The Endlessness of a Temporary Tax


by Jeff Thomas, International Man:

Governments regularly claim that they favour tax reform. When this claim has been repeated so many times that virtually no one believes them anymore, they announce a tax reform, to show that they really mean it. They then reshuffle the existing taxes to give the appearance that taxation will actually be lowered.

When it becomes apparent that the reform is a sham, they often pull a rabbit out of a hat in the form of a “temporary” tax, that’s pre-legislated to end sometime in the future.

Sounds promising.

So, let’s have a look at one such temporary tax and see how things worked out.

The US government introduced the War Revenue Act of 1898—a tax on telephone use—under the claim that it was necessary to pay for the Spanish American War.

In what way does telephone use pertain to a government invading another country? Well, actually, one has nothing to do with the other. But, let’s leave that discussion for another day and see how this temporary tax played out.

The Act was repealed in 1902 but was reinstated, this time as the Emergency Internal Revenue Tax Act of 1914. The justification then given was that another war was on the way and increased taxation to pay for it couldn’t begin too soon. Telephone users needed to cough up.

It was decided by both parties to increase the tax on telephones and the War Revenue Act of 1917 was created. It hadn’t passed the debate stage until the war was over, but they decided that they’d implement it anyway, as the work had already been done. In the bargain, they introduced not only increased rates, but graduated rates.

This act was also repealed, in 1924, but was reinstated with the Revenue Act of 1932. Since that date, it has been reauthorised 29 times.

In 1941, an increase was put in place to pay for (you guessed it) another war—World War II. This was increased again in 1943, but people complained and the new law contained a provision that the increased rates would end six months after “the date of termination of hostilities in the present war.” However, the Excise Tax Act of 1947 was passed to assure that the tax would continue indefinitely.

Over the subsequent years, periodic changes were made. Although the rates went up and down like a bride’s nightie, most, not surprisingly, were upward.

As further (undeclared) wars came and went, taxation on telephone calls repeatedly needed to be increased and, regardless of the party in power, increases continued.

At long last, on 14 September, 2000, the House of Representatives took up legislation which included the repeal of the telephone excise tax. This measure passed both houses, but the fix was in. President Clinton vetoed the repeal. (The legislative branch and the executive branch have to take turns playing the bad cop, but the outcome is the same: increased taxation.)

Then, in 2006, a case was made (in the words of the Treasury Secretary), to amend the Internal Revenue Code “of an outdated, antiquated tax that has survived a century beyond its original purpose, and by now should have been ancient history.”

Finally, American citizens could wash their hands of a one-hundred-year theft of their earnings that, even at the start, was based upon a ludicrous concept.

Unfortunately… it didn’t happen.

The repeal was never enacted and Americans continue to pay for the Spanish American War today.

So, what’s the takeaway here?

Well, first off, this little history serves as a reminder that there’s nothing so permanent as a temporary government measure.

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