In the next several installments of Huddleston Tax Weekly, we will discuss in great detail some of the controversies which were stirred by the sixteenth amendment. As we’ve noted in previous installments of HTC, the sixteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution was an act of awesome importance. Through this amendment, the Congress was freed of the various constraints on its taxing power which had existed since the founding of the country. The original U.S. Constitution expressly gave Congress the power to tax, but it also set certain restrictions on this taxing power; excise (indirect) taxes had to be uniformly imposed, and direct taxes had to be properly apportioned among the several states. Prior to the sixteenth amendment, judicial opinions on tax law often dealt with determining whether a given tax should be classified as either direct or indirect. The sixteenth amendment removed the necessity of making such determinations.
The full text of the sixteenth amendment is as follows: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” Clearly, this amendment was directly responsive to a number of judicial decisions which, through their treatment of certain forms of taxation, had curtailed the taxing function of Congress. For instance, the Pollock case ruled that taxes on income derived from real property and personal property (such as stocks and bonds) were direct and therefore subject to the apportionment requirement. Pollock and other judicial opinions made the imposition of a federal income tax a practical – though not theoretical – impossibility. By removing the apportionment requirement, the sixteenth amendment made the implementation of such a tax an exceedingly simple matter.
The potential impact of the sixteenth amendment on state sovereignty was an issue immediately recognized by both the legal profession and the political establishment. Since it allowed Congress to collect taxes on incomes from any conceivable source, it apparently encompassed state securities; and by taxing state securities the Congress would be effectively lessening the power of the states in relation to the federal government. In his 1919 essay entitled “Power of Congress to Tax State Securities Under the Sixteenth Amendment,” Albert Ritchie argued that the amendment did not actually extend to state securities because the amendment was never intended to grant any new taxing powers to the Congress; the amendment was merely designed to consolidate Congress’ existing taxing powers, and since the power to tax state securities had historically been considered unconstitutional, and the authors of the amendment were themselves wary of the taxing of state securities, it follows that the amendment could not have granted a new power to tax state securities.
At the time of its publication, this essay by Mr. Ritchie must’ve had a great appeal. If taken solely on its words, the sixteenth amendment undoubtedly encompassed state securities, and it certainly raised the sovereignty of the federal government in relation to the states. But Mr. Ritchie’s reasoning involves looking behind the plain text of the amendment and considering the larger historical context in which this amendment was birthed. Given the conclusions to which it led, this reasoning certainly would’ve found plenty of open ears in 1919.
But Mr. Ritchie’s argument had at least one major weakness: it failed to recognize that the limited nature of state sovereignty has always been an established constitutional principle. As Mr. Harry Hubbard pointed out in his Harvard Law Review article entitled “The Sixteenth Amendment” in 1920, there is no constitutional basis for the notion that either the states or the federal government must have a certain degree of sovereignty. The Constitution provides that state sovereignty may be reduced if the people so desire with the power of amendment. The only principle which cannot be amended is the right of each state to have equal political representation. Thus, if the states choose to enlarge the role of the federal government through a constitutional amendment there is no higher authority which can be invoked to bar such a choice.
Mr. Hubbard argued that, given this reality, the sixteenth amendment was intended to cover state securities. The text did not need to specifically mention state securities in order to address any sort of historical trend against this type of taxation; if the amendment reduced state sovereignty simultaneously at the time that it consolidated Congress’ taxing power then this would have been a natural extension of the will of the people. We may like to suppose that, past a certain point, state sovereignty may not be encroached upon. But there is actually no constitutional foundation for this supposition. State sovereignty may be an ideal, but it is not unassailable and is very much subject to transformation depending on the whims of the public. In the end, the authors must have been aware of the amendment’s impact on state sovereignty, and it follows that any reduction in state sovereignty was fully permissible because these authors were merely acting as instruments of the people.
Hubbard, Harry. “The Sixteenth Amendment.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 33, No. 6 (April, 1920), 794-812.
Ritchie, Albert C. “Power of Congress to Tax State Securities Under the Sixteenth Amendment.” American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 5, No. 4 (October, 1919), 602-613.
Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co., 157 U.S. 429 (1895)
Hylton v. United States, 3 U.S. 171 (1796)
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