In 1935, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins was fretting about finding a constitutional basis for the Social Security Act. Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone advised her, “The taxing power, my dear, the taxing power. You can do anything under the taxing power.”
Last week, in his ObamaCare opinion, NFIB v. Sebelius, Chief Justice John Roberts gave Congress the same advice—just enact regulatory legislation and tack on a financial penalty, as in failure to comply with the individual insurance mandate. So how did the power to tax under the Constitution become unbounded?
The first enumerated power that the Constitution grants to Congress is the “power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” The text indicates that the taxing power is not plenary, but can be used only for defined ends and objects—since a comma, not a semicolon, separated the clauses on means (taxes) and ends (debts, defense, welfare).
This punctuation was no small matter. In 1798, Pennsylvania Rep. Albert Gallatin said that fellow Pennsylvania Rep. Gouverneur Morris, chairman of the Committee on Style at the Constitutional Convention, had smuggled in the semicolon in order to make Congress’s taxing power limitless, but that the alert Roger Sherman had the comma restored. The altered punctuation, Gallatin said, would have turned “words [that] had originally been inserted in the Constitution as a limitation to the power of levying taxes” into “a distinct power.” Thirty years later, Virginia Rep. Mark Alexander accused Secretary of State John Quincy Adams of doing the same thing after Congress instructed the administration to print copies of the Constitution.
The punctuation debate simply reinforced James Madison’s point in Federalist No. 41 that Congress could tax and spend only for those objects enumerated, primarily in Article I, Section 8.
Congress enacted very few taxes up to the end of the Civil War, and none that was a pretext for regulating things that the Constitution gave it no power to regulate. True, the purpose of tariffs was to protect domestic industry from foreign competition, not raise revenue. But the Constitution grants Congress a plenary power to regulate commerce with other nations.
Congress also enacted a tax to destroy state bank notes in 1866, but this could be seen as a “necessary and proper” means to stop the states from usurping Congress’s monetary or currency power. It was upheld in Veazie Bank v. Fenno (1869).
The first unabashed use of the taxing power for regulatory purposes came when Congress enacted a tax on “oleomargarine” in 1886. Dairy farmers tried to drive this cheaper butter substitute from the market but could only get Congress to adopt a mild tax, based on the claim that margarine was often artificially colored and fraudulently sold as butter. President Grover Cleveland reluctantly signed the bill, saying that if he were convinced the revenue aspect was simply a pretext “to destroy . . . one industry of our people for the protection and benefit of another,” he would have vetoed it.
Congress imposed another tax on margarine in 1902, which the Supreme Court upheld (U.S. v. McCray, 1904). Three justices dissented, but without writing an opinion.
Then, in 1914, Congress imposed taxes on druggists’ sales of opiates as a way to regulate their use. Five years later, in U.S. v. Doremus , the Supreme Court upheld the levy under Congress’s express power to impose excise taxes.