Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 21

Chapter 21. Records of the Ways and Means Committee (1795-1968)

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Records of the Ways and Means Committee (1793-1988) from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, 1789-1988

Committee records described in this chapter:
History and Jurisdiction

21.1 The Committee on Ways and Means is the oldest standing committee in Congress. The idea of a "committee on ways and means" to handle the financial matters of a legislature is older than the Federal Congress, having been used in the English Parliament and the colonial and State legislatures in America. Early in the first Congress a select committee on ways and means was formed, but subsequently was disbanded when Alexander Hamilton was appointed Secretary of the Treasury and the House chose to let him handle a large part of the financial matters of the new nation. In 1795 another Select Committee on Ways and Means was formed, and was regularly reappointed in each session until it was defined as a standing committee in 1802. Since that time the committee has functioned as one of the most powerful in the House.

21.2 During its long history the jurisdiction and duties of the committee have changed significantly. The original jurisdiction of the standing committee in 1802 was defined as follows:

    It shall be the duty of the said Committee of Ways and Means to take into consideration all such reports of the Treasury Department, and all such propositions relative to the revenue, as may be referred to them by the House; to inquire into the state of the public debt, of the revenue, and of the expenditures, and to report, from time to time, their opinion thereon; to examine into the state of the several public departments, and particularly into the laws making appropriations of moneys, and to report whether the moneys have been disbursed conformably with such laws; and, also, to report, from time to time, such provisions and arrange- ments, as may be necessary to add to the economy of the depart- ments, and the accountability of their officers.1

21.3 In 1814, in order to relieve the committee of some of its duties, the jurisdiction concerning the state of the several public Departments, the laws making appropriations of money to them, and reports on whether the money was disbursed according to the laws, was given to a newly created Committee on Public Expenditures.

21.4 The Committee on Ways and Means has reported most major revenue bills since 1794 with the exception of a period between 1819 and 1833 when the Committee on Manufactures reported a number of protectionist tariff bills including the "Tariff of Abominations" of 1828.

Hon. Samuel S. Cox, Ohio
Hon. Samuel S. Cox, Ohio (Mathew Brady Studio), Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (U.S. Army) and a Ways and Means Committee member, from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  
21.5 Until 1865 the committee reported the overwhelming majority of all regular appropriations bills, the three main exceptions being general public works, lighthouses and associated expenses, and rivers and harbors bills that were reported by the Commerce Committee. As the business of the Government grew, the number of appropriations bills grew, as did the revenue work of the committee. In 1865, primarily as a result of overwork due to the financial demands of the Civil War, the jurisdiction of the committee was narrowed by giving portions of it to two new committees: Banking and Currency, and Appropriations.

21.6 In proposing the 1865 rule that would divide the jurisdiction of the Ways and Means, Samuel S. Cox, a member of the Select Committee on Rules observed:

    It is utterly impossible in the present condition of our finances that one committee can do all this labor. . . . powerful as the committee is constituted, even their powers of endurance, physical and mental, are not adequate to the great duty which has been imposed by the emergencies of this historic time.

    We divide the Ways and Means into three committees. The Ways and Means are still preserved, and their future duty is to provide "ways and means," that is, raise revenue for carrying on the Government. This includes of course, the tariff, the internal revenue, the loan bills, legal-tender notes, and all other matters connected with supporting the credit and raising money. . . . The proposed Committee on Appropriations have, under this amendment, the examination of the estimates of the Departments, and exclusively the consideration of all appropriations . . . the Committee on National Banks and Currency . . . have in charge all the bank interests of the country. These interests are so connected by relations of exchanges and currency with bank issues and banking capital in the States that it is as much as one committee can well do to study these questions properly.2

21.7 By 1880 the committee's jurisdiction rule included subjects related to the raising of revenue and the bonded debt of the United States. During the Great Depression of the 1930s the national social security programs were added to the jurisdiction of Ways and Means since they were financed by payroll taxes.

21.8 Under the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 the jurisdiction of the committee included:

    a) customs, collection districts, and ports of entry and delivery; b) national social security; c) reciprocal trade agreements; d) revenue measures generally; e) revenue measures relating to the insular possessions; f) the bonded debt of the United States; g) the deposit of public moneys; and h) transportation of dutiable goods.3

21.9 Since that time its mandate has been expanded to include general revenue sharing (until 1974), proposals for national health insurance, medicare and medicaid (until 1974), foreign trade generally, and a wide variety of measures which seek to provide policy direction through the tax system.

21.10 The Committee on Ways and Means has always been one of the most important in the House, and has enjoyed certain privileges that go with its responsibility. During the early years, it reported the resolutions that distributed portions of the President's messages to the various committees, and concurrent resolutions for the adjournment of Congress. Before 1865 the committee reported such a large percentage of the important legislation that the chairman of Ways and Means was de-facto floor leader, and was later the named floor leader. For a brief period, 1865-95, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee was floor leader, but the position was returned to Ways and Means where it remained until 1919, after which time the floor leader was no longer a member of any committee. For many years the committee acted as the Democratic "committee on committees," appointing that party's membership to House committees.

21.11 Since 1860 the committee has had the right to report at any time, and since 1913 it has been classified as an "exclusive committee," which denies its members membership on any other committee. For many years the important legislation reported by Ways and Means has been granted a "closed rule" on the floor because floor amendment to the complex and detailed bills would be difficult and risky.

21.12 The records of the committee are described below in three chronological categories which correspond to its major jurisdictional and organizational changes: the 3d-38th Congresses, from its origin as a select committee in 1793 until the jurisdictions of appropriations and banking and currency were removed from its jurisdiction in 1865; the 39th-79th Congresses, from the jurisdictional split of 1865 until the reorganization of 1947; and the 80th-90th Congresses, the post-reorganization period.

21.13 In addition to the records of the committee, the committee has retired a "historical collection" of documents which can facilitate certain types of research concerning the committee and the subjects within its purview.

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1Annals of Congress, 7th Cong., 1st sess., Jan. 7, 1802, p. 412.

2Congressional Globe, 39th Cong., 1st sess., Mar. 2, 1865, p. 1312.

3 U.S. Congress, House, Constitution, Jefferson's Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives of the United States, Ninetieth Congress, H. Doc. 529, 89th Cong., 2d sess., 1967, p. 356.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.