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January 28, 2016
Tax History: Ike's IRS Commissioner Called the Income Tax a 'Devouring Evil'
Joseph J. Thorndike

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On February 4, 1953, T. Coleman Andrews put the nation on notice: As the newly installed commissioner of internal revenue, he was determined to "restore the Revenue Service to the great reputation it used to have." And he brought to the job his own reputation. Coleman, reported The Washington Post, was "an executive who doesn't mind stepping on political toes."1

Indeed, Coleman was a man of strong convictions. He believed in the need for bureaucratic reform, especially regarding the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which was still struggling to recover from the corruption scandals of the early 1950s. He believed in the virtues of retrenchment, convinced that bigger budgets were not the key to better government.

Perhaps most important, however, Andrews believed in the rule of law. While careful to emphasize the importance of taxpayer assistance, he was passionate about enforcement. Every American, he believed, must be required to pay his fair share of the tax burden.

Among those convictions was one more -- a surprising one, especially for the nation's top tax collector. Andrews, it turned out, believed the income tax to be an abomination.

An Eisenhower Democrat

Born in 1899 -- the "son of a day laborer in a Virginia tobacco factory," according to a lovestruck Time magazine -- Andrews began his career as a grocery store stock boy, earning 25 cents a day. By age 21 he had found more lucrative employment, becoming the nation's youngest CPA and, soon after, head of his own accounting firm in Richmond.2

During the 1930s Andrews served in several state and local government posts, including a stint as Virginia's auditor of public accounts. He joined the Marine Corps during World War II, reaching the rank of major and making the acquaintance of General Dwight Eisenhower. Andrews later worked for the State Department's North African Economic Board and the General Accounting Office, burnishing his public sector resume and opening the door to even higher office.

Andrews was widely considered an "Eisenhower Democrat," but he was more accurately described as a Byrd Democrat, after the Virginia political machine headed by Sen. Harry F. Byrd. As a columnist for the Los Angeles Times later remarked, Andrews "comes close to worshipping Sen. Byrd as a political leader."3

At the IRS

Andrews supported Eisenhower in the 1952 election, joining many other Virginia Democrats in bolting from the party. He was rewarded with a plum spot in the new administration, getting the nod to become the nation's 31st commissioner of internal revenue. He was the first CPA to get the job.

In his 2013 book, Rich People's Movements, sociologist Isaac Martin profiled Andrews, describing his tenure at the IRS as "pro-taxpayer and pro-business." To illustrate his point, he offered a telling quotation spoken by Andrews shortly after his appointment: "There is no excuse whatsoever for any person in the Bureau of Internal Revenue to take any attitude toward the taxpayer other than one that emanates from the sincere desire to be helpful."4

Indeed, Andrews seemed sincere in his commitment to taxpayer service. He sympathized with the plight of average taxpayers, especially given the complexity of the tax laws. He was particularly unhappy with the landmark tax law passed in 1954, which had some virtues but even more shortcomings. In particular, Andrews complained publicly that the law was "virtually impossible to administer."5

Andrews's time at the IRS was intermittently contentious, which was probably inevitable given his charge to revamp the agency and scale back its budget. During his two years in office, he managed to do both. His headline reform was cosmetic, presiding over the agency's rechristening as the Internal Revenue Service, ostensibly in a bid to emphasize the importance of the final word in the agency's new mission.

More substantively, Andrews consolidated 17 regional offices under nine regional commissioners. He also cut headquarters staff from roughly 4,000 to just 2,000. Much of the money saved in Washington was used to pay for new hires in the field, including 1,200 new examining agents who took the point in Andrews's new campaign to beef up enforcement. "We intend to use every dollar available to prove to cheaters that we mean business," he told reporters in 1953.6

Andrews's most visible enforcement initiative came during the summer of 1953, when he dispatched hundreds of IRS employees to knock on doors across New England, looking for tax delinquents. The results were impressive, Andrews told a meeting of the Tax Executives Institute, with new returns and payments "pouring in" to regional offices. "It all adds up to the fact that we are causing a lot of folks to face up to their tax obligations for the first time."7

Tensions

Not long after taking office, Andrews had a notable, if short-lived, public conflict with his boss, Treasury Secretary George M. Humphrey. During an April 1953 congressional hearing, Andrews complained that Treasury's plan to cut $6.5 million from the IRS budget was penny-wise and pound-foolish: The reduction would cost the government between $40 million and $60 million in uncollected revenue, he said.

Treasury officials demurred, insisting that the cut could be made without reducing revenue. And after some hurried consultation between Andrews and his boss, the commissioner backed down entirely. "I was mistaken," he told reporters. "When I pull a boner, it's a good one."8

Andrews also had a notable run-in with the White House, where presidential advisers were dismayed by the commissioner's cozy relationship with Sen. Joseph McCarthy. The Wisconsin Republican, famous for his scurrilous, anticommunist crusade, had become a painful thorn in the side of President Eisenhower. Andrews's relationship with McCarthy prompted a few calls for the commissioner's resignation, and while Andrews survived the episode, it remained a sore spot.9

Meanwhile, out of public view, Andrews was struggling with his feelings about the income tax. For the most part, he kept his doubts to himself. Occasionally, however, he felt compelled to complain. "Coleman Andrews worries over the enormous machinery required for fair, efficient enforcement of the present law," reported Time magazine in April 1955. The commissioner was dismayed by the number of Americans seeking help in filing their returns -- 12 million in 1954, and probably 15 million before the books were closed on the 1955 season. Those numbers were symptoms of a larger problem, Andrews told the magazine. "There is something wrong with any law that causes that many people to quit their jobs and spend a day trying to find out how to comply," he said. Something was also wrong, he added, when it took 51,000 IRS employees to see that taxpayers met their responsibilities.10

Departure

In the summer and fall of 1955, Andrews began planning his departure from the IRS -- while insisting that he was doing no such thing. "I've quit commenting on these silly rumors that come around here about once a week," he told reporters in late September.11 Two weeks later, he sent his resignation to Treasury and the White House, which accepted with the requisite regret. "I want to say that Mr. Andrews has done a wonderful job for us," intoned Humphrey. Eisenhower offered similar thoughts: "The work that you have done in the reorganization of the Internal Revenue Service, as well as improving its over-all efficiency and relations with the public, has been outstanding," he wrote in a statement. "You have my personal thanks and, I am sure, the appreciation of the entire nation."12

On October 31 Andrews formally left his post and assumed new responsibilities as board chair (and later president) of American Fidelity and Casualty in Richmond, a leading provider of truck and bus insurance. The job raised eyebrows, because the company was embroiled in a tax dispute with the IRS, and Democrats called for an investigation.

But Andrews had been transparent on the issue, assuring Humphrey in his resignation letter that he hadn't been involved with the case while at the IRS and would continue to steer clear of it after taking his new job. Humphrey signed off on the arrangement, saying the potential conflict had been "properly handled."13

Andrews, meanwhile, told reporters that if he had really been trying to profit from his time as commissioner, he would have gone back to accounting rather than moving into a management role.14

Antitax Campaign

Once ensconced in his Richmond office, Andrews wasted no time in telling the world how he felt about the tax system. He began giving speeches that detailed its inequity and inefficiency. In April 1956 he endorsed a constitutional amendment that would have capped individual income tax rates at 25 percent. He also insisted that the federal government should stop taxing estates and recommended an overhaul of the entire revenue system.15

But Andrews's biggest splash came in May, when he gave a lengthy interview to U.S. News & World Report. Replacing the income tax was vital, he told the magazine, unless Americans were prepared "to resign ourselves to slavery." The future was clear: "Absolutism in one form or another is the inevitable end of 'steeply graduated' taxes on income and inheritances," he declared, "and absolutism in any form is slavery."16

Strong words, to be sure, but not unusual ones for a specific sort of 1950s conservative. Andrews was one of a growing, bipartisan band of conservatives who felt abandoned by both parties. Southern Democrats like those of the Byrd machine had only limited use for their party colleagues of the postwar era, and many Republicans were bitterly disappointed by Eisenhower's moderate brand of GOP politics.

Andrews became a leading spokesman for these disgruntled conservatives on one of their key issues: taxation. In the U.S. News interview, he declined to offer a specific replacement for the income tax. But he explained -- at length -- his reasons for rejecting the current system.

At heart, Andrews was something of a technocrat. He suggested that meaningful tax reform could only come after a long period of study and analysis. In particular, he called for a congressionally appointed commission, free of any deadline or limitation and charged with designing a thorough overhaul of the entire tax system.

Andrews was convinced that careful study would reveal the income tax to be fatally flawed. "I don't think it can be made even generally understandable, let alone fair and compatible with our tradition of freedom," he said. But he insisted that the commission be given a free hand to consider every alternative, including retention of the existing tax. If reform were constrained by political constraints or conditions, "all we get is conversation, and I'm not interested in that, and I don't think other victims of this devouring evil are," he said.

Chief among the sins of the system, Andrews continued, were its rates. High, steeply graduated rates were a form of social engineering: "I don't believe in using tax legislation to force social reforms upon the people or to punish sin," he said.17 The income tax was "conceived in vengeance and it has been that way ever since."18

Reform might improve matters, especially if it involved rate reduction. But Andrews was dubious of any long-term success with the modern income tax. "I am convinced that this law has reached the point of incurable infirmity, and I doubt that any full-scale income tax, rigidly enforced, can be made a primary source of a great nation's income without leading eventually to dictatorship, which I am convinced is happening under the present law."19

Andrews believed that many members of Congress shared his opinion, viewing the income tax as fundamentally unenforceable. "I think Congress is more afraid of a firm and rigid enforcement of the tax law than they are of the loss of revenue," he said. "Maybe they think, as many people do, that if Congress ever gave the Revenue Service enough money to enforce the revenue laws up to the hilt, the income tax would have to be repealed within a year."20

Indeed, Andrews identified complexity as perhaps the most serious problem afflicting the income tax -- almost as bad as its redistributive intent. Complexity made compliance virtually impossible for many taxpayers. And it was impossible to justify the tax given the cost of administration. "The annual chore of complexity that people are confronted with is, in my opinion, almost as serious as the oppressiveness of the tax itself," he said. "It is certainly a shameful waste of time and talent."21

Andrews's interviewer asked him how, given the strength of his feelings, he had kept silent while in office. The question brought forward a different, less angry, more compliant aspect of Andrews's personality. "My job was to enforce the law, not philosophize about it or try to make new law," he explained. "It would have been out of order for me to get into the Secretary's field of tax policy." But silence wasn't easy. "I was constantly unhappy about what I saw the income tax doing to us," he said.22

Presidential Campaign

Andrews's outspoken opposition dismayed his former colleagues in government. "It is unfortunate to have the recent tax collector questioning the fairness of the income levy at a time when so many Americans are paying 'their fair share' of Government through it," complained Humphrey in one public comment. "There are lots of ways we can improve it, but elimination is another thing."23

Right-wing political activists, on the other hand, were thrilled to welcome Andrews to their number. In August 1956 he met with conservative luminary Frank Chodorov, who urged him to mount a challenge to Eisenhower in the next election.24 Andrews was coy and ostensibly reluctant -- but clearly interested. "Evidently the determination of disfranchised Democrats and Republicans to vote for something they believe in is even more intense and widespread than I had thought," he said in a public statement.25

In September a poll by the Richmond Times-Dispatch -- house organ for the Byrd machine -- suggested that Andrews might win 29 percent of the vote in Virginia. Encouraged, the former commissioner threw his hat in the ring, running on a stump speech titled "The Income Tax Is Bad."26 He made a concerted effort to build a bipartisan coalition. "I want to say to these unyielding patriots that our door is open to them and that we can assure them that with us they will be safe from purge or liquidation," he said. "We welcome to our cause all those who love their country and sincerely seek return to constitutional government and a genuine two-party system."27

In the November election, Andrews won 147,000 votes nationwide, 41,000 from Virginia.28 He continued to agitate for fundamental tax reform and expanded his policy portfolio to include a range of right-wing priorities. In 1958 he helped found the John Birch Society (and subsequently left it in 1962).29 He supported George Wallace for president in 1968 and remained a fixture in Virginia politics. He died in 1983.

Andrews had a long career in politics, but his moment of glory came mostly during his 1956 offensive against the income tax. He gave voice -- and credibility -- to the brewing discontent that surrounded the federal income tax, even as he became the linchpin of federal finance. Andrews had a gift for saying what others wanted to hear, and in the mid-1950s, conservative activists wanted to hear this: "Maybe," Andrews told U.S. News, "we ought to see that every person who gets a tax return receives a copy of the Communist Manifesto with it so he can see what's happening to him."30


FOOTNOTES

1 "Andrews Described as 'Tough' Executive," The Washington Post, Jan. 15, 1953.

2 "Man From Revenue," Time, Oct. 24, 1955; and "T. Coleman Andrews Dies; Ex-IRS Chief," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 19, 1983.

3 Holmes Alexander, "T. Coleman Andrews, a Virginia Longshot?" Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1961.

4 Isaac William Martin, Rich People's Movements 136 (2013).

5 Id.

6 "Andrews Reports Canvass on Tax Cheating 'Pays Off,'" The New York Herald Tribune, Aug. 13, 1953.

7 Id.

8 "'I Pulled a Boner,' Andrews Says of Split With His Boss," The Baltimore Sun, Apr. 8, 1953.

9 "Mr. Andrews Resigns," The Washington Post, Oct. 17, 1955, at 18.

10 "Tax Time," Time, Apr. 18, 1955.

11 "T. Coleman Andrews Reported Set to Quit as Tax Agency Head," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 28, 1955.

12 "Andrews Resigns as Revenue Chief," The New York Times, Oct. 16, 1955.

13 "Andrews' New Company in Tax Dispute With U.S.," The New York Herald Tribune, Oct. 21, 1955.

14 Id.

15 "Tax Burden Relief Urged by Andrews," The Washington Post, Apr. 25, 1956.

16 "Interview With T. Coleman Andrews: Why the Income Tax Is Bad," U.S. News & World Report, May 25, 1956.

17 Id. at 63.

18 Id. at 64.

19 Id.

20 Id. at 66.

21 Id. at 68.

22 Id. at 72-73.

23 "Andrews' Tax Opposition Deplored by Humphrey," The Washington Post, May 25, 1956.

24 Martin, supra note 4, at 137.

25 "Andrews Sidesteps Bid to Head Third Party," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 30, 1956.

26 Martin, supra note 4, at 137.

27 "T. C. Andrews Is Candidate," The Baltimore Sun, Oct. 16, 1956.

28 "T. Coleman Andrews Dies; Ex-IRS Chief," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 19, 1983.

29 Id.

30 U.S. News, supra note 16, at 64.


END OF FOOTNOTES