The Committee on Ways and Means is the chief tax-writing committee of the United States House of Representatives. Members of the Ways and Means Committee are not allowed to serve on any other House Committee unless they apply for a waiver from their party’s congressional leadership. The Committee has jurisdiction over all taxation, tariffs, and other revenue-raising measures, as well as a number of other programs including:
- Social Security
- Unemployment benefits
- Enforcement of child support laws
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal welfare program
- Foster care and adoption programs
The U.S. Constitution requires that all bills regarding taxation must originate in the House of Representatives. Since House procedure is that all bills regarding taxation must go through this committee, the committee is very influential, as is its Senate counterpart, the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.
Recent chairs have included Bill Thomas, Charlie Rangel, Sander Levin, and Dave Camp. On November 4, 2015 Representative Kevin Brady of Texas was chosen to succeed Representative Paul Ryan as chairman.
The idea of a ways and means committee to handle the financial matters of a legislature is an old one, having been used in the British Parliament and the colonial and early state legislatures in America.
The Committee was first established during the first Congress, in 1789. However, this initial version was disbanded after only 8 weeks; for the next several years, only ad hoc committees were formed, to write up laws on notions already debated in the whole House. It was first established as a standing committee by resolution adopted December 21, 1795, and first appeared among the list of regular standing committees on January 7, 1802. Upon its original creation, it held power over both taxes and spending, until the spending power was given to the new Appropriations Committee in 1865.
During the Civil War the key policy-maker in Congress was Thaddeus Stevens, as chairman of the Committee and Republican floor leader. He took charge of major legislation that funded the war effort and permanently transformed the nation’s economic policies regarding tariffs, bonds, income and excise taxes, national banks, suppression of money issued by state banks, greenback currency, and western railroad land grants. Stevens was one of the major policymakers regarding Reconstruction, and obtained a House vote of impeachment against President Andrew Johnson (who was acquitted by the Senate in 1868). Hans Trefousse, his leading biographer, concludes that Stevens “was one of the most influential representatives ever to serve in Congress. [He dominated] the House with his wit, knowledge of parliamentary law, and sheer willpower, even though he was often unable to prevail.” Historiographical views of Stevens have dramatically shifted over the years, from the early 20th-century view of Stevens and the Radical Republicans as tools of big business and motivated by hatred of the white South, to the perspective of the neoabolitionists of the 1950s and afterwards, who applauded their efforts to give equal rights to the freed slaves.
Three future presidents – James Polk, Millard Fillmore, and William McKinley – served as Committee Chairman. Before the official roles of floor leader came about in the late 19th century, the Chairman of Ways and Means was considered the Majority Leader. The Chairman is one of very few Representatives to have office space within the Capitol building itself.