The history of income tax in the United States is also a study in irony.
As an English colony, the American Revolution began with the slogan of “taxation without representation is tyranny.” Today, we have plenty of representation, but the tax burden is heavier and very fluid.
The concept of taxing income is a modern innovation and presupposes several things: a money economy, reasonably accurate accounts, a common understanding of receipts, expenses and profits, and an orderly society with reliable records. For most of the history of civilization, these preconditions did not exist, and taxes were based on other factors. Taxes on wealth, social position, and ownership of the means of production (typically land and slaves) were all common.
A Brief History of Income Tax in the United States
In the Beginning
As a new nation, the United States Constitution becomes the centerpiece of government in this country with each colony adopting it by 1787. One of the provisions of the Constitution allows the federal government to tax the people as it sees fit. Pennsylvania was the first to object to a tax.
Originally, any tax proposal would fund the daily obligations of running a central governing body for the good of the nation. Congress would establish a federal individual income tax in 1861 to raise funds to support the Civil War effort.
They let that federal income tax expire in 1872 and soon came to the reality that funding the government was a top priority and that each citizen must participate in that effort.
The implementation of an initial federal income tax was not lasting as the Supreme Court votes it unconstitutional in 1894.
Congress did adopt and enforce the corporate income tax in 1909 while, at the same time, beginning talks about a Constitutional amendment to establish a federal income tax.
The Sixteenth Amendment
Congress approves and adopts this amendment in 1913 and the annual collection of an individual income tax begins. People with income above $500,000 pay the highest income tax rate of 7%.
In 1914, the Bureau of Internal Revenue presents the first Form 1040 even as members of Congress were vocal about the fact that the form was too complex.
Over the next sixty years, the income tax rate gradually rose to a record high of 94% and drops to 80%, where it settles until the late 1960s. When it began, the income tax in the United States was grossly unfair. Yet, over the years, fixing it only made it grossly unfair, complex, arbitrary and corrupt.
It was under President Howard Taft that the constitutional amendment legalizing a personal income tax and a corporate income tax came into being.
Taft’s proposal was brilliant, ahead of its time and became the law in 1913 as his term was ending.
President Woodrow Wilson and a solid Democratic Congress were prompt to enact a personal income tax.
A Two-Tax Dilemma
Deductions from income, a feature of the first federal personal income tax remains to this day. It reduces taxable income by the amount of the deductions. The corporate income tax, a temporary setup, remains in effect to this day allowing the upper class, who own businesses and optimize their riches, to use the two taxes to their advantage.
The lawyers and accountants, working within the system, were capable of finding creative legal methods to utilize the two systems to the client’s advantage. Congress spent many hours with income tax reform to outlaw or regulate these loophole advantages. While its goal was admirable, they only made the tax code more cumbersome.
One consequence of keeping the corporate and personal income tax separate was public accusation of unfair practices.
The rich are not paying their fair share to support the government and its infamous budget.
Internal Revenue Service
During the mid-to-late 1950s, the Bureau of Internal Revenue became the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Its Commissioner and Chief Counsel are appointments made by the President and brought to the Senate for confirmation.
Forty years later, the IRS Restructure and Reform Act brought a reorganization meant to resemble an organization in the private sector. The new model was one of customer service grouping customers with similar needs together.
April 15th is Tax Day, although it was not always the deadline for filing the individual income tax.
The IRS Mission
Provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and enforce the law with integrity and fairness to all.
This mission statement describes our role and the public’s expectation about how we should perform that role.
- In the United States, the Congress passes tax laws and requires taxpayers to comply.
- The taxpayer’s role is to understand and meet his or her tax obligations.
- The IRS role is to help the large majority of compliant taxpayers with the tax law, while ensuring that the minority who are unwilling to comply pay their fair share.
The accounting system for the balance of incoming revenue and outgoing expenses suffers abandonment in favor of limitless spending and then borrowing to finance spending. Income tax monies became bailouts for large companies. These companies are so vital to the economy that we could not allow them to fail.
The 10-year tax breaks from President Bush’s stimulus packages are on extension for one or more years. With the advent of a new presidency, income tax reform is more than just a possibility.
The United States’ debt ceiling reaches a new height almost everyday and revenues cannot possibly sustain the growth of this debt.
A new world order is emerging and the history of income tax in the United States is about to acquire a new chapter.