Brushaber v. Union Pacific Railroad Co. & the Rise of the Federal Income Tax

Congress Tax Power Constitution Law

U.S. Congress

As we have learned in previous installments, for most of its history, the United States has recognized a distinction between direct taxes and indirect taxes, and this distinction informed our law prior to the adoption of the sixteenth amendment. After the sixteenth amendment, the Congress was no longer bound to ensure that direct taxes follow the rule of apportionment outlined by Article 1, Section 9, Clause 4 of the U.S. Constitution. And given that this rule of apportionment was the main reason behind the distinction between direct and indirect taxes, it follows that subsequent to the sixteenth amendment such a distinction was essentially meaningless.

Immediately after the rule of apportionment had been lifted, the Congress passed the Revenue Act of 1913 (also referred to as the Underwood-Simmons Act). In addition to lowering tariff rates, this act implemented a progressive federal income tax system. This income tax was originally intended to compensate for the deficit created by the reduced tariff rates, but soon after its implementation it became the chief source of revenue for the U.S. government. Consistent with the language of the sixteenth amendment, the tax on income could be derived from any source (wages, dividends, interest, rents, etc.). Amazingly, in its first several years of application, the federal income tax only applied to roughly 1 percent of the population as the other 99 percent did not meet the income threshold to qualify.

Even though the language contained in the sixteenth amendment was quite clear, not much time passed before the validity of the Revenue Act of 1913 was challenged. As we will see, the case of Brushaber v. Union Pacific Railroad Co. (1916) upheld the ability of the Congress to tax income (whether direct or indirect) without the traditional constraint of apportionment.

Facts

Mr. Frank Brushaber (plaintiff) owned stock in Union Pacific Railroad Company (defendant). The railroad attempted to pay a tax on Brushaber’s income and Brushaber brought a suit to prevent the railroad from doing so. Brushaber based his suit on several grounds: he argued that (1) the Revenue Act of 1913 violated the due process clause of the Constitution, (2) that the act was unconstitutional because it exempted specific types of income, and (3) that the act was unconstitutional because it failed to follow the rule of apportionment put forth by Article 1, Section 9, Clause 4.

Law

The Congress has always had the power to tax income. This power is derived from the Constitution and consequently there cannot be any conflict between this constitutionally conferred power and the due process clause.

The sixteenth amendment removes the requirement that direct taxes must be properly apportioned among the states according to population. Hence, the Congress is able to lay and collect taxes, both direct and indirect, without regard to the apportionment rule laid out by Article 1, Section 9, Clause 4.

Ruling

The Supreme Court threw out all three arguments made by Brushaber and ruled that the federal income tax created by the Revenue Act of 1913 was fully valid and did not violate the Constitution. In essence, the court in Brushaber simply reaffirmed the clear language of the sixteenth amendment. Following Brushaber, challenging the validity of the Revenue Act would have been a pointless endeavor.

The early twentieth century saw two extremely important developments in U.S. taxation: the consolidation of the taxing power of the Congress by way of the sixteenth amendment and the creation of the federal progressive income tax system. In our next installment, we will look more closely at the provisions of the Revenue Act of 1913 and discuss how the federal income tax system evolved up to its present form.

Image credit: Daniel Mennerich

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Seattle CPA+John Huddleston has written extensively on tax related subjects of interest to small business owners. He is a graduate of Washington State University and the University of Washington School of Law.

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