The Committee on Ways and Means: A History 1789-2019

Of the current standing committees in the House, the Committee on Ways and Means ranks as one of the oldest, most prestigious, and most important. First established as a select committee on July 24, 1789, it was discharged less than two months later. Reappointed continuously from the first session of the Fourth Congress (1795–1797) in 1795, the panel functioned essentially as a standing committee before it was formally listed as such in the House Rules on January 7, 1802. Until 1865, the jurisdiction of the committee (referred to as the Committee of Ways and Means before 1880) included the critically important areas of revenue, appropriations, and banking. Since 1865, the committee has continued to exercise jurisdiction over revenue and related issues such as tariffs, reciprocal trade agreements, and the bonded debt of the United States. Revenue-related aspects of the Social Security system, Medicare, and welfare programs have come within Ways and Means’ purview in the 20th century.

For over 200 years, the Committee on Ways and Means has fulfilled its legislative mandate. At times, it has functioned efficiently and harmoniously, such as during the Civil War and the early years of the New Deal. At other times, the committee has been frustrated and torn apart by partisan bickering. It has been led by chairmen who rightly rank among the legislative giants of Congress, but it has also been headed by legislators whose names history has long obscured and ignored. The committee’s history is significant both for its accomplishments and its shortcomings, its well-known leaders and its unknown members. This first attempt to chart its history, it is hoped, suggests something of both upon which other scholars can build.

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