The Income Tax Arrives
The first 30 years of the twentieth century witnessed the rise of the modern income tax. More energized than demoralized by the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the 1894 income tax, fiscal reformers mounted a powerful campaign to resuscitate the levy. By 1913, they had engineered ratification of a new constitutional amendment, clearly establishing the federal government’s authority to levy an income tax.
In its first two years, the tax was modest, providing only a small part of the government’s total revenue. But World War I transformed it, moving income taxes to the center of federal finance. Democrats and progressive Republicans remained the strongest advocates of income taxation, but even mainstream Republicans came to accept the levy. By the early 1920s, it was firmly established as a centerpiece of the federal tax system.
1901 President William McKinley was assassinated in September, and Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency. The change was unsettling for GOP stalwarts, who had tried to derail Roosevelt’s soaring political career by installing him as vice president. In 1897, he had been named Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President McKinley. He soon resigned, however, to lead his famous Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. Upon his return to the United States, he won election as governor of New York. Widely considered a reformer within his own party, Roosevelt worried the GOP establishment. Republican power brokers, including McKinley confidant Mark Hanna, believed Roosevelt would pose less of a threat once occupied with the exalted but largely ceremonial duties of the vice presidency.
After McKinley's assassination, those same leaders confronted the unsettling results of their handiwork. Roosevelt, however, moved quickly to reassure party leaders and the nation that he would continue the careful, conservative policies of his predecessor.
Roosevelt was slow to move on tax issues, at least early in his presidency. Congress, however, had other plans. In March, lawmakers passed the War Revenue Reduction Act, repealing or reducing most of the taxes enacted to pay for Spanish-American War. Several levies, however, remained largely intact, including the inheritance tax and numerous excises. Democrats criticized the law for failing to reduce consumption taxes adequately, especially in light of the Republican preference for steep tariffs. Democrats also argued for a new income tax on individuals and corporations, but GOP leaders easily defeated such ideas.
1902 House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sereno Payne (R-N.Y.) introduced a bill to repeal all remaining taxes levied for the Spanish-American war. Reassured by predictions of a large surplus in the federal Treasury, lawmakers agreed. While most Democrats urged retention of the federal inheritance tax and various corporation taxes, they ultimately acquiesced in the GOP plan. Both the House and Senate passed the tax cut overwhelmingly.
1904 Theodore Roosevelt won an easy re-election campaign, despite the misgivings of conservative Republicans.
The Supreme Court found the oleomargarine tax to be constitutional. Originally enacted in 1886 at the behest of dairy interests, the tax was designed to prevent margarine — which was relatively cheap to manufacture — from competing with butter in the marketplace. The tax was almost purely regulatory, although it did raise significant revenue as margarine became increasingly popular.
1906 In a speech on April 14, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt endorsed a progressive estate tax:
Of course no amount of charity in spending such fortunes in any way compensates for misconduct in making them. As a matter of personal conviction, and without pretending to discuss the details or formulate the system, I feel that we shall ultimately have to consider the adoption of some such scheme as that of a progressive tax on all fortunes, beyond a certain amount either given in life or devised or bequeathed upon death to any individual — a tax so framed as to put it out of the power of the owner of one of these enormous fortunes to hand on more than a certain amount to any one individual; the tax, of course, to be imposed by the National and not the State Government.
Such taxation should, of course, be aimed merely at the inheritance or transmission in their entirety of those fortunes swollen beyond all healthy limits.
1907 Roosevelt stepped up his campaign for several progressive additions to the nation’s tax system. In his December 7 message to Congress, he urged lawmakers to consider an income tax.
The inheritance tax was even more desirable, Roosevelt continued. Not only did it serve the cause of social justice, but it also enjoyed the Supreme Court's constitutional impramatur:
Roosevelt rejected arguments that an estate tax would penalize thrift.
1908 William Howard Taft won the presidential election to succeed Roosevelt. Handpicked by his predecessor, Taft was considered fairly liberal within his party, but he presented a less threatening image to party regulars. While supporting certain reformist ideas, including the possibility of limited taxes on income and estates, he moved cautiously in advancing such ideas.
1909 An uneasy coalition of Democrats and western Republicans joined to support passage of an individual income tax. The specter of a hostile Supreme Court haunted the debate. Some observers believed the justices would invalidate an income tax, just as they had in 1895. Others, however, thought the Court had changed to reflect growing bipartisan -- and popular -- support for the levy. A few income tax supporters wanted to press the issue regardless of the Court's likely response, eager to make the case for progressive taxation. In any case, the income tax coalition developed a moderate proposal and sought to attach it to tariff legislation in the Senate.
GOP leaders were alarmed by rebellion in their own ranks, with numerous Republican progressives indicating their support for a new income tax. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Nelson Aldrich (R-R.I.) tried to fend off the income tax proposal, but pro-tax forces enjoyed considerable momentum. Worried that Aldrich would lose the battle, President Taft convinced the senator that a modest tax on corporate income would siphon off support for general income taxation. In doing so, it would deny victory to the congressional income tax coalition, preserving GOP unity.
Taft — who had earlier indicated some openness to income taxation anyway — orchestrated passage of a 1 percent tax on net corporate income. Framed as an excise tax on the privilege of doing business as a corporation, the levy was carefully designed to sidestep constitutional issues surrounding the income tax.
As Taft had predicted, the corporation tax successfully deflated the larer income tax movement -- at least for the time being.
The corporation tax included a publicity requirement that all returns be open to public inspection. As with publicity provisions during the Civil War, this requirement proved unpopular, especially among small business owners unaccustomed to releasing information. Taft argued, however, that publicity would enhance federal oversight of corporations, aiding lawmakers, administration officials, and investors. In fact, the publicity feature was key to Progressive support for the law, helping convince many lawmakers to accept the corporate excise tax in lieu of a broader income tax that included individuals.
1910 In response to taxpayer conplaints, the Appropriations Act of 1910 tightened disclosure regulations for Taft's corporation excise tax. Henceforth, tax returns would be open to inspection "only upon the order of the President." It was a blow to progressives in both parties, who had hoped the tax would serve as a means to regulate private corporations by fostering the availability of accurate financial information..
1913 As part of his 1909 tax compromise, Taft had agreed to support a constitutional amendment authorizing federal income taxes. Not only would an amendment settle constitutional questions once and for all, it would also delay substantive action on the income tax, at least until ratification was complete. And since ratification was far from certain anyway, the amendment might defuse the income tax issue indefinitely, allowing it to simply fade away in the state legislatures.
In making his case for the amendment to wary Republican legislators, Taft stressed the importance of avoiding a confrontation with the Supreme Court. Such a fight , he warned, would diminish public confidence in the Court and threaten one of the pillars of American government. Congress agreed, and lawmakers soon approved the amendment and sent it to the states.
While opponents couldn’t stop the 16th amendment, they argued long and hard against it. Richard E. Byrd, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates made a particularly impassioned plea to reject the amendment, offering a potent rhetorical blend of state rights, limited government, and anti-tax convictions. Ratification, he warned, would open a new and dangerous chapter in American government:
Opposition from Byrd and like-minded conservatives couldn't stop the amendment. To the suprise of many, the states ratified the amendment in relatively short order, and in February 1913 it became the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Meanwhile, newly elected President Woodrow Wilson included a call for tariff reform in his inaugural address. On April 8, he reiterated the need for revenue reform, with a particular emphasis on lower import duties. Four days later, House Ways and Means Chairman Oscar W. Underwood (D-Va.) introduced a bill to lower tariff rates from and average of 40 percent to roughly 29 percent. To compensate for lost revenue, the bill also included an income tax. The House passed the legislation on May 8, and the Senate followed suit four months later. When Wilson signed the bill in October, it included an income tax of 1 percent on individual income over $3,000 ($4,000 for married couples). It also featured a progressive surtax ranging from 1 percent to 6 percent, depending on income.
Returns for the new tax were to be kept secret, reflecting the unhappy fate of corporate publicity features in the 1909 revenue law. The new income tax also provided for collection at source, meaning that some kinds of income would be taxed before it reached the taxpayer, as with the modern system of tax withholding.
The Bureau of Internal Revenue established a Personal Income Tax Division to collect the new tax. It included a Correspondence Unit of 30 employees dedicated solely to answering questions about the new levy.
1914-1915 In 1914, the BIR unveiled its form for the new income tax. Four pages long, it was dubbed Form 1040 as part of the agency’s normal sequential numbering process. No money was collected during the first year. Instead, taxpayers returned just a completed form, which was then checked by field agents for accuracy.
In 1915, several congressmen complained that income tax forms are too complicated. The House Sergeant at Arms offered lawmakers assistance in preparing their own returns. As one congressman explained the complexity: "I write a law. You drill a hole in it. I plug the whole. You drill a hole in my plug."
1916 Once again, war brought a steep decline in international trade. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson had asked Congress for emergency revenue legislation, and lawmakers responded with the War Revenue Act of 1914. Featuring a slew of new excise taxes, the law tried to compensate for slumping customs revenue — a byproduct of the damper that war put on international trade. While lucrative, these consumption taxes proved unable to close the fiscal gap. Wilson soon joined Democrats in Congress to support a steeper, more productive income tax.
Rep. Claude Kitchin, D-NC, led a group of congressional insurgents pushing for steeper income taxes. While barely two years old, the income tax had already proven itself a viable source of new revenue. Kitchin and his allies — all comfortably to Wilson’s left — wanted to make better use of the tax, redistributing tax burdens up the income scale.
Congress approved a new income tax as part of the Revenue Act of 1916. The law set out to raise $205 million in new revenue, with more than half coming from the income tax. Lawmakers boosted the "normal" income tax rate from 1 percent to 2 percent on net incomes over $3, 000 ($4,000 for married couples). They also raised surtax rates, moving them from a maximum of 6 percent on incomes over half a million dollars to a maximum of 13 percent on incomes over $2 million. The changes made the income tax steeper, but left it's base quite narrow; the levy still applied only to the nation’s richest taxpayers.
The 1916 law also raised the corporation income tax from 1 percent to 2 percent, and introduced a new federal estate tax with an exemption of $50,000 and rates ranging from 1 percent to 10 percent. The law included a novel munitions tax designed to appease opponents of American involvement in the war; levied on manufacturers of military equipment, it was designed to prevent war profiteering. Finally, the law featured a host of excise taxes, as well as a capital stock tax on corporations.
In response to administrative concerns, the 1916 revenue law repealed the "collection at source" provisions of the 1913 tax. Instead, the law now required simply that income souyrces provide information to the government on the amount of income paid out to receipients.
1917 In March 1917, Congress introduced a major innovation to the federal tax system: a corporate excess profits tax. This levy taxed any profits above a "reasonable" rate of return. Initially, this rate was set at 8 percent; if owners made more than that, then they paid taxes according to a steep rate schedule.
Supporters defended the new tax on equity grounds, but it also turned out to be the biggest money maker among new wartime taxes. It attracted bitter opposition from business groups, who considered the tax a threat to managerial prerogatives. They were certainly justified in their suspicion, since both Wilson and his allies in Congress considered the levy a legitimate means of business regulation. Many supporters hoped to retain it after the war ended.
The excess profits tax applied to individual as well as businesses, taxing the former at 8 percent on incomes over $6,000. This last innovation prompted critics to label it a “tax on brains,” since it generally only applied to professionals and other highly educated workers.
In addition to the new excess profits tax, 1917 brought hikes in the regular income tax as well. The War Revenue Act of 1917 imposed a 2 percent tax on incomes over $1,000 ($2,000 for married couples). It featured graduated surtaxes reaching as high as 63 percent. It also added an additional tax of 4 percent to the existing corporate income tax.
The Bureau of Internal Revenue struggled to cope with the massive tax changes. Federal revenues grew dramatically. The average collection for each year in the twelve years preceding 1915 was $281 million. For the twelve years between 1915 and 1926, the average was $2.78 billion. As one congressional report later summarized the change: “[A]n organization which had collected slightly over a quarter of a billion dollars yearly suddenly was required to collect annually nearly ten times that amount.”
The estate, munitions, and capital stock taxes all required new administrative machinery. The agency added staff in all these areas to interpret and administer the taxes. The real work, however, came from the expansion of the individual and corporate income taxes, as well as the introduction of the corporate excess profits tax. To cope, the bureau expanded dramatically. In 1917, as the agency began to gear up for war taxation, it employed 524 headquarters staff and 4,529 field staff. By 1918, total staff had grown to 9,600, and it rose further to roughly 14,000, 18,000, 20,000, and 21,000 in each of the subsequent years.
The task almost proved too much for the agency. The expanded income tax deluged the agency in paper. When returns for 1918 began to arrive, those from 1916 had not been audited, let alone ones from 1917. The number of returns filed in 1918 was five times greater than the number from 1917. Subsequent increases only added to the burden. All told, the number of returns increased more than 1,000 percent between 1916 and 1921, giving the BIR an impossible problem. “The enormous increase in the revenue,” one BIR commissioner complained, “the overwhelming increase in the number of returns filed and increase in the work to be performed as a consequence thereof went by leaps and bounds. No one did or could foresee it, or prepare for it.”
1918-1919 The Revenue Act of 1918, actually passed in early 1919, made relatively few major changes in the tax structure, but it did raise rates on individual and corporate income, corporate excess profits, and estates. The law provided for normal and surtax rates that rose the dizzying level of 77 percent on the biggest incomes. Corporations were given an exemption of $2,000, but rates were raised to 12 percent on net taxable income. The law also rectified numerous mistakes in earlier revenue laws, most of which had been enacted in great haste.
The income tax now occupied a central place in the federal revenue system. In 1916, income taxes had been providing 16 percent of federal revenue. From 1917 to 1920, that percentage ranged as high as 58 percent. The tax was now a pillar of federal finance. Still, however, it remained a narrow levy. In 1920, only 5.5. million returns showed any tax due.
May 27: Wilson makes his famous "politics is adjourned" speech to urge higher taxes, including levies on income, estates, and excess profits.
Meanwhile, the BIR began a massive recruitment campaign to help redress its chronic personnel shortage. More than 1,000 auditors were hired in the first six months of 1919. The agency still struggled to keep up, however; delays in the printing of tax forms and instructions prompted an extension of the filing deadline from March 1 to April 1.
October 27: Volstead Act, providing for enforcement of the new Prohibition Amendment, passed over Wilson's veto. BIR commissioner was charged with enforcing the act. A new Prohibition Unit was created on December 22, allowed a budget of 2 million under the Volstead Act.
Audio clip: McAdoo on the need for tax reduction, probably 1919. [External link to Library of Congress]
1920 A broad consensus held that steep wartime tax rates were unsustainable. Two of Woodrow Wilson’s Treasury secretaries, Carter Glass and David Houston, suggested cuts. Even Wilson himself -- the architect of the progressive wartime tax system -- seemed to agree. In his 1919 State of the Union Address, he had suggested the possibility of reducing taxes.
Still, many Democrats and progressive Republicans were unwilling to roll back wartime tax reforms. Pleased with the newly progressive cast of federal revenue policy, they sought to retain some of its more progressive elements, including the excess profits tax.
Supporters believed that the profits tax — which imposed a graduated levy on business profits above a pre-determined “normal” rate of return on capital — to be a blow for egalitarian ideals. Rep. Claude Kitchin led the campaign to retain the tax. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in the years leading up to World War I, he had helped craft the highly progressive wartime tax system. Now in the minority, he insisted that the tax should be made permanent, arguing that it would shift the fiscal burden to the individuals and corporations whose wealth posed a threat to American society.
Kitchin and his allies were not destined to succeed. Republican lawmakers joined with a series of GOP presidents to engineer tax cuts in 1921, 1924, 1926, and 1928. Andrew Mellon — who moved into his Treasury office in 1921 and stayed their until 1932 — was the principal architect of these reforms. As one wag remarked, “three presidents served under Mellon,” and when it came to taxes, he was certainly correct.
Audio clip: George White, on Republican tax promises (from the Library of Congress)
1921 The series of Mellon tax cuts began in 1921, as legislators from both parties set about revising the wartime tax system. On April 30, Mellon asked Congress for a variety of tax changes, including elimination of the excess profits tax, a modest increase in the corporate income tax, a reduction in personal income tax rates, and the retention of most wartime excise levies.
Repeal of the excess profits tax was almost a foregone conclusion, enjoying broad, bipartisan support. In 1919, President Wilson had told Congress in 1919 that the levy “should be made the basis of a permanent tax system which will reach undue profits without discouraging the enterprise and activity of our business men.” But fiscal experts had since begun to question the tax.
Thomas S. Adams was arguably the most important tax policy expert of his day, a trusted adviser to both Democratic and Republican administrations. He was also one of the original champions of excess profits taxation. In 1920, however, he dealt the levy a heavy blow, calling for its repeal. Having once defended the tax as a means to “allay hostility to big business,” Adams now derided it as burdensome, complicated, and inequitable. Business leaders, he warned, understandably resented its “intricacy and capricious inequalities.” Government officials, moreover, had found the levy hard to administer.
Columbia University economist Edwin Seligman was another vocal critic. More conservative than Adams, Seligman was a leading light of the economics profession and a pioneer in the study of taxation. With strong support from the business community, he argued that the excess profits tax posed a threat to corporate autonomy and economic efficiency. While supporting progressive taxation generally, Seligman argued that the excess profits tax was unwise. Instead, he favored broader use of the federal income tax.
Not every economist, however, was a critic of the excess profits tax. Robert M. Haig, a Seligman protégé and colleague at Columbia, offered a compelling case for retention. The excess profits tax, he insisted, was both just and practical — or at least it might be, if Congress would enact several key reforms to simplify its administration. Compared with its alternatives, including higher income taxes or a national sales tax, the profits tax was far superior. Policymakers should “continue the policy of skimming the richer crocks of milk,” he counseled, rather than opting for less progressive alternatives.
Expert debate notwithstanding, the forces arrayed against the excess profits tax proved irresistible. Even Democrats joined the campaign for repeal. Wilson’s Treasury Secretary Carter Glass insisted that the tax “encourages wasteful expenditure, puts a premium on overcapitalization and a penalty on brains, energy, and enterprise, discourages new ventures, and confirms old ventures and their monopolies.” Business leaders, meanwhile, agitated aggressively against the levy.
When Congress began consideration of the 1921 revenue bill, the sales tax proved to be a sticking point. Mellon’s proposals, including excess profits repeal, sailed through the House of Representatives, arriving in the Senate almost intact. In the upper house, however, the bill ran into trouble. Sen. Reed Smoot, R-Utah, proposed a national retail sales tax, and he had considerable support among Senate leaders. Sen. George Higgins Moses, R-N.H., offered a colorful, if intemperate, appeal, insisting that a sales tax would “strike down the vicious principle of graduated taxation which appears in the pending [House] tax bill, and which is but a modern legislative adaptation of the Communistic doctrine of Karl Marx.”
Moses failed to persuade his colleagues, especially after Mellon sided with opponents of the sales tax. Meanwhile, a strong coalition of Democrats and progressive Republicans challenged the bill on the Senate floor, opposing the sales tax and insisting on higher income tax rates. This “agricultural block” — derided as the “wild asses of the desert” by their enemies — also pushed for steeper estate tax rates, as well as higher corporate income taxes.
Nearing the end of the session, harried lawmakers agreed to a relatively moderate package of reforms. They eliminated the excess profits tax, but replaced some of the lost revenue with a hike in corporate income tax rates. They also lowered the top marginal income tax rate on individuals to 50 percent — a dramatic reduction from wartime highs but far less than Mellon had requested. Legislators increased the exemption for heads of families and for dependents, making the tax base somewhat narrower and lightening the burden for many middle income taxpayers. And they introduced preferential treatment for capital gains income.
As passed, the 1921 revenue act pleased almost no one. Critics complained that it was a pastiche of unrelated, politically driven compromises. Republicans were disappointed in its modest rate reductions; as Sen. Smoot observed, “When the bill becomes law it will be the present revenue baby merely dressed in pink instead of red.” But at least one contemporary observer thought the country had dodged a bullet. “The leaders of each of the contesting parties,” observed economist Roy Blakey, “as well as the nation at large had cause to be thankful that the law was no worse than it was.”
Generally speaking, Mellon argued that tax burdens were too high. Steep rates, he insisted, served only to stifle incentive and foster tax evasion. “Any man of energy and initiative in this country can get what he wants out of life,” he wrote. “But when initiative is crippled by legislation or by a tax system which denies him the right to receive a reasonable share of his earnings, then he will no longer exert himself and the country will be deprived of the energy on which its continued greatness depends.”
Worse yet, Mellon argued, high rates didn’t even raise money. By encouraging both legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion, they eroded the tax base and reduced overall revenue. Lower rates, he said, would actually raise money by spurring economic growth and reducing the incentive for tax avoidance. “It seems difficult for some to understand,” he complained, “that high rates of taxation do not necessarily mean large revenue to the government, and that more revenue may actually be obtained by lower rates.” In particular, Mellon insisted that high rates distorted investment decisions, boosting the popularity of tax-free state and local government bonds. Indeed, Mellon made these tax-free bonds a regular target of his reform attempts, but Congress resisted his plans to eliminate them.
In general, Mellon offered a consistent and politically compelling case for tax reduction, impressing even his opponents with his passion for sweeping cuts. “There was a mystical righteousness about tax reduction,” observed Randolph Paul, a leading tax expert who would figure prominently in Roosevelt-era tax policymaking. That sense of righteousness even extended to specialized tax breaks for specific industries. Mellon and his supporters believed that tax reductions — almost any tax reduction — would help spur growth. A convenient side-effect of such narrow tax incentives, of course, was the power they conferred on policymakers, who used them to reward friends and political allies.
But for all his tax cutting zeal, Mellon was not quite singleminded in his pursuit of lower taxes. He split with some of his GOP colleagues to support the retention of both corporate and individual income taxes. When some Republicans tried in 1921 to advance a plan for a national sales tax, Mellon resisted the idea. And even while promoting repeal of the excess profits tax, he supported an increase in corporate income tax rates to compensate for the lost revenue. Perhaps most important, he advocated rate cuts for individuals but endorsed retention of the income tax. “The income tax,” he assured lawmakers, “is firmly embedded in our system of taxation and the objections made are not to the principle of the tax but only to the excessively high rates.” The comment reflected Mellon’s assessment of political and economic realities. The income tax, he had concluded, was here to stay.
Mellon had a few distinctly progressive ideas. Of particular note, he suggested taxing “earned” income from wages and salaries more lightly that “unearned” income from investments. As he argued:
Surely we can afford to make a distinction between the people whose only capital is their mental and physical energy and the people whose income is derived from investments. Such a distinction would mean much to millions of American workers and would be an added inspiration to the man who must provide a competence during his few productive years to care for himself and his family when his earnings capacity is at an end.
It was a striking argument, especially coming from a friend of wealth and capital. But it was not out of character. Mellon believed that some degree of progressivity was necessary to forestall more radical attacks on capital. Such an argument did not sit well with many of his Republican colleagues, who longed to eliminate income taxes. Mellon remained committed, however, to taming the income tax, saving it from the excesses of its more ardent supporters, as well as its most bitter critics.
1924 Mellon took another run at tax reduction in 1924. He urged lawmakers to further cut income tax rates, arguing — as he had in 1921 — that lower rates would actually raise revenue. Existing taxes were simply too high, he told the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Ways will always be found to avoid taxes so destructive in their nature, and the only way to save the situation is to put the taxes on a reasonable basis that will permit business to go on and industry to develop,” he wrote. “The alternative is a gradual breakdown in the system and a perversion of industry that stifles our progress as a nation.”
The secretary proposed a top rate of 25 percent, insisting that lower rates would stem tax avoidance. He also proposed his special tax break for earned income, amounting to a 25 percent reduction for wage and salary income. Finally, he supported reductions in estate taxes, which Mellon considered a “levy upon capital,” since it allowed lawmakers to extract capital from accumulated fortunes and use it for current operating expenses.
Mellon met stiff resistance on Capitol Hill. With a smaller congressional majority than they had enjoyed in 1921, Republicans had less room to maneuver. Rep. John Nance Garner, D-Tex., seized the opportunity to launch a Democratic attack, contending that the Mellon plan cut rates too much. “This is the time to determine the policy of who is going to pay the taxes,” he told one observer. “The crux of the fight is the surtax. The Mellon 25 percent maximum is at least 10 or 15 per cent too low.”
Republican stalwarts attacked Garner's substitute bill as a mishmash of bad economics. “You have heard of great musicians sitting down at a piano and improvising a tune,” declared Rep. Ogden Mills, R-N.Y. “Mr. Garner sits down at a table in this chamber and improvises a tax bill.” But Garner was gaining ground, securing the votes of virtually all Democrats and even some progressive Republicans. Within three weeks, Republican leaders were ready to capitulate. Speaker Nicholas Longworth, R-Ohio, agreed to accept higher income tax rates, and even swallowed a hike in estate tax rates.
In the Senate, Republican leaders knew they had a weak hand, and they offered only limited resistance to the Democratic onslaught. President Calvin Coolidge reluctantly signed the 1924 act, complaining that Congress had ignored his recommendations. The law granted an immediate 25 percent rebate on taxes paid for 1923 income. It also reduced the top marginal income tax rate to 40 percent — a substantial cut but, again, much less than Mellon had sought. The secretary got his 25 percent earned income credit, but he also had to swallow a hike in estate tax rates from 25 percent to 40 percent.
1926 All in all, the 1924 tax act amounted to half a loaf — or less — for Mellon. By 1926, he was ready for another try. Energized by GOP victories in the presidential and congressional elections, he offered a new plan, including immediate elimination of the gift tax, gradual elimination of the estate tax, and a broad reduction in individual income tax rates, bringing the top marginal rate to just 20 percent.
A major lobbying effort sprung up in support of Mellon's proposals, featuring Capitol Hill appearances by a number of “tax clubs.” The clubs claimed to be grassroots organizations, giving prominent voice to popular opinion. Critics, however, considered them ill-informed, partisan mouthpieces for the rich.
As it happened, Congress needed little convincing; lawmakers of both parties rushed to sweeten the Mellon proposals. With the progressive wing of the Republican party in disarray, and many Democrats throwing in their lot with GOP tax cutters, the success of the Mellon proposals was never in much doubt.
Democrats managed to stave off elimination of the estate tax, but only after agreeing to a 50 percent rate cut, as well as a credit for state inheritance taxes. Rep. John Nance Garner successfully resurrected his plan to raise income tax exemptions. The law raised exemptions across the board, eliminating roughly a third of the nation's 7.3 million income taxpayers; higher exemptions moved many taxpayers off the rolls entirely.
The exemption hikes were not part of Mellon's plan. Indeed, he opposed the idea, insisting that the tax base was already too small. “To narrow it further,” he told one Republican senator, “would make the whole tax structure unstable and its continued usefulness as a source of revenue uncertain.” In Mellon's view, the higher exemptions also created a political hazard. “As a matter of policy,” he said, “it is advisable to have every citizen with a stake in his country. Nothing brings home to a man the feeling that he personally has an interest in seeing that government revenues are not squandered, but intelligently expended, as the fact that he contributes individually a direct tax, no matter how small, to his government.”
Progressives in both parties bridled at Mellon's suggestion that poor Americans had no fiscal stake in their government. “Surely the Secretary of the Treasury can not intend, with a stroke of his mighty pen, to expatriate 96 per cent of us,” noted the Omaha World-Herald:
Poor Americans did, indeed, pay a host of taxes, most of them on consumption. Many excise taxes enacted during World War I remained on the books, imposing their regressive burden on a host of consumer goods and services. But as a few lonely liberals pointed out, the consumption tax burden was really an argument against higher exemptions, not for them.
Nonetheless, 1926 was a year for tax cuts, and Garner's exemption hike became part of the package. Mellon accepted the higher exemptions as the price of his marginal rate cuts. In a few years, he would have cause to regret that decision, but for the time being, it seemed a reasonable expedient.
1928 The tax cut parade was not quite over. In 1928, Mellon took another run at reduction, again suggesting estate tax repeal, as well cuts in the corporate income tax. Lawmakers agreed with the latter but not the former. It was the last time for a long while that legislators would have a free hand in cutting taxes.
As Mellon surveyed his seven years in office, he must have been pleased. The income tax had grown more central to the federal revenue system; Prohibition had dried up alcohol excise revenue, making the income tax even more important than it had been at the end of World War I. But rates had declined dramatically since 1921. And while Mellon never succeeded in his quest to eliminate the estate tax, he did manage to keep its rates relatively modest. All in all, taxes were less burdensome for many Americans, particularly those in the upper strata of society. These were happy years for tax policymakers of both parties. They had the pleasant task of choosing among various tax cuts, their deliberations buoyed by a fat and happy Treasury. As Franklin Roosevelt later pointed out, “it was all very merry while it lasted.” But in 1929, the party came to a crashing end.
1929-1932 The Great Depression wreaked havoc on the federal budget; as one observer recalled, “The sun was sinking in a cloudy western sky.” By 1930, Andrew Mellon was warning Congress that declining revenues would produce a deficit of $200 million. His projection proved optimistic, and lawmakers watched fiscal gap soar to more $900 million that year. Despite the prospect of even larger deficits to come, Mellon and President Herbert Hoover continued to resist tax increases. But with national income falling from $87.8 billion to $42.5 billion between 1929 and 1932 — and tax revenues falling at an even faster rate, thanks to the progressive rate structure of the individual income tax — such intransigence could not last.
Early in 1932, Mellon appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee to ask for a tax hike. It was a painful request for this inveterate tax cutter, but one dictated by fiscal orthodoxy. In a sign of things to come, Mellon asked Undersecretary of the Treasury Ogden Mills to read his statement; within a month, Mellon would be eased out of the Treasury building, dispatched to London as an ambassador. This towering figure of the 1920s was being put out to pasture.
Ogden Mills took the reins at Treasury, offering the Hoover Administration both his financial expertise and his political acumen. An upper-class New York Republican of generally orthodox fiscal inclinations, he had served on the Ways and Means Committee during the early 1920s. “Little Oggie,” as he was known in the liberal press, enjoyed a reputation as a tax expert.
In presenting the administration's proposals, Mills warned that the deficit was soaring above $2 billion. Excessive expenditures, coupled with falling tax revenues, had opened a huge hole in the budget. The decline in revenue was particularly dramatic. Corporate income taxes, which had yielded $1.1 billion in fiscal 1930, were likely to raise only $550 million in 1932. Individual income tax rates were plummeting even more dramatically, from just over $1 billion in 1930 to $370 million in 1932. The only relatively bright spot was excise revenue, which Mills expected to decline from $628 million to $544 million over the same period; the moderate decline, he pointed out, was due largely to the stable revenues of the federal tobacco tax.
Altogether, the revenue shortfalls were nothing short of cataclysmic. The problem, Mills declared, was inherent in the revenue structure. “The truth of the matter is that our revenue system rests on a comparatively narrow base,” he explained, “and that our tax receipts are susceptible to the widest variations in accordance with variations in business conditions. This is particularly true of current individual income-tax collections.” The progressive nature of the income tax made the problem worse, he said. Large incomes were the first to rise in good times and the first to fall in bad times. The graduated rate structure ensured that revenues would rise faster than overall income when the economy was doing well. But it also guaranteed that when depression struck, revenues would fall faster than incomes.
Given this reality, Mills counseled against steep increases in the rate structure, predicting that they would not raise adequate revenue. While acknowledging that rates must necessarily rise, especially on the richest Americans, he emphasized the need for an increase in the number of people paying income taxes in the first place. Congress must recognize, he said, that “the weakness in our revenue system is, as I have already stated, the narrowness of the base on which it rests.” Broadening that base was crucial to securing adequate, and dependable, revenue. It was also, he said, manifestly fair. “Many not now taxed are very definitely in a position to make some contribution to the support of Government,” he declared. “The should be asked to do so, taking into consideration ability to pay.”
To close the budget gap, Mills suggested a package of tax hikes that would together raise about $920 million. First and foremost, he asked legislators to restore income tax rates to their 1924 levels. Surtax rates, he said, should increase across the board, topping out at 40 percent — twice their existing level. Even more important, Congress should reduce exemptions to $1,000 for individuals and $2,500 for married couples. These reductions would broaden the tax base, bringing 1.7 million new taxpayers into the system. The tax, Mills emphasized, would still be confined to a narrow slice of American society. “There would be only some 3,600,000 Federal taxpayers in a Nation of 120,000,000 people, and of this number less than 300,000 would contribute 90 percent of the tax.” Indeed, Mill's plan would still have left the tax much narrower than it had been before the 1926 exemption hike.
Ultimately, leaders of the new democratic Congress refused to adopt the lower exemptions that Mills suggested. Instead, they chose to embrace a new federal sales tax. This was a striking departure, given the party's traditiolnal opposition to sales taxes.
A rebellion among rank and file Democrats forced party leaders to backtrack. Abandoning the sales tax, they resorted to a slew of narrow excise taxes, as well as higher rates on incomes and estates.
As ultimately passed by Congress, the Revenue Act of 1932 was predicted to raise $1.1 billion in new revenue. A substantial chunk of this revenue — some $178 million—was expected to come from a combination of steeper rates and lower exemptions in the personal income tax. But fully $457 million was expected from new or increased excise taxes. The list of consumption levies was long, including taxes on lubricating oil, malt syrup, brewer's wort, tires, toilet articles, furs, jewelry, automobiles, trucks, radio and phonograph equipment, refrigerators, sporting goods, cameras, firearms, matches, candy, chewing gum, soft drinks, and electricity.
Taxed goods were disparate, their selection dependent on a variety of factors, including the political influence — or lack thereof — associated with an industry. Most important, however, was a preference for articles of wide consumption, with a secondary concern for their relative necessity. Lawmakers preferred to tax items that people had some choice about consuming, rather than, say, table salt or flour. Some levies, however, were selected because they clearly seemed to indicate a capacity to pay — hence the luxury tax on jewelry, for instance. But others, like the car tax, were selected at least as much for the revenue they promised. Long the target of progressive tax reformers, the car tax survived the legislative battle because it promised to raise money.
Indeed, revenue was the name of the game in 1932. All other concerns were secondary. The pitched battle over the sales reflected not so much an argument about whether to increase taxes — that was never in doubt — but exactly how. The rank and file Democrats who shaped the debate made clear their preference for isolated excise taxes, strongly preferring them to more general sales levies. In large part, this preference reflected a conviction that people could choose whether to consume taxed goods. Under a general sales tax, no such choice was possible.
Of course, the excise taxes were highly regressive. But regressivity was only one measure of fairness, and in the face of a gaping deficit, it was not the most important one. Democrats made consumer choice a central aspect in their definition of fair taxation.
Just five months after the 1932 revenue act was signed into law, Franklin Roosevelt won his campaign for the presidency. When he took the oath of office in 1933, he inherited a tax system largely defined by this last revenue bill of the Hoover Administration. It was, in almost every respect, consistent with the revenue policy advanced by the GOP Treasury of Andrew Mellon and later Ogden Mills. It represented a triumph for fiscal orthodoxy, even at the expense of tax fairness. The Republican era of tax policymaking would have long-lasting effects, if not quite the ones that Mellon had originally hoped to define. The low taxes of the 1920s were a distant memory, as was any hope of eliminating such progressive taxes as the estate and gift levies. But the tax system of 1933 was certainly nothing like the progressive revenue structure emerging from World War I. Republicans had managed to limit the scope of progressive taxation, keeping the income tax reasonably limited and placing much of the tax burden on consumption. While sales tax proponents had reason to be disappointed, the federal revenue system was increasingly dependent on narrow sales taxes of one sort or another. That structure, moreover, was not imposed by Republicans on their unwilling Democratic colleagues. Indeed, Roosevelt‘s party had crafted this system in close cooperation with the Hoover Administration. Regressive taxation was a bipartisan achievement.