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A History of the Senate Appropriations Committee

Tuesday, June 28, 2005, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society hosted a dinner in tribute to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Senate Historian Dr. Richard Baker delivered the following remarks on the history of the committee.

June 28, 2005

I. Introduction

Let’s say that you are a U.S. senator. (That will be easier for some in this audience than others.) And let’s imagine that you have served a long and distinguished career. The Senate has agreed to honor your service by commissioning a portrait. Where in the Senate wing of the Capitol would you like your portrait placed? Some might choose the Senate Reception Room with its oil-on canvas likenesses of such Senate giants as Clay, Webster, and Calhoun. I have a better suggestion. How about the main entrance to the Senate chamber?

Trouble is, there is room for only two portraits in that prime space. Who hangs there today? To the left is Democrat Joseph Robinson of Arkansas, majority leader during the New Deal in the 1930s. To the right is another major Senate historical figure—a man from Iowa. Almost a century after his death, this man holds the record as the longest-serving Senate committee chairman. His name is William Allison. For 25 years between 1881 and 1908, he chaired the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

William Allison entered the House of Representatives during the Civil War and moved to the Senate in 1873. While on the House Ways and Means Committee, he displayed natural talents in government finance. On his very first day in the Senate, those talents gained him a seat on the recently established Appropriations Committee. Within eight years, he was chairman. A political moderate and skillful conciliator, Allison was described as “a man whose goodness to others cast a spell over everyone who came within his influence.” Harper’s Weekly praised his talents as chairman. “When he is ready to sign a report of his committee on an appropriation bill, he knows as much of the requirements of the objects for which the proposed expenditures are to be made as the executive officer who is at the head of the department.” Other senators admired Allison’s political dexterity. They joked that he could walk on egg shells from Washington to Des Moines without cracking a single one. Allison made few Senate chamber speeches. He was a man of the cloakroom. There he carefully assembled coalitions in support of his legislative goals. When he died in 1908, he had served in the Senate, and on the Appropriations Committee, for more than 35 years, longer than any senator in history to that time. (His committee service record stood until 1994 when it was exceeded by Senator Robert C. Byrd, whose current 46-plus-year record may never be beaten.) During the last decade of Allison’s Senate career, with his party in the majority, he chaired three muscular Senate institutions: the Appropriations Committee, the Senate Republican caucus, and the party organization that assigned Republicans to Senate committees. He was also the second-ranking majority member of the Finance Committee. At the start of the 20th century, Allison, along with three other powerful chairmen, literally ran the Senate. No major legislation passed without the endorsement of the so-called “Senate Four.”

II. Origins

For the first 78 years of the Senate’s history, from 1789 until 1867, it operated without a Committee on Appropriations. In fact, for the first 25 years, the Senate had no permanent committees at all. Presidents, cabinet officers, and others in the executive bureaucracy quickly sensed the opportunities for resisting legislative will inherent in this casual and undisciplined process.

In 1816, at the close of the War of 1812, the Senate tried to address the financial chaos that came in that war’s wake by creating its first system of permanent committees. The expertise of senators who handled the same issues year after year proved indispensable as the rapidly expanding nation struggled to raise revenues and pay mounting deficits. Before 1816, the Senate’s various temporary committees exercised both authorizing and appropriating powers. After 1816, most appropriations responsibilities were vested in the newly established Committee on Finance.

In the years ahead, the Finance Committee conducted those duties in an increasingly haphazard manner. Agency heads, wishing to appear frugal, typically understated their funding needs to the House of Representatives. Then, in a congressional session’s hectic final days, they turned to the Senate for an enhanced appropriation. With fewer members, the Senate lacked the time and specialization to give individual financial details the close examination they might have received in the House. Consequently, agencies realized they had a reasonable chance of having these last-minute increases agreed to in the final reconciliation within the Senate-House conference committees. When an agency ran out of money, the threat of suspended operations usually convinced Congress to replenish its coffers on an emergency basis. But, when an agency ran a surplus, it spent the funds as it pleased, without congressional review.

The war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848 tripled federal spending. The government ran higher deficits during that period than at any time since the War of 1812. This dramatic expansion placed great pressures on Congress to review its appropriations process. In 1850, the Senate adopted its first rule governing appropriations. Rule 30 sought to end the practice by which members attached heavily lobbied private claims bills, which they had been unable to pass as free-standing legislation, to public appropriations in the confused final hours of a congressional session. For years, senators had complained that the House spent as many as 200 days on the three major appropriations bills (civil and diplomatic, army, and navy) only to send them to the Senate in the last 10 days of the congressional session. As one senator complained, this left much legislating to be accomplished late at night “during the absence of the best and most experienced Senators, who in consequence of physical exhaustion, are not able to remain in the Senate Chamber to the midnight hours.” He added—referring to the presence of intoxicated members—that midnight sessions also produced scenes “which a sense of delicacy prevents me from describing.” Rule 30, however, failed to stop—or even minimize—the addition of unauthorized amendments to general appropriations bills.

The Mexican War had demonstrated problems with the nation’s creaky financial system. The Civil War—15 years later—utterly shattered that system. That all-out struggle for national union vastly expanded the size and expense of the federal government. In the four years between 1861 and 1865, federal spending grew twenty fold. Interest on the government’s burgeoning deficits soon passed $100 million. No less than the power of the purse was at stake as President Lincoln, citing wartime necessity, spent millions without first securing formal congressional appropriations.

III. 1867: Committee Created

In 1867, two years after Appomattox, a newly strengthened Radical Republican majority in the Senate sought to reform the appropriations process as a weapon against President Andrew Johnson and his lenient post-war reconstruction program. Following the example of the House of Representatives two years earlier, the Senate created its Committee on Appropriations by separating the revenue-raising functions of the Finance Committee from the process of appropriating those funds. The new seven-member committee established thirteen subcommittees to handle all appropriations except for those in the politically popular bill for rivers and harbors, which continued to be managed by the Senate Commerce Committee.

To address chronic abuses within executive agencies, Congress soon passed legislation prohibiting the transfer of funds from one “object of appropriation” to another and prohibiting the use of funds for purposes not specifically authorized. The Committee continued to struggle, however, with the practice of agencies using unexpended funds from previous years. This made it impossible to calculate accurately the specific yearly funding requirements of individual executive departments. Finally, in 1870, Congress required that all unexpended balances be transferred to a surplus fund within the Treasury Department. This statute restricted an agency’s spending to the actual amount of its congressional appropriation and prohibited the making of contracts for future payment of funds in excess of appropriations. These controls proved difficult to enforce because Congress lacked the means to order independent reviews of agency expenditures.

IV. 1899: Committee Reduced

The history of the Appropriations Committee since its creation in 1867 has been characterized by struggle with the various authorizing committees for power over spending. Government agencies predictably disliked the budget-cutting role of the Senate and House appropriations committees and appealed for help to the more sympathetic authorizing committees. In the House, this struggle culminated in 1885, when that body stripped its appropriations committee of half its jurisdiction. The Senate Appropriations Committee managed to resist these decentralizing pressures for another 14 years. This was thanks to a sturdy defense by Chairman William Allison. Finally, in 1899, for reasons that require further historical investigation, Allison’s powerful colleagues among the Senate’s ruling barons turned aside his further arguments and distributed appropriations authority among seven legislative committees. The Appropriations Committee was left with jurisdiction for just four bills.

V. 1922: Committee Revived

The costs of the Spanish-American War in 1898 plus the growing expenses of an expanding federal establishment, doubled annual appropriations in the first two decades of the twentieth century. After 1900, progressive reformers increasingly called for a reorganization of the government’s fiscal structure. They pointed to the chaos of a system in which agencies submitted piecemeal budget requests directly to more than a dozen congressional committees without presidential coordination. World War I finally sealed the case for centralized fiscal policy making. The elections of 1918 returned the Republican party to control of Congress for the first time in six years on a platform that blamed wartime mismanagement and budgetary disarray on the incumbent Democrats.

Following the 1920 presidential victory of Republican Warren Harding, Congress passed a reform measure that it had been deliberating for years, the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. This landmark statute authorized the president to coordinate his administration’s budget requests. It created a presidential budget bureau and established the General Accounting Office to provide Congress with essential technical expertise. Concurrent with these centralizing reforms, both the Senate and House restored full jurisdiction to their appropriations committees.

Over the next half century, from the mid-1920s to the mid-1970s, the Senate and House appropriations committees gained enormous power and prestige. The two committees developed in differing institutional environments. Unlike the House, whose appropriators served on no authorizing committees and only one of the Appropriations’ Committee’s 13 workhorse subcommittees, Senate appropriators held seats on approximately four of that panel’s powerful subcommittees and on three or more authorizing committees. Consequently, the walls in the Senate between authorizing and appropriating committees were far easier to surmount than in the House. During this half-century, Senate appropriators tended to review agency submissions by looking not at the original request, but at the cuts made by the House. In taking this approach, they served as a court of appeals that ultimately restored some, but not all of the House reductions. The practice of routinely holding meetings behind closed doors protected them from even greater lobbying pressures. This pattern lasted until the early 1970s.

As with earlier wars, World War II placed immense pressures on the government’s financial system. In 1946, Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act to modernize congressional operations for the postwar world. That statute allowed members of Congress and congressional committees—for the first time—to hire professional staffs. Now Congress would have access to expertise comparable to that available within the executive branch. To address severe problems of coordination within the appropriations process, the 1946 law created a joint congressional budget committee. Composed of more than 100 members, the new panel included the entire Senate and House appropriations committees, along with the committees on Finance and Ways and Means. By 1951, however, crisis pressures of the Korean War, sharp clashes between its Senate and House members, and difficulties establishing spending ceilings forced Congress to abandon the joint committee as too cumbersome for its assigned responsibilities.

VI. 1974: Committee Challenged

The 1960s brought new challenges to congressional appropriators. Various Great Society programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, spurred a tendency to move greater amounts of spending out of annual appropriations bills and into permanent entitlement legislation under control of authorizing committees—particularly Finance and Ways and Means. In an effort to rein in this erosion of their spending authority, congressional appropriators supported passage of the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act. This 1974 statute turned out to have the greatest impact on the congressional appropriations process since the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act. From this statute came the Senate and House budget committees, the Congressional Budget Office, and the requirement for annual budget resolutions.

The story of the thirty years since passage of the Congressional Budget Act is, I am sure, familiar to all of you. You are living with its direct consequences today. It requires no recital by me here, tonight.

Historians like to wait at least thirty years—the passage of one generation—to gain the documentary record and perspective necessary to tackle subjects as complex as congressional budget reform. We are now approaching that threshold. The time may have come for a larger historical study.

In that connection, I wish to offer a proposal. I have not previously discussed this idea with anyone here tonight.

Twenty years ago, in 1985, the Capitol Historical Society initiated an important historical project. In cooperation with the House Committee on Ways and Means, and with the support of private underwriters, the Society prepared a richly documented, beautifully illustrated, 500-page history to commemorate Ways and Means’ 200th anniversary.

Even farther back in time, nearly forty years ago, the Senate Committee on Appropriations issued a 100-page outline history in honor of its 100th anniversary. That publication has been updated occasionally, with a new edition scheduled to appear soon.

My proposal is that the Capitol Historical Society join with the Committee to begin a never-before-undertaken thoroughly researched investigation of the committee’s history and operations from the Civil War to modern times. The story of this committee, in many respects, reflects the story of our nation over the past nearly 150 years. Such a study would offer rich profiles of the people who have made this Committee work, individuals such as William Allison, Francis Warren, Carter Glass, Carl Hayden, Richard Russell, and others down into our own times.

Readers of that history, completed in time to commemorate the Committee’s 150th anniversary, would, I suspect, notice the three themes that I have tried to underscore here this evening: the disruptive impact of war on the nation’s financial operations; the chronic resistence of the executive branch to congressional fiscal discipline; and the ongoing challenges within the Senate to the principle of centralized spending control.

In the years ahead, these issues promise to engage and challenge the Committee just as they have since that remarkable quarter-century chairmanship of William Allison.

If you happen to pass William Allison someday outside the Senate chamber, greet him warmly in recognition of his contributions to this historic committee that we honor tonight.