Fact check: False claim that income tax was intended to be temporary in 1913

·4 min read

The claim: The income tax was meant to be temporary in 1913

As mask mandates remain in effect nationwide due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, social media users are skeptical that the efforts to curb the virus are temporary. Some claim that promises supposedly broken in the past are evidence of overreach.

“Your 2021 reminder that in 1913, Income Tax was said to be temporary too.....” a Sept. 8 Facebook post reads.

The post originated on Twitter in February, where it received more than 13,000 likes and 4,000 retweets. On Facebook, it was shared more than 4,000 times in three days.

But that’s false. After two temporary income taxes — one of which was deemed unconstitutional — the income tax was intentionally made permanent by the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1913.

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USA TODAY reached out to the post’s creator for comment.

Income tax was intentionally permanent by 1913

By the time the income tax we know today was put in place in 1913, two other national income taxes had been enacted.

The first of the three was the Civil War income tax, instituted by the federal government in 1862 as an emergency measure to finance the Union's cause. It generated approximately $55 million in government revenue throughout the war, according to the National Archives. That tax remained in place until 1872, when President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration repealed most emergency taxes.

The second income tax was put in place by President Grover Cleveland’s administration via the Income Tax Act of 1894. It targeted the rich, imposing a 2% tax on incomes above $4,000, according to the National Constitution Center.

That tax didn’t last long. A year later, the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional because it taxed interest, dividends and rent. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution requires direct taxes to be in proportion to the states’ population.

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When President William Taft took office in 1909, the public complained the country’s tax system taxed the rich too little and the poor too much, according to the Constitution Center. He sent a letter to Congress lobbying in favor of the 16th Amendment.

“That is why the push to ratify the 16th Amendment started: to pave the way for the federal government to collect sufficient revenue to provide services, etc., to its constituents,” said Karen Brown, a business law professor at George Washington University. “Ratification of the 16th Amendment in 1913 was intended to allow Congress to enact a permanent federal income tax, which it did in October of that year, to allow it to rely on collecting revenue apart from excise taxes on goods and commodities.”

Congress passed the resolution on the 16th Amendment a month after Taft sent his letter, in 1909. It was officially ratified in 1913. At that point, the income tax was intended to be permanent, tax law experts say.

“The nation adopted the 16th Amendment specifically to allow income taxes at any time Congress felt they were important to fund the federal government,” said David Super, a tax law professor at Georgetown University. “Although Congress has enacted temporary taxes, or tax increases, to fund wars and other national emergencies, nothing in the 16th Amendment limited income taxes in that way.”

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Both Brown and Michael Graetz, a tax law professor at Columbia University, agreed.

“The 16th Amendment in 1913 permitting an income tax was not a ‘temporary’ change,” Graetz told USA TODAY in an email.

“Constitutional power to lay and collect income tax from whatever source derived is not temporary, but rather built into the federal system permanently,” Brown said.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that the income tax was meant to be temporary in 1913. The income tax was intentionally made permanent by the 16th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913. Two temporary income taxes had been passed previously.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: 16th Amendment made income tax permanent

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