March 6, 1867
On March 6, 1867, the Senate established its Committee on Appropriations—51 years after creating its other major standing committees. Why did the body wait so long and why did the members choose to act in 1867?
In the Senate's earliest years, the Finance Committee handled most appropriations, but it did so in an increasingly haphazard manner. Agency heads, wishing to appear frugal, typically understated their funding needs to the House of Representatives and then, in a congressional session's hectic final days, quietly turned to the less-disciplined Senate for increases that generally survived conference committee review. When agencies ran out of money, the threat of suspended operations usually convinced Congress to replenish their coffers. When agencies ran a surplus, they spent it as they pleased. But the Civil War had vastly expanded and complicated federal spending. The lack of centralized control in the Senate, tolerable in an earlier era, now strongly played to the president's advantage. No less than the power of the purse was at stake.
By March of 1867, a newly strengthened Radical Republican majority in the Senate, determined to block President Andrew Johnson's lenient policies for readmission of former Confederate states, saw reform of the appropriations process as a potent weapon in that struggle. Following the House of Representatives' recent successful example, they created a separate Committee on Appropriations.
The seven-member panel rapidly became a Senate powerhouse. And just as rapidly, the large majority of senators who did not serve on it came to resent the appropriators' use of their funding power to shape policy. After tolerating the committee for 32 years—institutional change comes slowly to the Senate—members in January 1899 adopted a rule stripping Appropriations of seven major funding bills and awarding them to the respective legislative committees. Not until 1922 did the Appropriations Committee recapture the full jurisdiction that it exercises today.