- - Tuesday, September 29, 2015


If you think today’s end of the fiscal year is unique to Democratic President Obama and a Republican Congress wrangling over the federal government’s budget, you’re wrong. Throughout much of the nation’s past, a war of efforts and words prevailed between the two branches.

The most significant strategy of chief executives was to persuade Congress to keep its sessions short and sweet, so that the august body didn’t have time to interfere with presidential actions. And White House occupants often succeeded: For example, the Third Congress only met from December 1793 to June 1794, and then again from November 1794 to March 1795. The 18th Congress deliberated for five months in 1823-24, and less than 90 days in 1824-25. Even as late as the 1880s, as squabbling over industrial and agricultural problems mushroomed, sessions averaged only about five months per year.

Conversely, whenever presidents in the 19th century attempted to spend too much money, Congress frequently retaliated by proposing cuts to the executive branch. It tried seven times to abolish the office of vice president. Not only would money be saved from such action, sponsors argued, but it would also prevent the office from “being carried into the market to be exchanged for the votes of some large states” for president.

Not surprisingly, there was bickering between the two houses of Congress over the budget. In 1876 some House members sponsored a constitutional amendment to abolish the Senate. In retaliation, Senators offered an amendment to limit the number of representatives to 200. The president was the more frequent object of attack, however. In 1808 an amendment would have set the president’s salary for all time at $15,000.

Like today, presidents got the most press from their writings and speeches on the budget. No comment was more taxing, from a comprehension point of view, than that of President Chester Arthur. The “extravagant expenditure of public money,” he wrote, “is an evil not to be measured by the value of the money to the people who are taxed for it.”

Much clearer was Calvin Coolidge’s observation that “if the federal government should go out of existence, the common run of the people would not detect the difference … for a considerable length of time.”

William McKinley wanted the government to be businesslike, with the model being “to pay as it goes — not by resorting to loans, but by keeping out of debt — through an adequate income secured by a system of taxation, external or internal, or both.”

And it was Grover Cleveland who first cautioned against what government could do for the average citizen. “The lessons of paternalism,” he argued, “ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include support of the people.”

The worst evil in budget-crafting, according to James Buchanan, was a surplus, which “almost necessarily gives birth to extravagant legislation.” But Benjamin Harrison believed that a little surplus wasn’t a bad idea: “Our revenue should be ample to meet the ordinary annual demands upon our Treasury, with a sufficient margin for those extraordinary but scarcely imperative demands which arise now and then.”

William Howard Taft had a new budgetary twist. Not spending federal monies was as bad as spending too much. “But when the desire to win popular approval,” said Taft, “leads to cutting off of expenditures really needed to make government effective and to enable it to accomplish its proper objects, the result is as much to be condemned as the waste of government funds in unnecessary expenditure.”

It’s hard to imagine Calvin Coolidge getting exasperated over the federal government’s budget, the man who took a nap every afternoon in the White House and slept 10 hours a night. But after spending just two short years as president, Coolidge had had enough mental anguish over money matters, taking a stance that still rings true today.

“The resources of our country,” he noted in 1925, “are almost beyond computation. No mind can comprehend them. But the cost of our combined governments is likewise almost beyond definition.”

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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