer hand than the Committee of Supply may use in passing upon the estimates. The Ministry is not so stiffly insistent upon having its budget sanctioned as it is upon having its proposed expenditures approved. It is understood to pledge itself to ask for no more money than it honestly needs; but it simply advises with the House as to the best way of raising that money. It is punctiliously particular about being supplied with the funds it asks for, but not quite so exacting as to the ways and means of supply. Still, no Ministry can stand if the budget be rejected out of hand, or if its demands for the means of meeting a deficiency be met with a flat refusal, no alternative means being suggested by the Opposition. Such votes would be distinct declarations of a want of confidence in the Ministry, and would of course force them to resign.

The Committee of Ways and Means, then, carries out, under the guidance of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the resolutions of the Committee of Supply. The votes of the later Committee, authorizing the expenditures mapped out in the estimates, are embodied in “a resolution proposed in Committee of Ways and Means for a general grant out of the Consolidated Fund ‘towards making good the supply granted to Her Majesty;’” and that resolution, in order that it may be prepared for the consideration of the House of Lords and the Crown, is afterwards cast by the House into the form of a Bill, which passes through the regular stages and in due course becomes law. The proposals of the Chancellor of the Exchequer with reference to changes in taxation are in like manner embodied in resolutions in Committee of Ways and Means, and subsequently, upon the report of the Committee, passed by the House in the shape of Bills. “Ways and Means Bills” generally pass the Lords without trouble. The absolute control of the Commons over the subjects of revenue and supply has been so long established that the upper House would not now dream of disputing it; and as the power of the Lords is simply a privilege to accept or reject a money bill as a whole, including no right to amend, the peers are wont to let such bills go through without much scrutiny.

But so far I have spoken only of that part of parliament’s control of the finances which concerns the future. The “Ways and Means Bills” provide for coming expenses and a prospective revenue. Past expenses are supervised in a different way. There is a double process of audit by means of a special Audit Department of the Civil Service, which is, of course, a part of the permanent organization of the administration, having it in charge “to examine the accounts and vouchers of the entire expenditure,” and a special committee nominated each year by the House “to audit the Audit Department.” This committee is usually made up of the most experienced business men in the Commons, and before it “all the accounts of the completed financial year are passed in review.” “Minute inquiries are occasionally made by it into the reasons why certain items of expenditure have occurred; it discusses claims for compensation, grants, and special disbursements, in addition to the ordinary outgoings of the department, mainly, to be sure, upon the information and advice of the departments themselves, but still with a certain independence of view and judgment which must be valuable.”

The strictness and explicitness with which the public accounts are kept of course greatly facilitate the process of audit. The balance which is struck on the thirty-first of every March is of the most definite sort. It deals only with the actual receipts and disbursements of the completed fiscal year. At that date all unexpended credits lapse. If the expenditure of certain sums has been sanctioned by parliamentary vote, but some of the granted moneys remain undrawn when April comes in, they can be used only after a regrant by the Commons. There are, therefore, no unclosed accounts to obscure the view of the auditing authorities. Taxes and credits have the same definite period, and there are no arrears or unexpended balances to confuse the book-keeping. The great advantages of such a system in the way of checking extravagances which would otherwise be possible, may be seen by comparing it with the system in vogue in France, in whose national balance-sheet “arrears of taxes in one year overlap with those of other years,” and “credits old jostle credits new,” so that it is said to be “always three or four years before the nation can know what the definitive expenditure of a given year is.”

For the completion of this sketch of financial administration under the Commons it is of course necessary to add a very distinct statement of what I may call the accessibility of the financial officers of the government. They are always present to be questioned. The Treasury government is, as becomes its importance, exceptionally well represented in the House. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the working chief of the department, is invariably a member of the Commons, “and can be called to account by interrogation or motion with respect to all matters of Treasury concern”—with respect, that is, to well-nigh “the whole sphere of the discipline and economy of the Executive Government;” for the Treasury has wide powers of supervision over the other departments in all matters which may in any way involve an outlay of public money. “And not only does the invariable presence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the House of Commons make the representation of that department peculiarly direct, but, through the Secretary of the Treasury, and, with respect to certain departmental matters, through the Junior Lords, the House possesses peculiar facilities for ascertaining and expressing its opinion upon the details of Treasury administration.” It has its responsible servants always before it, and can obtain what glimpses it pleases into the inner workings of the departments which it wishes to control.

It is just at this point that our own system of financial administration differs most essentially from the systems of England, of the Continent, and of the British colonial possessions. Congress does not come into direct contact with the financial officers of the government. Executive and legislature are separated by a hard and fast line, which sets them apart in what was meant to be independence, but has come to amount to isolation. Correspondence between them is carried on by means of written communications, which, like all formal writings, are vague, or by means of private examinations of officials in committee-rooms to which the whole House cannot be audience. No one who has read official documents needs to be told how easy it is to conceal the essential truth under the apparently candid and all-disclosing phrases of a voluminous and particularizing report; how different those answers are which are given with the pen from a private office from those which are given with the tongue when the speaker is looking an assembly in the face. It is sufficiently plain, too, that resolutions which call upon officials to give testimony before a committee are a much clumsier and less efficient means of eliciting information than is a running fire of questions addressed to ministers who are always in their places in the House to reply publicly to all interrogations. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the House of Representatives is much less intimately acquainted with the details of federal Treasury affairs than is such a body as the House of Commons, with the particulars of management in the Treasury which it oversees by direct and constant communication with the chief Treasury officials.

This is the greater drawback in our system, because, as a further result of its complete separation from the executive, Congress has to originate and perfect the budget for itself. It does not hear the estimates translated and expounded in condensed statements by skilled officials who have made it their business, because it is to their interest, to know thoroughly what they are talking about; nor does it have the benefit of the guidance of a trained, practical financier when it has to determine questions of revenue. The Treasury is not consulted with reference to problems of taxation, and motions of supply are disposed of with no suggestions from the departments beyond an itemized statement of the amounts needed to meet the regular expenses of an opening fiscal year.

In federal book-keeping the fiscal year closes on the thirtieth of June. Several months before that year expires, however, the estimates for the twelve months which are to succeed are made ready for the use of Congress. In the autumn each department and bureau of the public service reckons its pecuniary needs for the fiscal year which is to begin on the following first of July (making explanatory notes, and here and there an interjected prayer for some unwonted expenditure, amongst the columns of figures), and sends the resulting document to the Secretary of the Treasury. These reports, including of course the estimates of the various bureaux of his own department, the Secretary has printed in a thin quarto volume of some three hundred and twenty-five pages, which for some reason or other, not quite apparent, is called a “Letter from the Secretary of the Treasury transmitting estimates of appropriations required for the fiscal year ending June 30,” . . . and which boasts a very distinct arrangement under the heads Civil Establishment, Military Establishment, Naval Establishment, Indian Affairs, Pensions, Public Works, Postal Service, etc., a convenient summary of the chief items, and a complete index.

In December this “Letter” is sent, as a part of the Secretary of the Treasury’s annual report to Congress, to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, immediately after the convening of that body, and is referred to the Standing Committee on Appropriations. The House itself does not hear the estimates read; it simply passes the thin quartos over to the Committee; though, of course, copies of it may be procured and studied by any member who chooses to scrutinize the staring pages of columned figures with the dutiful purpose of keeping an eye upon the uses made of the public revenue. Taking these estimates into consideration, the Committee on Appropriations found upon them the “general appropriation bills,” which the rules require them to report to the House “within thirty days after their appointment, at every session of Congress, commencing on the first Monday in December," unless they can give satisfactory reasons in writing for not doing so. The “general appropriation bills” provide separately for legislative, executive, and judicial expenses; for sundry civil expenses; for consular and diplomatic expenses; for the Army; for the Navy; for the expenses of the Indian department; for the payment of invalid and other pensions; for the support of the Military Academy; for fortifications; for the service of the Post—Office department, and for mail transportation by ocean steamers.

It was only through the efforts of a later-day spirit of vigilant economy that this practice of making the appropriations for each of the several branches of the public service in a separate bill was established. During the early years of the Constitution very loose methods of appropriation prevailed. All the moneys for the year were granted in a single bill, entitled “An Act making Appropriations for the support of the Government;” and there was no attempt to specify the objects for which they were to be spent. The gross sum given could be applied at the discretion of the heads of the executive departments, and was always large enough to allow much freedom in the undertaking of new schemes of administration, and in the making of such additions to the clerical force of the different offices as might seem convenient to those in control. It was not until 1862 that the present practice of somewhat minutely specifying the uses to be made of the funds appropriated was reached, though Congress had for many years been by slow stages approaching such a policy. The history of appropriations shows that “there has been an increasing tendency to limit the discretion of the executive departments, and bring the details of expenditure more immediately under the annual supervision of Congress;” a tendency which has specially manifested itself since the close of the recent war between the States.[2] In this, as in other things, the appetite for government on the part of Congress has grown with that perfection of organization which has rendered the gratification of its desire for power easily attainable. In this matter of appropriations, however, increased care has unquestionably resulted in a very decided curtailment of extravagance in departmental expenditure, though Congress has often shown a blind ardor for retrenchment which has fallen little short of parsimony, and which could not have found place in its legislation had it had such adequate means of confidential communication with the executive departments as would have enabled it to understand their real needs, and to discriminate between true economy and those scant allowances which only give birth to deficiencies, and which, even under the luckiest conditions, serve only for a very brief season to create the impression which they are usually meant to beget,—that the party in power is the party of thrift and honesty, seeing in former appropriations too much that was corrupt and spendthrift, and desiring to turn to the good ways of wisdom and frugality.

There are some portions of the public expenditure which do not depend upon the annual gifts of Congress, but which are provided for by statutes which run without limit of date. These are what are known as the “permanent appropriations.” They cover, on the one hand, such indeterminate charges as the interest on the public debt, the amounts annually paid into the sinking fund, the outlays of refunding, the interest on the bonds issued to the Pacific Railways; and, on the other hand, such specific charges as the maintenance of the militia service, the costs of the collection of the customs revenue, and the interest on the bequest to the Smithsonian Institution. Their aggregate sum constitutes no insignificant part of the entire public expense. In 1880, in a total appropriation of about $307,000,000, the permanent appropriations fell short of the annual grant by only about sixteen and a half millions. In later years, however, the proportion has been smaller, one of the principal items, the interest on the public debt, becoming, of course, continually less as the debt is paid off, and other items reaching less amounts, at the same time that the figures of the annual grants have risen rather than fallen.

With these permanent grants the Committee on Appropriations has, of course, nothing to do, except that estimates of the moneys to be drawn under authority of such grants are submitted to its examination in the Secretary of the Treasury’s “Letter,” along with the estimates for which special appropriations are asked. Upon these latter estimates the general appropriations are based. The Committee may report its bills at any stage of the House’s business, provided only that it does not interrupt a member who is speaking; and these bills when reported may at any time, by a majority vote, be made a special order of the day. Of course their consideration is the most imperative business of the session. They must be passed before the end of June, else the departments will be left altogether without means of support. The chairman of the Committee on Appropriations is, consequently, a very masterful authority in the House. He can force it to a consideration of the business of his Committee at almost any time; and by withholding his reports until the session is well advanced can crowd all other topics from the docket. For much time is spent over each of the “general appropriation bills.” The spending of money is one of the two things that Congress invariably stops to talk about; the other being the raising of money. The talk is made always in Committee of the Whole, into which the House at once resolves itself whenever appropriations are to be considered. While members of this, which may be called the House’s Committee of Supply, representatives have the freest opportunity of the session for activity, for usefulness, or for meddling, outside the sphere of their own committee work. It is true that the “five-minutes’ rule” gives each speaker in Committee of the Whole scant time for the expression of his views, and that the House can refuse to accord full freedom of debate to its other self, the Committee of the Whole, by limiting the time which it is to devote to the discussion of matters referred to it, or by providing for its discharge from the further consideration of any bill committed to it, after it shall have acted without debate on all amendments pending or that may be offered; but as a rule every member has a chance to offer what suggestions he pleases upon questions of appropriation, and many hours are spent in business-like debate and amendment of such bills, clause by clause and item by item. The House learns pretty thoroughly what is in each of its appropriation bills before it sends it to the Senate.

But, unfortunately, the dealings of the Senate with money bills generally render worthless the painstaking action of the House. The Senate has been established by precedent in the very freest possible privileges of amendment as regards these bills no less than as regards all others. The Constitution is silent as to the origination of bills appropriating money. It says simply that “all bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives,” and that in considering these “the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other bills” (Art. I., Sec. VII.); but, “by a practice as old as the Government itself, the constitutional prerogative of the House has been held to apply to all the general appropriation bills,”[3] and the Senate’s right to amend these has been allowed the widest conceivable scope. The upper house may add to them what it pleases; may go altogether outside of their original provisions and tack to them entirely new features of legislation, altering not only the amounts but even the objects of expenditure, and making out of the materials sent them by the popular chamber measures of an almost totally new character. As passed by the House of Representatives, appropriation bills generally provide for an expenditure considerably less than that called for by the estimates; as returned from the Senate, they usually propose grants of many additional millions, having been brought by that less sensitive body up almost, if not quite, to the figures of the estimates.

After passing their ordeal of scrutiny and amendment in the Senate, the appropriation bills return with their new figures to the House. But when they return it is too late for the House to put them again into the crucible of Committee of the Whole. The session, it may be taken for granted, was well on towards its middle age before they were originally introduced by the House Committee on Appropriations; after they reached the Senate they were referred to its corresponding Committee; and the report of that Committee upon them was debated at the leisurely length characteristic of the weightier proceedings of the upper chamber; so that the last days of the session are fast approaching when they are sent down to the House with the work of the Senate’s hand upon them. The House is naturally disinclined to consent to the radical alterations wrought by the Senate, but there is no time to quarrel with its colleague, unless it can make up its mind to sit through the heat of midsummer, or to throw out the bill and accept the discomforts of an extra session. If the session be the short one, which ends, by constitutional requirement, on the 4th of March, the alternative is the still more distasteful one of leaving the appropriations to be made by the next House.

The usual practice, therefore, is to adjust such differences by means of a conference between the two Houses. The House rejects the Senate’s amendments without hearing them read; the Senate stoutly refuses to yield; a conference ensues, conducted by a committee of three members from each chamber; and a compromise is effected, by such a compounding of disagreeing propositions as gives neither party to the quarrel the victory, and commonly leaves the grants not a little below the amounts asked for by the departments. As a rule, the Conference Committee consists, on the part of the House, of the chairman of its Committee on Appropriations, some other well-posted member of that Committee, and a representative of the minority. Its reports are matters of highest prerogative. They may be brought in even while a member is speaking. It is much better to silence a speaker than to delay for a single moment, at this stage of the session, the pressing, imperious question of the supplies for the support of the government. The report is, therefore, acted upon immediately and in a mass, and is generally adopted without debate. So great is the haste that the report is passed upon before being printed, and without giving any one but the members of the Conference Committee time to understand what it really contains. There is no chance of remark or amendment. It receives at once sanction or rejection as a whole; and the chances are, of course, in favor of its being accepted, because to reject it would but force a new conference and bring fresh delays.

It is evident, therefore, that after all the careful and thorough-going debate and amendment of Committee of the Whole in the House, and all the grave deliberation of the Senate to which the general appropriations are subjected, they finally pass in a very chaotic state, full of provisions which neither the House nor the Senate likes, and utterly vague and unintelligible to every one save the members of the Conference Committee; so that it would seem almost as if the generous portions of time conscientiously given to their consideration in their earlier stages had been simply time thrown away.

The result of the under-appropriation to which Congress seems to have become addicted by long habit in dealing with the estimates, is, of course, the addition of another bill to the nunber of the regular annual grants. As regularly as the annual session opens there is a Deficiency Bill to be considered. Doubtless deficiencies frequently arise because of miscalculations or extravagance on the part of the departments; but the most serious deficiencies are those which result from the close-fistedness of the House Committee on Appropriations, and the compromise reductions which are wrung from the Senate by conference committees. Every December, consequently, along with the estimates for the next fiscal year, or at a later period of the session in special communications, come estimates of deficiencies in the appropriations for the current year, and the apparent economies of the grants of the preceding session have to be offset in the gifts of the inevitable Deficiency Bill. It is as if Congress had designedly established the plan of making semi-annual appropriations. At each session it grants part of the money to be spent after the first of July following, and such sums as are needed to supplement the expenditures previously authorized to be made after the first of July preceding. It doles out their allowances in installments to its wards, the departments.

It is usual for the Appropriations Committees of both Houses, when preparing the annual bills, to take the testimony of the directing officers of the departments as to the actual needs of the public service in regard to all the principal items of expenditure. Having no place upon the floor of the House, and being, in consequence, shut out from making complete public statements concerning the estimates, the heads of the several executive departments are forced to confine themselves to private communications with the House and Senate Committees. Appearing before those Committees in person, or addressing them more formally in writing, they explain and urge the appropriations asked in the “Letter” containing the estimates. Their written communications, though addressed only to the chairman of one of the Committees, frequently reach Congress itself, being read in open session by some member of the Committee in order to justify or interpret the items of appropriation proposed in a pending bill. Not infrequently the head of a department exerts himself to secure desired supplies by dint of negotiation with individual members of the Committee, and by repeated and insistent private appeals to their chairman.

Only a very small part of the relations between the Committees and the departments is matter of rule. Each time that the estimates come under consideration the Committees must specially seek, or the departments newly volunteer, information and advice. It would seem, however, that it is now less usual for the Committees to ask than for the Secretaries to offer counsel and suggestion. In the early years of the government it was apparently not uncommon for the chairman of spending committees to seek out departmental officials in order to get necessary enlightenment concerning the mysteries of the estimates, though it was often easier to ask for than to get the information wanted. An amusing example of the difficulties which then beset a committee-man in search of such knowledge is to be found in the private correspondence of John Randolph of Roanoke. Until 1865 the House Committee of Ways and Means, which is one of the oldest of the Standing Committees, had charge of the appropriations; it was, therefore, Mr. Randolph's duty, as chairman of that Committee in 1807, to look into the estimates, and he thus recounts, in an interesting and exceedingly characteristic letter to his intimate friend and correspondent, Nicholson, this pitiful experience which he had had in performing that duty: “I called some time since at the navy office to ask an explanation of certain items of the estimate for this year. The Secretary called upon his chief clerk, who knew very little more of the business than his master. I propounded a question to the head of the department; he turned to the clerk like a boy who cannot say his lesson, and with imploring countenance beseeches aid; the clerk with much assurance gabbled out some commonplace jargon, which I could not take for sterling; an explanation was required, and both were dumb. This pantomime was repeated at every item, until, disgusted and ashamed for the degraded situation of the principal, I took leave without pursuing the subject, seeing that my object could not be attained. There was not one single question relating to the department that the Secretary could answer.”[4] It is to be hoped that the Secretaries of today are somewhat better versed in the affairs of their departments than was respectable Robert Smith, or, at any rate, that they have chief clerks who can furnish inquiring chairmen with something better than commonplace jargon which no shrewd man can take for sterling information; and it is altogether probable that such a scene as the one just described would nowadays be quite impossible. The bookkeeping of later years has been very much stricter and more thorough than it was in the infancy of the departments; the estimates are much more thoroughly differentiated and itemized; and a minute division of labor in each department amongst a numerous clerical force makes it comparatively easy for the chief executive officers to acquaint themselves quickly and accurately with the details of administration. They do not wait, therefore, as a general thing, to be sought out and questioned by the Committees, but bestir themselves to get at the ears of the committee-men, and especially to secure, if possible, the influence of the chairmen in the interest of adequate appropriations.

These irregular and generally informal communications between the Appropriations Committees and the heads of the departments, taking the form sometimes of pleas privately addressed by the Secretaries to individual members of the Committees, and again of careful letters which find their way into the reports laid before Congress, stand in our system in the place of the annual financial statements which are in British practice made by the ministers to parliament, under circumstances which constitute very full and satisfactory public explanations and the freest replies to all pertinent questions invariable features of the supervision of the finances by the Commons. Our ministers make their statements to both Houses indirectly and piecemeal, through the medium of the Committees. They are mere witnesses, and are in no definite way responsible for the annual appropriations. Their secure four-year tenure of office is not at all affected by the treatment the estimates receive at the hands of Congress. To see our cabinet officers resign because appropriations had been refused for the full amount asked for in the Secretary of the Treasury’s “Letter” would be as novel in our eyes as would be, in the view of our English cousins, the sight of a Ministry of the Crown remaining in office under similar circumstances. Indeed, were our cabinets to stake their positions upon the fortunes of the estimates submitted to Congress, we should probably suffer the tiresome inconvenience of yearly resignations; for even when the heads of the departments tax all their energies and bring into requisition all their arts of persuasion to secure ample grants from the Committees, the House Committee cuts down the sums as usual, the Senate Committee adds to them as before, and the Conference Committee strikes a deficient compromise balance according to time-honored custom.

There is in the House another appropriations committee besides the Committee on Appropriations. This is the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, created in December, 1883, by the Forty-eighth Congress, as a sharer in the too great prerogatives till then enjoyed by the Committee on Commerce. The Committee on Rivers and Harbors represents, of course, the lateiy-aequired permanency of the policy of internal improvements. Until 1870 that policy had had a very precarious existence. Strenuously denied all tolerance by the severely constitutional Presidents of the earlier days, it could not venture to declare itself openly in separate appropriations which offered an easy prey to the watchful veto, but skulked in the unobtrusive guise of items of the general grants, safe under the cover of respectable neighbor items. The veto has never been allowed to seek out single features in the acts submitted to the executive eye, and even such men as Madison and Monroe, stiff and peremptory as they were in the assertion of their conscientious opinions, and in the performance of what they conceived to be their constitutional duty, and much as they disapproved of stretching the Constitution to such uses as national aid to local and inland improvements, were fain to let an occasional gift of money for such purposes pass unforbidden rather than throw out the general appropriation bill to which it was tacked. Still, Congress did not make very frequent or very flagrant use of this trick, and schemes of internal improvement came altogether to a standstill when faced by President Jackson’s imperious disfavor. It was for many years the settled practice of Congress to grant the States upon the sea-board leave to lay duties at their ports for the improvement of the harbors, and itself to undertake the expense of no public works save those upon territory actually owned by the United States. But in later years the relaxation of presidential opposition and the admission of new States lying altogether away from the sea, and, therefore, quite unwilling to pay the tariffs which were building up the harbors of their eastern neighbors without any recompensing advantage to themselves who had no harbors, revived the plans which the vetoes of former times had rebuffed, and appropriations from the national coffers began freely to be made for the opening of the great water highways and the perfecting of the sea-gates of commerce. The inland States were silenced, because satisfied by a share in the benefits of natlonal aid, which, being no longer indirect, was not confined to the sanctioning of state tariffs which none but the sea-board commonwealths could benefit by, but which consumers everywhere had to pay.

The greatest increase in appropriations of this class took place just after 1870. Since that date they have occupied a very prominent place in legislation, running from some twelve millions in the session of 1873-4 up and down through various figures to eighteen millions seven hundred thousand in the session of 1882-3, constituting during that decade the chief business of the Committee on Commerce, and finally having a special Standing Committee erected for their superintendence. They have thus culminated with the culmination of the protective tariff, and the so-called “American system” of protective tariffs and internal improvements has thus at last attained to its perfect work. The same prerogatives are accorded this new appropriations committee which have been secured to the greater Comnmittee which deals with the estimates. Its reports may be made at any time when a member is not speaking, and stand in all respects upon the same footing as the bills proposing the annual grants. It is a special spending committee, with its own key to the Treasury.

But the Appropriation Committees of the two Houses, though, strictly speaking, the only committees of supply, have their work increased and supplemented by the numerous Committees which devote time aud energy to creating demands upon the Treasury. There is a pension list in the estimates for whose payment the Committee on Appropriations has to provide every year; but the Committee on Pensions is constantly manufacturing new claims upon the public revenues.[5] There must be money forthcoming to build the new ships called for by the report of the Committee on Naval Affairs, and to meet the charges for the army equipment and reforms recommended by the Committee on Military Affairs. There are innumerable fingers in the budget pie.

It is principally in connection with appropriations that what has come to be known in our political slang as “log-rolling” takes place. Of course the chief scene of this sport is the private room of the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, and the season of its highest excitement, the hours spent in the passage of the River and {{hwe|bor|Harbor Bill. “Log-rolling” is an exchange of favors. Representative A. is very anxious to secure a grant for the clearing of a small watercourse in his district, and representative B. is equally solicitous about his plans for bringing money into the hands of the contractors of his own constituency, whilst representative C. comes from a sea-port town whose modest harbor is neglected because of the treacherous bar across its mouth, and representative D. has been blamed for not bestirring himself more in the interest of schemes of improvement afoot amongst the enterprising citizens of his native place; so it is perfectly feasible for these gentlemen to put their heads together and confirm a mutual understanding that each will vote in Committee of the Whole for the grants desired by the others, in consideration of the promise that they will cry “aye” when his item comes on to be considered. It is not out of the question to gain the favoring ear of the reporting Committee, and a great deal of tinkering can be done with the bill after it has come into the hands of the House. Lobbying and log-rolling go hand in hand.

So much for estimates and appropriations. All questions of revenue are in their first stages in the hands of the House Committee of Ways and Means, and in their last, in charge of the Senate Committee on Finance. The name of the House Committee is evidently borrowed from the language of the British Parliament; the English Committee of Ways and Means is, however, the Commons itself sitting in Committee of the Whole to consider the statement and proposals of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whilst ours is a Standing Committee of the House composed of eleven members, and charged with the preparation of all legislation relating to the raising of the revenue and to providing ways and means for the support of the government. We have, in English parliamentary phrase, put our Chancellorship of the Exchequer into commission. The chairman of the Committee figures as our minister of finance, but he really, of course, only represents the commission of eleven over which he presides.

All reports of the Treasury department are referred to this Committee of Ways and Means, which also, like the Committee on Appropriations, from time to time holds other more direct communications with the officers of revenue bureaux. The annual reports of the Secretary of the Treasury are generally quite full of minute information upon the points most immediately connected with the proper duties of the Committee. They are explicit with regard to the collection and disbursement of the revenues, with regard to the condition of the public debt, and with regard to the operation of all laws governing the financial policy of the departments. They are, in one aspect, the great yearly balance sheets, exhibiting the receipts and expenditures of the government, its liabilities and its credits; and, in another aspect, general views of the state of industry and of the financial machinery of the country, summarizing the information compiled by the bureau of statistics with reference to the condition of the manufactures and of domestic trade, as well as with regard to the plight of the currency and of the national banks. They are, of course, quite distinct from the “Letters” of the Secretary of the Treasury, which contain the estimates, and go, not to the Committee of Ways and Means, but to the Committee on Appropriations.

Though the duties of the Committee of Ways and Means in supervising the management of the revenues of the country are quite closely analogous to those of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, the lines of policy in which they walk are very widely separated from those which he feels bound to follow. As I have said, the object which he holds constantly in view is to keep the annual balances as nearly as possible at an equilibrium. He plans to raise only just enough revenue to satisfy the grants made in Committee of Supply, and leave a modest surplus to cover possible errors in the estimates and probable fluctuations in the returns from taxation. Our Committee of Ways and Means, on the other hand, follow a very different policy. The revenues which they control are raised for a double object. They represent not only the income of the government, but also a carefully erected commercial policy to which the income of the government has for many years been incidental. They are intended to foster the manufactures of the country as well as to defray the expenses of federal administration. Were the maintenance of the government and the support of the public credit the chief objects of our national policy of taxation, it would undoubtedly be cast in a very different pattern. During a greater part of the lifetime of the present government, the principal feature of that policy has been a complex system of duties on imports, troublesome and expensive of collection, but nevertheless yielding, together with the license taxes of the internal revenue which later years have seen added to it, immense surpluses which no extravagances of the spending committees could exhaust. Duties few, small, and comparatively inexpensive of collection would afford abundant revenues for the efficient conduct of the government, besides comporting much more evidently with economy in financial administration. Of course, if vast revenues pour in over the barriers of an exacting and exorbitant tariff, amply sufficient revenues would flow in through the easy conduits of moderate and simple duties. The object of our financial policy, however, has not been to equalize receipts and expenditures, but to foster the industries of the country. The Committee of Ways and Means, therefore, do not concern themselves directly with regulating the income of the government—they know that that, in every probable event, will be more than sufficient—but with protecting the interests of the manufacturers as affected by the regulation of the tariff. The resources of the government are made incidental to the industrial investments of private citizens.

This evidently constitutes a very capital difference between the functions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and those of our Committee of Ways and Means. In the policy of the former the support of the government is everything; with the latter the care of the industries of the country is the beginning and the end of duty. In the eyes of parliament enormous balances represent ignorant or improper management on the part of the ministers, and a succession of them is sure to cast a cabinet from office, to the lasting disgrace of the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but to the mind of Congress vast surpluses are indicative of nothing in particular. They indicate of course abundant returns from the duties, but the chief concern is, not whether the duties are fruitful, but whether they render the trades prosperous. Commercial interests are the essential consideration; excess of income is a matter of comparative indifference. The points of view characteristic of the two systems are thus quite opposite: the Committee of Ways and Means subordinates its housekeeping duties to its much wider extra-governmental business; the Chancellor of the Exchequer subordinates everything to economical administration.

This is evidently the meaning of the easy sovereignty, in the practice of the House, of questions of supply over questions of revenue. It is imperative to grant money for the support of the government, but questions of revenue revision may be postponed without inconvenience. The two things do not necessarily go hand in hand, as they do in the Commons. The reports of the Committee of Ways and Means are matters of quite as high privilege as the reports of the Committee on Appropriations, but they by no means stand an equal chance of gaining the consideration of the House and reaching a passage. They have no inseparable connection with the annual grants; the needed supplies will be forthcoming without any readjustments of taxation to meet the anticipated demands, because the taxes are not laid in the first instance with reference to the expenses which are to be paid out of their proceeds. If it were the function of the Committee of Ways and Means, as it is of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to adjust the revenue to the expenditures, their reports would be as essential a part of the business of each session as are the reports of the Comnmittee on Appropriations; but their proposals, occupying, as they do, a very different place in legislation, may go to the wall just as the proposals of the other Committees do at the demand of the chairman of the great spending Committee. The figures of the annual grants do not run near enough to the sum of the annual receipts to make them at all dependent on bills which concern the latter.

It would seem that the supervision exercised by Congress over expenditures is more thorough than that which is exercised by the Commons in England. In 1814 the House created a Standing Committee on Public Expenditures whose duty it should be “to examine into the state of the several public departments, and particularly into laws making appropriations of money, and to report whether the moneys have been disbursed conformably with such laws; and also to report from time to time such provisions and arrangements as may be necessary to add to the economy of the departments and the accountability of their officers;” but this Committee stood as the only committee of audit for but two years. It was not then abolished, but its jurisdiction was divided amongst six other Committees on Expenditures in the several departments, to which was added in 1860 a seventh, and in 1874 an eighth. There is thus a separate Committee for the audit of the accounts of each of the executive departments, beside which the original single Committee on Public Expenditures stands charged with such duties as may have been left it in the general distribution.[6] The duties of these eight Committees are specified with great minuteness in the rules. They are “to examine into the state of the accounts and expenditures respectively submitted to them, and to inquire and report particularly,” whether the expenditures of the respective departments are warranted by law; “whether the claims from time to time satisfied and discharged by the respective departments are supported by sufficient vouchers, establishing their justness both as to their character and amount; whether such claims have been discharged out of funds appropriated therefor, and whether all moneys have been disbursed in conformity with appropriation laws; and whether any, or what, provisions are necessary to be adopted, to provide more perfectly for the proper application of the public moneys, and to secure the govermnent from demands unjust in their character or extravagant in their amount.” Besides exercising these functions of careful audit, they are, moreover, required to “report from time to time” any plans for retrenchment that may appear advisable in the interests of economy, or any measures that may be necessary to secure greater efficiency or to insure stricter accountability to Congress in the management of the departments; to ferret out all abuses that may make their appearance; and to see to it that no department has useless offices in its bureaux, or over or under-paid officers on its rolls.

But, though these Committees are so many and so completely armed with powers, indications are not wanting that more abuses run at large in the departments than they, with all their eyes, are able to detect. The Senate, though it has no similar permanent committees, has sometimes discovered dishonest dealings that had altogether escaped the vigilance of the eight House Committees; and even these eight occasionally by a special effort, bring to light transactions which would never have been unearthed in the ordinary routine course of their usual procedure. It was a select committee of the Senate which, during the sessions of the Forty-seventh Congress, discovered that the “contingent fund” of the Treasury department had been spent in repairs on the Secretary’s private residence, for expensive suppers spread before the Secretary’s political friends, for lemonade for the delectation of the Secretary’s private palate, for bouquets for the gratification of the Secretary’s busiest allies, for carpets never delivered, “ice” never used, and services never rendered;[7] although these were secrets of which the honest faces of the vouchers submitted with the accounts gave not a hint.

It is hard to see how there could have been anything satisfactory or conclusive in the annual supervision of the public accounts during any but the latest years of this system of committee audit. Before 1870 our national book-keeping was much like that still in vogue in France. Credits once granted ran on without period until they were exhausted. There were always unexpended balances to confuse the accounts; and when the figures of the original grants had been on a too generous scale, as was often the case, these balances accumulated from year to year in immense surpluses, sometimes of many millions, of whose use no account was given, and which consequently afforded means for all sorts of extravagance and peculation. In 1870 this abuse was partially corrected by a law which limited such accumulations to a period of two years, and laid hands, on behalf of the Treasury, on the $174,000,000 of unexpended balances which had by that time been amassed in the several departments; but it was not till 1874 that such a rule of expenditure and accounting was established as would make intelligent audit by the Committees possible, by a proper circumscription of the time during which credits could be drawn upon without a regrant.[8]

Such is a general view, in brief and without technical detail, of the chief features of our financial system, of the dealings of Congress with the questions of revenue, expenditure, and supply. The contast which this system offers to the old-world systems, of which the British is the most advanced type, is obviously a very striking one. The one is the very opposite the others. On the one hand is a financial policy regulated by a compact, coöperative ministry under the direction of a representative chamber, and on the other hand a financial policy directed by the representative body itself, with only clerical aid from the executive. In our practice, in other words, the Committees are the ministers, and the titular ministers only confidential clerks. There is no concurrence, not even a nominal alliance, between the several sections of this committee-ministry, though their several duties are clearly very nearly akin and as clearly mutually dependent. This feature of disintegration in leadership runs, as I have already pointed out, through all our legislation; but it is manifestly of much more serious consequence in financial administration than in the direction of other concerns of government. There can be no doubt that, if it were not for the fact that our revenues are not regulated with any immediate reference to the expenditures of the government, this method of spending according to the suggestions of one body, and taxing in obedience to the suggestions of another entirely distinct, would very quickly bring us into distress; it would unquestionably break down under any attenpt to treat revenue and expenditure as mutually adjustable parts of a single, uniform, self-consistent system. They can be so treated only when they are under the management of a single body; only when all financial arrangements are based upon schemes prepared by a few men of trained minds and accordant principles, who can act with easy agreement and with perfect confidence in each other. When taxation is regarded only as a source of revenue and the chief object of financial management is the graduation of outlays by income, the credit and debit sides of the account must come under a single eye to be properly balanced; or, at the least, those officers who raise the money must see and be guided by the books of those who spend it.

It cannot, therefore, be reasonably regarded as matter of surprise that our financial policy has been without consistency or coherency, without progressive continuity. The only evidences of design to be discovered in it appear in those few elementary features which were impressed upon it in the first days of the government, when Congress depended upon such men as Hamilton and Gallatin for guidance in putting the finances into shape. As far as it has any invariable characteristics, or any traceable heredity, it is the handiwork of the sagacious men who first presided over the Treasury department. Since it has been altogether in the hands of congressional Committees it has so waywardly shifted from one rôle to another, and has with such erratic facility changed its principles of action and its modes of speech, to suit the temper and tastes of the times, that one who studies it hardly becomes acquainted with it in one decade before he finds that that was a season quite apart from and unlike both those which went before and those which succeeded. At almost every session Congress has made some effort, more or less determined, towards changing the revenue system in some essential portion; and that system has never escaped radical alteration for ten years together. Had revenue been graduated by the comparatively steady standard of the expenditures, it must have been kept stable and calculable; but depending, as it has done, on a much-debated and constantly fluctuating industrial policy, it has been regulated in accordance with a scheme which has passed through as many phases as there have been vicissitudes and vagaries in the fortunes of commerce and the tactics of parties.

This is the more remarkable because upon all fiscal questions Congress acts with considerable deliberation and care. Financial legislation usually, if not always, occupies by far the most prominent place in the business of each session. Though other questions are often disposed of at odd moments, in haste and without thought, questions of revenue and supply are always given full measure of debate. The House of Representatives, under authority of the Rule before referred to, which enables it, as it were, to project the previous question into Committee of the Whole, by providing for the discharge of that Committee from the further consideration of any bill that is in its hands, or that may be about to be referred to it, after all amendments “pending and that may be offered” shall have been acted upon without debate, seldom hesitates, when any ordinary business is to be considered, to forbid to the proceedings of Committee of the Whole all freedom of discussion, and, consequently, almost all discretion as to the action to be taken; but this muzzle is seldom put upon the mouth of the Committee when appropriation or tariff bills are to be considered, unless the discussion in Committee wanders off into fields, quite apart from the proper matter of the measure in hand, in which case the House interposes to check the irrelevant talk. Appropriation bills have, however, as I have shown, a much higher privilege than have bills affecting the tariff, and instances are not wanting in which the chairman of the Committee on Appropriations has managed to engross the time of the House in the disposal of measures prepared by his Committee, to the entire exclusion of any action whatever on important bills reported by the Committee of Ways and Means after the most careful and laborious deliberation. His prerogatives are never disputed in such a contest for consideration between a supply and a revenue bill, because these two subjects do not, under our system, necessarily go hand in hand. Ways and Means bills may and should be acted upon, but Supply bills must be.

It should be remarked in this connection, moreover, that much as Congress talks about fiscal questions, whenever permitted to do so by the selfish Appropriations Committee, its talk is very little heeded by the big world outside its halls. The noteworthy fact, to which I have already called attention, that even the most thorough debates in Congress fail to awaken any genuine or active interest in the minds of the people, has had its most striking illustrations in the course of our financial legislation; for, though the discussions which have taken place in Congress upon financial questions have been so frequent, so protracted, and so thorough, engrossing so large a part of the time of the House on their every recurrence, they seem, in almost every instance, to have made scarcely any impression at all upon the public mind. The Coinage Act of 1873, by which silver was demonetized, had been before the country many years, ere it reached adoption, having been time and again considered by Committees of Congress, time and again printed and discussed in one shape or another, and having finally gained acceptance apparently by sheer persistence and importunity. The Resumption Act of 1875, too, had had a like career of repeated considerations by Committees, repeated printings, and a full discussion by Congress; and yet when the “Bland Silver Bill” of 1878 was on its way through the mills of legislation, some of the most prominent newspapers of the country declared with confidence that the Resumption Act had been passed inconsiderately and in haste, almost secretly indeed; and several members of Congress had previously complained that the demonetization scheme of 1873 had been pushed surreptitiously through the courses of its passage, Congress having been tricked into accepting it, doing it scarcely knew what.

This indifference of the country to what is said in Congress, pointing, as it obviously does, to the fact that, though the Committees lead in legislation, they lead without concert or responsibility, and lead nobody in particular, that is, no compact and organized party force which can be made accountable for its policy, has also a further significance with regard to the opportunities and capacities of the constituencies. The doubt and confusion of thought which must necessarily exist in the minds of the vast majority of voters as to the best way of exerting their will in influencing the action of an assembly whose organization is so complex, whose acts are apparently so haphazard, and in which responsibility is spread so thin, throws constituencies into the hands of local politicians who are more visible and tangible than are the leaders of Congress, and generates, the while, a profound distrust of Congress as a body whose actions cannot be reckoned beforehand by any standard of promises made at elections or any programmes announced by conventions. Constituencies can watch and understand a few banded leaders who display plain purposes and act upon them with promptness; but they cannot watch or understand forty odd Standing Committees, each of which goes its own way in doing what it can without any special regard to the pledges of either of the parties from which its membership is drawn. In short, we lack in our political life the conditions most essential for the formation of an active and effective public opinion. “The characteristics of a nation capable of public opinion,” says Mr. Bagehot, most sagacious of political critics, “is that . . . parties will be organized; in each there will be a leader, in each there will be some looked up to, and many who look up to them; the opinion of the party will be formed and suggested by the few, it will be criticised and accepted by the many.”[9] And this is just the sort of party organization which we have not. Our parties have titular leaders at the polls in the persons of candidates, and nominal creeds in the resolutions of conventions, but no select few in whom to trust for guidance in the general policy of legislation, or to whom to look for suggestions of opinion. What man, what group of men, can speak for the Republican party or for the Democratic party? When our most conspicuous and influential politicians say anything about future legislation, no one supposes that they are speaking for their party, as those who have authority; they are known to speak only for themselves and their small immediate following of colleagues and friends.

The present relations between Congress and public opinion remind us of that time, in the reign of George III., when “the bulk of the English people found itself powerless to the course of English government,” when the government was divorced from “that general mass of national sentiment on which a government can alone safely ground itself.” Then it was that English public opinion, “robbed as it was of all practical power, and thus stripped of the feeling of responsibility which the consciousness of power carries with it,” “became ignorant and indifferent to the general progress of the age, but at the same time . . . hostile to Government because it was Government, disloyal to the Crown, averse from Parliament. For the first and last time . . . Parliament was unpopular, and its opponents secure of popularity.”[10] Congress has in our own day become divorced from the “general mass of national sentiment,” simply because there is no means by which the movements of that national sentiment can readily be registered in legislation. Going about as it does to please all sorts of Committees composed of all sorts of men,—the dull and the acute, the able and the cunning, the honest and the careless,—Congress evades judgment by avoiding all coherency of plan in its action. The constituencies can hardly tell whether the works of any particular Congress have been good or bad; at the opening of its sessions there was no determinate policy to look forward to, and at their close no accomplished plans to look back upon. During its brief lifetime both parties may have vacillated and gone astray, policies may have shifted and wandered, and untold mischief, together with some good, may have been done; but when all is reviewed, it is next to impossible oftentimes to distribute justly the blame and the praise. A few stubborn committee-men may be at the bottom of much of the harm that has been wrought, but they do not represent their party, and it cannot be clear to the voter how his ballot is to change the habits of Congress for the better. He distrusts Congress because he feels that he cannot control it.

The voter, moreover, feels that his want of confidence in Congress is justified by what he hears of the power of corrupt lobbyists to turn legislation to their own uses. He hears of enormous subsidies begged and obtained; of pensions procured on commission by professional pension solicitors; of appropriations made in the interest of dishonest contractors; and he is not altogether unwarranted in the conclusion that these are evils inherent in the very nature of Congress, for there can be no doubt that the power of the lobbyist consists in great part, if not altogether, in the facility afforded him by the Committee system. He must, in the natural course of things, have many most favorable opportunities for approaching the great money-dispensing Committees. It would be impracticable to work up his schemes in the broad field of the whole House, but in the membership of a Committee he finds manageable numbers. If he can gain the ear of the Committee, or of any influential portion of it, he has practically gained the ear of the House itself; if his plans once get footing in a committee report, they may escape criticism altogether, and it will, in any case, be very difficult to dislodge them. This accessibility of the Committees by outsiders gives to illegitimate influences easy approach at all points of legislation, but no Committees are affected by it so often or so unfortunately as are the Committees which control the public moneys. They are naturally the ones whose favor is oftenest and most importunately, as well as most insidiously, sought; and no description of our system of revenue, appropriation, and supply would be complete without mention of the manufacturers who cultivate the favor of the Committee of Ways and Means, of the interested persons who walk attendance upon the Committee on Rivers and Harbors, and of the mail-contractors and subsidy-seekers who court the Committee on Appropriations.

My last point of critical comment upon our system of financial administration I shall borrow from a perspicacious critic of congressional methods who recently wrote thus to one of the best of American journals: “So long as the debit side of the national account is managed by one set of men, and the credit side by another set, both sets working separately and in secret, without any public responsibility, and without any intervention on the part of the executive official who is nominally responsible; so long as these sets, being composed largely of new men every two years, give no attention to business except when Congress is in session, and thus spend in preparing plans the whole time which ought to be spent in public discussion of plans already matured, so that an immense budget is rushed through without discussion in a week or ten days,—just so long the finances will go from bad to worse, no matter by what name you call the party in power. No other nation on earth attempts such a thing, or could attempt it without soon coming to grief, our salvation thus far consisting in an enormous income, with practically no drain for military expenditure." [11] Unquestionably this strikes a very vital point of criticism. Congress spends its time working, in sections, at preparing plans, instead of confining itself to what is for a numerous assembly manifestly the much more useful and proper function of debating and revising plans prepared beforehand for its consideration by a commission of skilled men, old in political practice and in legislative habit, whose official life is apart from its own, though dependent upon its will. Here, in other words, is another finger pointing to Mill’s question as to the best “legislative commission.” Our Committees fall short of being the best form of commission, not only in being too numerous but also in being integral parts of the body which they lead, having no life apart from it. Probably the best working commission would be one which should make plans for government independently of the representative body, and in immediate contact with the practical affairs of administration, but which should in all cases look to that body for the sanctioning of those plans, and should be immediately responsible to it for their success when put into operation.


  1. The National Budget, etc. (English Citizen Series), p. 146. In what I have to say of the English system, I follow this volume, pp. 146-149, and another volume of the same admirable series, entitled Central Government, pp. 36-47, most of my quotations being from the latter.
  2. See an article entitled “National Appropriations and Misappropriations,” by the late President Garfield, North American Review, vol. cxxviii. pp. 578 et seq.
  3. Senator Hoar’s article, already several times quoted.
  4. Adams’s John Randolph. American Statesman Series, pp. 210, 211.
  5. On one occasion “the House passed thirty-seven pension bills at one sitting. The Senate, on its part, by unanimous consent, took up and passed in about ten minutes seven bills providing for public buildings in different States, appropriating an aggregate of $1,200,000 in this short time. A recent House feat was one in which a bill, allowing 1,300 war claims in a lump, was passed. It contained one hundred and nineteen pages full of little claims, amounting in all to $291,000; and a member, in deprecating criticism on this disposition of them, said that the Committee had received ten huge bags full of such claims, which had been adjudicated by the Treasury officials, and it was a physical impossibility to examine them.”—N. Y. Sun, 1881.
  6. Congress, though constantly erecting new Committees, never gives up old ones, no matter how useless they may have become by subtraction of duties. Thus there is not only the superseded Committee on Public Expenditures but the Committee on Manufactures also, which, when a part of the one-time Committee on Commerce and Manufactures, had plenty to do, but which, since the creation of a distinct Committee on Commerce, has had nothing to do, having now, together with the Committees on Agriculture and Indian Affairs, no duties assigned to it by the rules. It remains to be seen whether the Committee on Commerce will suffer a like eclipse because of the gift of its principal duties to the new Committee on River and Harbors.
  7. See the report of this Committee, which was under the chairmanship of Senator Windom.

     An illustration of what the House Committees find by special effort may be seen in the revelations of the investigation of the expenses of the notorious “Star Route Trials” made by the Forty-eighth Congress’s Committee on Expenditures in the department of Justice.
  8. See General Garfield’s article, already once quoted, North American Review. vol. cxxviii. p. 583.
  9. Essays on Parliamentary Reform.
  10. Green’s History of the English People, vol. iv., pp. 202, 203.
  11. “G.B.” in N.Y. Nation, Nov. 30, 1882.