Van Ens: Who controls Congress’s purse? |

Van Ens: Who controls Congress’s purse?

Does your heart beat bolder or race wildly because of the constitutional struggle between the president and Congress over monetary authority for funding a border wall?

Delegates signed the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. They hotly debated many legislative measures. But this document’s chief architect James Madison slammed the door on debate about which branch of government-controlled the legislative purse. Congress alone has this authority.

The constitution is composed of 4,400 words, which chart the responsibilities of the three governmental branches and delineate the separation of their powers. Some sections are open to different interpretations. Madison clearly detailed, however, who possessed the definitive word on congressional budget directives. He drafted Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 in the constitution: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made in Law.”

In what federal body do lawmakers work? Congress. Who directs money approved for legislation? Congress. Whose authority supersedes other government branches regarding legislative expenditures? Congress.

Today, the constitutional authority regarding this purse is blocked by President Donald Trump’s backdoor maneuver to fund his southern border wall, without congressional approval.

The president repeatedly promised supporters Mexico would pay for the wall. When Democrats won control of the House after the 2018 midterms and stood firm on not building the wall, the president declared a “national emergency” this past February. He planned to divert money Congress explicitly appropriated to U.S. military projects. When Congress didn’t garner enough votes to override Trump’s veto, this case went to the Supreme Court. This past July, five Republican-appointed Supreme Court Justices sided with the president by rejecting Madison’s counsel about Congress alone authorizing their legislative funding.

After the Supreme Court lifted the funding freeze, President Trump dipped into upwards of 127 military construction projects and temporarily closed them down by routing these expenditures to pay for his wall. What he couldn’t get Mexico to financially assume, he has taken from American taxpayers whose congressional representatives’ fund for U.S. military projects. This “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scheme frees up $3.6 billion to build a wall and spruce up other barriers on the southern border.

The impasse between the president and Congress raises tensions with which the 1787 Constitutional Convention wrestled, and Madison vowed to resolve. We are reliving these battles.

Jefferson believed in two principles: fights constantly erupt regarding what the constitution stipulates about spending; and, the executive branch tries to encroach on Congress’s funding authority.

Unlike a biblical poet who imagined a calm Jerusalem someday appearing with a “crystal river” flowing through it — an ancient metaphor of chaotic water made smooth and bright — Jefferson saw life churning with constitutional crises (Revelation 22:1).

Jefferson wrote a letter to John Taylor in 1798 which acknowledged testy debates rocking our republic. “In every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man [humankind], be opposite parties, and violent dissensions and discords, and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time,” noted Jefferson.

During the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Jefferson sparred with John Adams about what governmental branch should hold more power. Adams, then minister to Britain, groused that the president was merely a figurehead. He lacked authority held because Congress held too much of it.

Jefferson, the U.S. minister to France, rebutted this power-grab. Their letters sailed across the English Channel, intense as storms lashing this watery barrier between Britain and France. Adams and Jefferson wielded literary swords. They staged a two-man constitutional fight.

Historian Jill Lepore is at ringside recording this epic bout. She sees Adams worrying that the Constitution gave the legislature too much power, Jefferson fearing the same about the presidency.

“You are afraid of the one [a strong president] –I, of the few [power-brokers in Congress],”Adams wrote Jefferson. “You are apprehensive of Monarchy; I, of Aristocracy [in the Congress].” Both men agonized about elections. Jefferson fearing there would be too few, Adams that there would be too many. “Elections, my dear sir,” Adams wrote, “I look on with terror.”

Adams worried that a gullible public would elect an erratic president. He advocated fewer elections so, once elected, a strong president could broaden political choices. Jefferson favored more elections. Then congressional representatives who controlled the legislative purse would listen to citizens who voted for them.

The Constitutional Convention is never completed, even after its September 17 signing in 1787. Constitutional battles about rights in branches of government are fought today. In these disruptive times, let citizens rediscover Congress’s authority for funding legislation.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.                                                                                                  

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