Jefferson v. Hamilton and House of Representatives v. Burwell

Last fall, a federal district court concluded that the House of Representatives had standing (PDF) to sue the Secretary of Health & Human Services for spending money not appropriated by Congress in violation of the Constitution, Article I, Section 9, Clause 7. Today, the court concluded (PDF) that the Secretary had, in fact, improperly spent such money.

Why did a court get involved in this challenge, rather than letting a legislative branch fight with the executive in the political realm? Perhaps a lesson from the Giles Resolutions is in order.

In 1793, a longstanding fight between Federalists and Republicans culminated in the Giles Resolutions, an effort led by Thomas Jefferson to censure Alexander Hamilton. (For an excellent history, do read Eugene Sheridan's article on the subject.)

Two of the resolutions raised in the by William Branch Giles of Virginia in February of 1793 read as follows:

1. Resolved, That is is essential to the due administration of the Government of the United States, that laws making specific appropriations of money should be strictly observed by the administrator of the finances thereof.
2. Resolved, That a violation of a law making appropriations of money, is a violation of that section of the Constitution of the United States which requires that no money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law.

Federalist William Loughton Smith rejected these two resolutions, emphasizing that such critiques were "abstract propositions," raising specific concerns with the second proposed resolution:

It might with propriety be questioned whether, as a general rule, the position was well founded. A law making appropriations may be violated in the particulars without infringing the Constitution, which only enjoins that no moneys shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of the appropriations made by law. This is only to say, that every disbursement must be authorized by some appropriation. Where a sum of money is paid out of the Treasury, the payment of which is authorized by law, the Constitution is not violated, yet there may have been a violation of the law in some collateral particulars. There may even have been a shifting of funds, and however exceptionable this may be on other accounts, it would not amount to that species of offence which is created by the Constitution.

The disputes about Hamilton's role as Secretary of the Treasury, and the House's role in policing executive officers, were myriad in these debates--could the House censure the officer and recommend that George Washington remove him from office, or should the House impeach the officer; were the other resolutions sufficient to address the concerns of Hamilton's behavior; did the facts suggest that Hamilton had actually spent money from the Treasury improperly.

But on these two resolutions, the House votes 32-25 not to take them up, and moved on to consider the other Giles Resolutions. This "abstract proposition" of the Appropriations Clause would not be fit for House consideration.