power of the purse

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The influence that legislatures have over public policy because of their power to vote money for public purposes. The United States Congress must authorize the president's budget requests to fund agencies and programs of the executive branch. (See appropriation.)

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The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


What is the power of the purse?

The power of the purse is an informal name for the influence that comes with having the authority to decide how money is spent. The phrase is typically used in relation to such power held by legislative bodies, especially the U.S. Congress.

The word purse can be used as shorthand for money or the power to spend money. In the United States, Congress (the legislative branch) has the power of the purse because of its role in authorizing the president’s budget proposals and other executive branch funding (a process called appropriation).

While power of the purse can be used generally, it is most often used in the specific context of government spending, especially as it relates to the U.S. Congress and its balance of power with the executive branch.

Why is the power of the purse important in government?

When you were a kid, did your parents ever threaten to stop paying for something you wanted if you didn’t listen to them? They could do that because, well, they’re your parents—and because they had the power of the purse, meaning they got to make the decisions because they had the power to pay for things.

The balance of power among the branches of the U.S. government is a little more complicated, but when it comes to paying for things, the same concept applies: Congress has the power of the purse because it has final say of how and when tax money will be spent.

This power is spelled out in the U.S. Constitution (in Article I, Section 9, Clause 7, known as the Appropriations Clause, and Article I, Section 8, Clause 1, known as the Taxing and Spending Clause). It applies to all legislation that requires federal spending, not just the federal budget.

When they wrote the Constitution, the founders still had a king in mind, so they wanted to keep money-spending power away from a single, powerful figure (the president). The idea behind giving this power to Congress was that members of Congress are directly elected by the people and therefore (at least theoretically) most accountable.

The power of the purse is important to the U.S. system of government because it helps balance power (which is the whole point of having separate branches of government in the first place). When you hear someone use the phrase power of the purse, there’s a good chance they’re talking about Congress reining in the power of the president by refusing to authorize funding requests.

Did you know ... ?

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry (later of gerrymandering infamy) promoted the idea that the power of the purse should be given to Congress, stating that “the people ought to hold the purse-strings.”

What are real-life examples of the power of the purse?

The power of the purse is often cited as one of the checks and balances that are used to equally distribute power among each branch of the U.S. government.


What other words are related to power of the purse?

Quiz yourself!

Which branch of the U.S. government has the power of the purse and controls the appropriation of money?

A. Legislative branch
B. Judicial branch
C. Executive branch