Most of the powers given to Congress would be shared equally between the two branches, but some exceptions to this general rule of equality again reveal the different characters of the two houses. The Senate, as the elite branch—the one that was to be filled with men of superior wisdom and virtue (and which moreover was the branch that would represent the state interests equally)—was at first charged exclusively with the consequential powers of making important appointments and approving treaties. Over the course of the debates, the delegates considered lodging these powers in the legislature as a whole, in the Senate by itself, by the president alone, and finally, by the president with the “advice and consent of the Senate.” This last mode was designed to combine the unity, decision, and dispatch of a single magistrate with the collective wisdom of the more elite branch of the legislature. (These powers and their development within the Convention will be examined in greater detail in the section devoted to executive powers.)
Although the Upper House was singled out to exercise some of the most influential privileges, one power was given more particularly to the Lower House: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.” The debates surrounding the power to originate money bills revealed most plainly the conflicting opinions among the members about what the character of each of the two houses was meant to be.
In Britain’s constitution, only the House of Commons could originate money bills, because it was the branch that represented the people at large; the House of Lords, which represented the rich nobility, were considered too aloof from the needs and interests of the common people to be trusted with that power. But should the same reasoning hold true in America, where there was no class of nobility? Prior to the Convention, Madison and his cohorts evidently believed that their cases were decidedly different, because the Virginia Plan specified that “each branch ought to possess the right of originating Acts” without naming any exclusions.
On June 13, while the members will still sitting in the Committee of the Whole, Elbridge Gerry moved to limit the power of originating money bills to the Lower House; they were “more immediately the representatives of the people, and it was a maxim, that the people ought to hold the purse-strings.” Gerry’s pessimistic view of pitting the rich against the poor in the two branches of the legislature was countered by others who held more optimistic hopes for the Senate. Pierce Butler complained that they “were always following the British constitution, when the reason of it did not apply. There was no analogy between the House of Lords and the body proposed to be established.” The American Senate was designed to be filled by “the best men,” and that sort “would be apt to decline serving in it” if the delegates framed a body that was “degraded by any such discriminations.” Madison agreed. Whatever the reason for excluding the House of Lords from this privilege (and commentators were not even agreed on the reason for it in Britain), it was certain that “there could be no similar reason in the case before us. The Senate would be the representatives of the people as well as the first branch.” The American Upper House would not be a place carved out for the rich or the nobility; rather, according to Madison, “the Senate would be generally a more capable set of men,” and as such, “it would be wrong to disable them from” the most important powers, and bills raising revenue were certainly among the most important of powers.
This question was revived, however, after the “Great Compromise.” According to its report, the Lower House would represent the states proportionally; the Upper House would represent the states equally; and (ostensibly as a concession to the large states) the power of originating money bills would reside only in the Lower House. Many members from the large states—such as Morris, Wilson, and Madison—did not think the concession was a very meaningful one for the large states. Other members, however, from both the large and the small states, believed that the exclusion was a good idea, even when considered independently of the larger question of an apportionment compromise between the states. And a third set of members believed that, because of the compromise, the distinction would be necessary in order to protect the interests of the large states from an undue influence of the small states in the Senate.
There was fierce debate on all sides of the question, and those who favored limiting the intuition of revenue bills to the lower house were more vehement in their insistence, and so the right of originating money bills was therefore lodged exclusively in the House. But the reasons for including this measure differed significantly among the Framers. Some voted for it as a safeguard for the rights of the people against the wealthy and elite, others because it was a safeguard for the larger states against the smaller, and still more because they were simply being conciliatory to one or the other of the first two groups. The operations of this provision would be plain enough, but the political rationale for the measure was far from clear.