Congressional Power of the Purse Matters

Congressional OversightCongressional Power of the Purse Matters

Budget & Tax, National Security,  | Analysis
Sep 28, 2020  | 5 min read | Print Article

“…the Appropriations Clause requires two keys to unlock the Treasury, and the House holds one of those keys.”

On September 25th, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled on a matter important to everyone concerned about the Constitutional separation of powers. The underlying issue is whether the President of the United States may shift funds appropriated by Congress for one purpose (military construction) and instead spend it on building barriers at the southern border.

In United States House of Representatives v. Steven T. Mnuchin, the appellate court vacated a previous ruling that dismissed the constitutional claims of the U.S. House of Representatives for a supposed lack of “standing”. The previous ruling said the House could not make this argument unless the full Congress, including the Senate, joined in the litigation. Without the inclusion of the Senate, the House supposedly lacked the ability to even pursue legal action to stop the Trump administration from unilateral actions to shift these funds.

The full U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed, allowing the matter to proceed in the courts.

The House of Representatives, through its lawyers, argued that the administration’s actions. “…disrupted Congress’s specific authority over the appropriations of federal funds.” The Court of Appeals agreed this is a specific injury to the House of Representatives. And, therefore, “That chamber has standing to bring this litigation.”

The ruling goes on to state:

“To put it simply, the Appropriations Clause requires two keys to unlock the Treasury, and the House holds one of those keys. The Executive Branch has, in a word, snatched the House’s key out of its hands. That is the injury over which the House is suing.”


“The alleged Executive Branch action cuts the House out of the Appropriations process, rendering for naught its vote withholding the Executive’s desired border wall funding and carefully calibrating what type of border security investments could be made. … To hold that the House is not injured or that courts cannot recognize that injury would rewrite the Appropriations Clause. The Clause has long been understood to check the power of the Executive Branch by allowing it to expend funds only as specifically authorized.”

Memorializing the Death of Checks and Balances


“…expenditures made without the House’s approval – or worse, as alleged here, in the face of its specific disapproval – cause a concrete and particularized constitutional injury that the House experiences, and can seek redress for, independently. And again, failure to recognize that injury in fact would fundamentally alter the separation of powers by allowing the Executive Branch to spend any funds the Senate is on board with, even if the House withheld its authorizations.”

This ruling is sure to ratchet up tensions on the already hot button issue of funding for border barriers. But at Taxpayers for Common Sense, we believe people should be concentrating on the larger issue of separation of powers, as laid out in the Constitution. However you feel about the underlying issue of the day, maintaining the distinct powers of each branch: Article I (the legislative branch), Article II (the executive branch), and Article III (the courts) must be paramount. As the ruling states:

“In short, Article III’s standing requirement is meant to preserve not reorder the separation of powers.”

As we repeatedly say, the rule of law matters.

Read more from TCS on these issues.

Go to Top