One hundred five years ago today, the Supreme Court upheld (Brushaber v. Union Pacific Railroad) the 16th Amendment and the Revenue Act of 1913, enabling the federal government to undertake necessary development and expansion programs without reliance upon the states.
National revenue up to this point was hampered by the apportionment clause in the Constitution. Today, the states rely heavily upon the national treasury for a host of resources to support or bolster local revenues – schools, roads, health care, Social Security, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, among others.
The nation’s Civil War politically threatened the union although its financial implications are hardly discussed. Whether the United States is deemed a federation or a confederation continues as a subject of debate. In either case, secession by force or declaration at this juncture of a state from the union would surely be financially suicidal. Historically, the Articles of Confederation did not entertain secession within its provisions.
Few national initiatives such as the income tax have contributed so deeply, almost irrevocably, to sustaining the union of the states. Current criticism of proposals to adopt federal legislation to enhance voting rights and voter participation are tabbed as a threat called “federalizing,” i.e., diminishing state authority.
As difficult as, or as impossible as, it might be to imagine the country without a federal income tax, the absence of women’s suffrage, direct election of senators, 18-year-old suffrage – all controlled under the authority of states since adoption of the Constitution – would be equally beyond comprehension. By simple extension, federalization underscored the post-Civil War amendments abolishing slavery.
It seems clear from history that, in some instances, federalization advances those values often cited by those who oppose national legislation to effect such values. It is not argued that the states have done a bad job; it’s simply that beyond the borders of state authority and desire, events urge changes that they doubt to be necessary.
Current US Senate resistance to a modification of the filibuster rule has roots in the “federalization” critique and is amplified by state officials. The question is whether this is one of those moments when the existing practice or custom must yield to change, one for a greater good.
The union has successfully survived many instances of federalization.