by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The Heritage Foundation’s “Insider Online” blog offers an interesting take on N.C. congressman Mark Meadows‘ recent invocation of James Madison in defending the U.S. House’s efforts to rein in profligate federal government spending.
In a letter sent to his Republican colleagues on August 21, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) quotes a Founding Father approving of the House of Representatives tying policy changes to funding decisions. The full quote comes from Federalist 58, written by James Madison and published February 20, 1788:
The House of Representatives cannot 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 by which we behold, in the history of the British Constitution, an infant and humble representation of the people gradually enlarging the sphere of its activity and importance, and finally reducing, as far as it seems to have wished, all the overgrown prerogatives of the other branches of the government. 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.
Now comes the Washington Post with an article by Valerie Strauss titled: “Stop Blaming James Madison for the Shutdown.” Since the word “shutdown” appears nowhere in either Madison’s Federalist 58 or Meadow’s missive, we’d have to agree. But here is University of Virginia professor J.C.A. Stagg, the article’s only source:
Rep. Meadows’s quote is also correct — but again only so far as it goes. None of the Founders doubted that the power of the purse could be an ultimate sanction in the hands of the House, though it would be impossible to prove that their understanding of this would have extended to the point of shutting down the entire government as opposed to refusing appropriations for particular policies.
Prof. Stagg is an authority on Madison, but he’s no authority on the last few weeks. To recap: Since September 20, the House of Representatives has passed at least a dozen bills to fund various parts of the government. That includes one bill that preserved funding for ObamaCare but made some changes to the program such as delaying the individual mandate and repealing the medical device tax. The Senate either amended and then refused to go to conference on the bills, or ignored them. The President said he would veto partial funding bills. [ABC News, October 9]
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid explained: “Why would we want to have the House of Representatives, John Boehner, cherry-pick what stays open and what should be closed?”
As a matter of logic, the House cannot simultaneously cherry-pick what government it wants to remain open while also shutting it down entirely. It’s the Senate and the President who want the budget to be an all-or-nothing choice in order to get one particular policy they want. If Strauss’s article was meant to be a debunking, it failed.