Appendix II. Historical Note From the Committee on Ways and Means
The Committee on Ways and Means was first established as an ad hoc committee in the first session of the First Congress, on July 24, 1789. Representative Fitzsimons, from Pennsylvania, in commenting on the report of a select committee concerning appropriations and revenues, pointed out the desirability of having a committee to review the expenditure needs of the Government and the resources available, as follows:
The finances of America have frequently been mentioned in this House as being very inadequate to the demands. I have never been of a different opinion, and do believe that the funds of this country, if properly drawn into operation, will be equal to every claim. The estimate of supplies necessary for the current year appears very great from a report on your table, and which report has found its way into the public newspapers. I said, on a former occasion, and I repeat it now, notwithstanding what is set forth in the estimate, that a revenue of $3 million in specie, will enable us to provide every supply necessary to support the Government, and pay the interest and installments on the foreign and domestic debt. If we wish to have more particular information on these points, we ought to appoint a Committee on Ways and Means, to whom, among other things, the estimate of supplies may be referred, and this ought to be done speedily, if we mean to do it this session.
After discussion, the motion was agreed to and a committee consisting of one Member from each State (North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution) was appointed as follows: Messrs. Fitzsimons (Pennsylvania), Vining (Delaware), Livermore (New Hampshire), Cadwalader (New Jersey), Laurance (New York), Wadsworth (Connecticut), Jackson (Georgia), Gerry (Massachusetts), Smith (Maryland), Smith (South Carolina), and Madison (Virginia).
While there does not appear to be any direct relationship, it is interesting to note that the appointment of this ad hoc committee came within a few weeks after the House, in Committee of the Whole, had spent a good part of the months of April, May, and June in wrestling with the details involved in writing bills for laying a duty on goods, wares, and merchandises imported into the United States and for imposing duties on tonnage. Tariffs, of course, became a prime revenue source for the new government.
However, the results of this ad hoc committee are not clear. It existed for a period of only 8 weeks, being dissolved on September 17, 1789, with the following order:
That the Committee on Ways and Means be discharged from further proceeding on the business referred to them, and that it be referred to the Secretary of the Treasury to report thereon.
It has also been suggested by one student that the Committee was dissolved because Alexander Hamilton had become Secretary of the newly created U.S. Department of the Treasury, and thus it was presumed that the U.S. Department of the Treasury could provide the necessary machinery for developing information which would be needed. During the next 6 years there was no Committee on Ways and Means or any other standing committee for the examination of estimates. Rather, ad hoc committees were appointed to draw up particular pieces of legislation on the basis of decisions made in the Committee of the Whole House. On November 13, 1794, a rule was adopted providing that:
All proceedings touching appropriations of money shall be first moved and discussed in a Committee on the Whole House.
In the next Congress historians have suggested that the House was determined to curtail Secretary Hamilton's influence by first setting up a Committee on Ways and Means and requiring that Committee to submit a report on appropriations and revenue measures before consideration in the Committee of the Whole House. It was also said that this Committee on Ways and Means was put on a more or less standing basis since such a committee appeared at some point in every Congress until it was made a permanent committee.
In the first session of the 7th Congress, Tuesday, December 8, 1801, a resolution was adopted as follows:
Resolved, That a standing Committee on Ways and Means be appointed, whose duty it shall be to take into consideration all such reports of the Treasury Department, and all such propositions, relative to the revenue as may be referred to them by the House; to inquire into the state of the public debt, of the revenue, and of the expenditures; and to report, from time to time, their opinion thereon.
The following Members were appointed: Messrs. Randolph (Virginia), Griswold (Connecticut), Smith (Vermont), Bayard (Delaware), Smilie (Pennsylvania), Read (Massachusetts), Nicholson (Maryland), Van Rensselaer (New York), Dickson (Tennessee).
On Thursday, January 7, 1802, the House agreed to standing rules which, among other things, provided for standing committees, including the Committee on Ways and Means. The relevant part of the rules in this respect read as follows:
A Committee on Ways and Means, to consist of seven Members;
* * * * * * *
It shall be the duty of the said Committee on Ways and Means to take into consideration all such reports of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and all such propositions relative to the revenue, as may be referred to them by the House; to inquire into the state of the public debt, of the revenue, and of the expenditures, and to report, from time to time, their opinion thereon; to examine into the state of the several public departments, and particularly into the laws making appropriations of moneys, 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.
It has been said that the jurisdiction of the Committee was so broad in the early 19th century that one historian described it as follows:
It seemed like an Atlas bearing upon its shoulders all the business of the House.
The jurisdiction of the Committee remained essentially the same until 1865 when the control over appropriations was transferred to a newly created Committee on Appropriations and another part of its jurisdiction was given to a newly created Committee on Banking and Currency. This action followed rather extended discussion in the House, too lengthy to review here.
During the course of that discussion, however, the following observations are of some historical interest. Representative Cox, who was handling the motion to divide the Committee, gave a very picturesque discussion of the many varied and heavy duties which had fallen on the Committee over the years. He observed:
And yet, sir, powerful as the Committee is constituted, even their powers of endurance, physical and mental, are not adequate to the great duty which has been imposed by the emergencies of this historic time. It is an old adage, that whoso wanteth rest will also want of might; and even an Olympian would faint and flag if the burden of Atlas is not relieved by the broad shoulders of Hercules.
I might give here a detailed statement of the amount of business thrown upon that Committee since the commencement of the war. But I prefer to append it to my remarks. Whereas before the war we scarcely expended more than $70 million a year, now, during the five sessions of the last two Congresses, there has been an average appropriation of at least $800 million per session. The statement which I hold in my hand shows that during the first and extra session of the 37th Congress there came appropriation bills from the Committee on Ways and Means amounting to $226,691,457.99. I say nothing now of the loan and other fiscal bills emanating from that Committee. * * * During the present
session I suppose it would be a fair estimate to take the appropriations of the last session of the 37th Congress, say $900 million.
These are appropriation bills alone. They are stupendous, and but poorly symbolize the immense labors which the internal revenue, tariff, and loan bills imposed on the Committee. * * * And this business of appropriations is perhaps not one-half of the labor of the Committee. There are various and important matters upon which they act, but upon which they never report. Their duties comprehend all the varied interests of the United States; every element and branch of industry, and every dollar or dime of value. They are connected with taxation, tariffs, banking, loan bills, and ramify to every fiber of the body-politic. All the springs of wealth and labor are more or less influenced by the action of this Committee. Their responsibility is immense, and their control almost imperial over the necessities, comforts, homes, hopes, and destinies of the people. All the values of the United States, which in the census of 1860 (page 194) amount to nearly $17 billion, or, to be exact, $16,159,616,068, are affected by the action of that Committee, even before their action is approved by the House. Those values fluctuate whenever the head of the Committee on Ways and Means rises in his place and proposes a measure. The price of every article we use trembles when he proposes a gold bill or a loan bill, or any bill to tax directly or indirectly. * * *
* * * the interests connected with these economical questions are of all questions those most momentous for the future. Parties, statesmanship, union, stability, all depend upon the manner in which these questions are dealt with.
Representative Morrill (who was subsequently appointed chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means in the succeeding Congress, and who still later became chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance after he became a Senator) observed as follows:
I am entirely indifferent as to the disposition which shall be made of this subject by the House. So far as I am myself concerned, I have never sought any position upon any committee from the present or any other Speaker of the House, and probably never shall. I have no disposition to press myself hereafter for any position. In relation to the proposed division of the Committee on Ways and Means, the only doubt that I have is the one expressed by my colleague on that Committee, Representative Stevens, in regard to the separation of the questions of revenue from those relating to appropriations. In ordinary times of peace I should deem it almost indispensable and entirely within their power that this Committee should have the control of both subjects, in order that they might make both ends meet, that is, to provide a sufficient revenue for the expenditures. That reason applies now with greater force; but it may be that the Committee is overworked. It is true that for the last 3 or 4 years the labors of the Committee on Ways and Means have been incessant, they have labored not only
days but nights; not only weekends but Sundays. If gentlemen suppose that the Committee have permitted some appropriations to be reported which should not have been permitted they little understand how much has been resisted.
The influence the Committee came not only from the nature of its jurisdiction but also because for many years the chairman of the Committee was also ad hoc majority Floor leader of the House.
When the revolt against Speaker Cannon took place, and the Speaker's powers to appoint the Members of committees were curtailed, the Majority Members on the Committee on Ways and Means became the Committee on Committees. Subsequently, this power was disbursed to the respective party caucuses, beginning in the 94th Congress.